Turkish-Russian Adversarial Collaboration in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh

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MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MARCH 5, 2020: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin at a press conference following their meeting at the Moscow Kremlin. Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Mikhail KlimentyevTASS via Getty Images)

Russia and Turkey are backing opposing warring parties in three active conflicts. How­ever, this adversarial positioning has not hindered cooperation between Moscow and Ankara. They reign in opposing sides and, in effect, stage-manage their respective theatres of wars. Through multilateral arrangements, Europe is an enabler of Tur­key’s position and could leverage its support to push Ankara to cooperate more effec­tively with its Western partners.

Since 2015 in Syria and later in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow and Ankara have actively supported opposing warring parties. In each case, as explained below, Russia’s and Turkey’s military actions have strengthened one another and led to domi­nation on their respective sides. We see an emergent pattern that is being established in Syria and turned into a calculated co­operation model that is being implemented in Libya and the South Caucasus.

How the Pattern Emerged in Syria

Until 2016, among the two backers of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime, Iran had the upper hand over Russia and exerted more influ­ence on the regime apparatus and the rul­ing Assad family. Iran was the first country to come to Damascus’ help by providing weapons, financial support, advisors, and proxies to fight the armed rebellion. When Turkey doubled down on its involvement in Syria starting in late 2015, the Assad regime could not turn to Tehran for protection, since Iran lacked the capacity to deliver. As the Turkish threat was combined with the possibility of imminent and crippling Western airstrikes, the Assad regime had little choice but to become more reliant upon Russia. In that way, Turkey’s presence allowed Moscow to dominate the Syrian regime and reduce Iran’s influence.

Turkey became the dominant backer of the opposition, as the armed groups realised they could not survive without Turkey due to Russia’s intervention. Regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia gradually lost influ­ence on the ground. West­ern diplomatic and political influence over the Syrian op­position also eroded – to Ankara’s benefit.

In December 2016, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan envisaged Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, as a new venue for carrying on the Syria peace talks. In doing so, they also set in motion a game plan through which Moscow and Ankara con­trolled the warring parties in Syria and took control of the conflict. The Astana Process removed international mediation mechanisms set up in Vienna and Geneva from the centre of attention. The Turkish-Russian cooperation also further curbed Iran’s in­fluence, since tensions between the Turkey-backed rebels and proxies and the Assad regime had been resolved through bilateral Ankara-Moscow talks rather than in Astana.

Ankara’s successful pressure campaign on Washington in 2019 to reduce the amount of help it was giving to the Syrian Kurds was of benefit to Moscow, which saw the presence of the United States and the partnership in eastern Syria to be much more challenging than Turkey’s presence in north-west Syria. In 2016, Russia had given the green light for the Turkish incursion into Syria. In return, Ankara, in effect, facili­tated the regime takeover of Aleppo, the most important city under rebel control.

Exporting the Model to Libya and South Caucasus

In Libya, towards the end of 2019, Turkey began to increase its level of engagement with the UN-backed Tripoli government by sending military trainers, planners, Syrian mercenaries, and armed drones. On the opposite side, forces allied with Field Mar­shal Khalifa Haftar received varying degrees of support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France, and Russia. Haftar was able to leverage these backers against one an­other. But the intensity of the Turk­ish intervention increased Haftar’s reliance on Russia for military backing, because it soon became apparent that only Moscow could provide the eastern Libyan forces with the necessary advanced weaponry and the per­sonnel to operate them to stop the Turkish-backed government forces in Tripoli. Russia swiftly provided Pantsir-type air defence sys­tems, operatives of Wagner – a pro-Krem­lin private security firm – Syrian mercenaries, and eventually, in the autumn of 2020, game-changer MiG-29 and Su-24 fighter jets to Haftar’s Libyan National Army forces. The deployment of these Rus­sian fighter jets stopped the counter-offen­sive by the Tripoli-based government. The conflict has since frozen, and there have been no significant territorial changes. Once again, Turkey and Russia helped one another become the top influential external powers in a foreign country. The involve­ment of the United States has varied – from aid programmes to diplomatic pres­sure on warring parties to return to the UN-led peace process. Washington’s aim to reduce the amount of foreign interference has so far not succeeded.

In the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, the United States and France, along with Rus­sia, failed to utilise the Minsk Group plat­form of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to broker a nego­tiated solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The United States and France had lost most of their influence over the dispute by the end of the 45-day war between Azer­baijan and Armenian forces in early Novem­ber 2020. Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian prime minister, has been pushing for a pro-Western agenda since 2018 to balance rela­tions with Russia. On the other hand, the Azerbaijani government enjoys good rela­tions with multiple actors – including Rus­sia, Turkey, and Israel – but not with Iran. When Turkey stepped up its support for the Azeri offensive against the Armenians, it left the Yerevan government without much choice but to turn to Russia for help. Tur­key also benefited by increasing and for­mal­ising its influence over Azerbaijan and in the region. Russia consolidated its posi­tion as the dominant external power over Armenia, with the Nagorno-Karabakh war leaving Pashinyan domestically weakened.

This pattern was successfully implemented in three theatres of war, and not necessarily through official agreements laying out the rules of the game plan. It works because the actors came to understand that this ap­proach is beneficial for both. The lack of a determined third actor from the West in any of the theatres of war also facilitated the Turkish-Russian experiment in their adversarial collaboration.

Why Russia Prefers Turkey As the Rival of Choice

Russia prefers Turkey to other rivals because Moscow has more – and at times decisive – leverage on Ankara. The asymmetric balance of power between the two was established in the aftermath of Turkey shooting down a Russian fighter jet in November 2015 in the context of the Syrian conflict. Within months, Moscow utilised various factors to pressure Turkey. Visible measures ranged from restricting trade and travel between the two countries and a threat to stop in­vestment into its nuclear energy infrastruc­ture to official media campaigns targeting the Turkish president and his family. Less visible and indirect steps included Russia lending active political support to Kurds in Syria and Turkey and potential military sup­­port to fighters in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) battling the Turkish military. The episode demonstrated that the Kremlin has more options to hit Turkey economically and politically than vice-versa.

Russia is, thus, the senior partner in this relationship. In Syria, Libya, and South Cau­casus, there are various significant gains that Turkey can achieve by cooperating with Russia. Russian help in Syria could prevent a de jure Kurdish autonomy in the country. In Libya, sidelining other backers of Haftar and the Tripoli government could help secure Turkish economic and political inter­ests, including getting Libya to back Turkey’s claims for exclusive economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean. Through Turkish-Azeri cooperation in Nagorno-Karabakh, Ankara aims to increase its military foot­print and enlist the Azeri leadership to part­ner against third parties across the region. As relations between Russia and Turkey be­come even more complicated – with coor­di­nated efforts and rivalries in three coun­tries and other bilateral relationships be­tween Turkey and Russia – the risks con­cerning each theatre of war decrease fur­ther. The duo could still contain problems in an individual theatre of war through quid pro quos in various areas of their rela­tionship.

“Reflexive Control”

Borrowed from science, the term “adver­sarial collaboration” denotes experiments conducted by people who disagree on an issue to resolve or reduce their differences. In the present context, it is employed to describe Russia and Turkey opting to experi­ment with a collaborative relationship at the expense of other actors. This is achieved after establishing an asymmetric balance of power that ensures Turkey will lose more and Russia will win less if they continue with a zero-sum game strategy. The strategy emerged as a result of the improvisation and political calculations of the Kremlin and the Presidential Palace in Ankara.

However, the theoretical core of the adversarial collaboration has its roots in the concept known as “reflexive control”, a Soviet-era technique used to manipulate an opponent into making decisions that lead to their defeat. This technique has been updated and implemented by Vladis­lav Surkov, who was Putin’s adviser until Feb­ruary 2020. Surkov, who is dubbed the “puppet master” of the Kremlin, managed several projects inside Russia to control the domestic political landscape. These involved simultaneously supporting civic forums and human rights NGO’s as well as the nationalist movements that accuse those same forums of being Western agents. The method transcends the tactic of supporting one conflicting side against the other and involves engaging with both parties to the advantage of one against the other.

In conflicts beyond Russian territory, reflexive control is not straightforward. Moscow would not have the same level of control over the entire geopolitical land­scape as it would within Russia. With Tur­key’s help, though, Russia can replicate abroad a pattern that is well-versed at home. Russia controls one side; Turkey dominates the opposing party. Through its multiple layers of leverage against Turkey, Moscow came to influence both warring parties in Syria, Libya, and South Caucasus – directly through its own engagement, and indirectly through Ankara’s engagement.

The Turkish establishment is also not alien to methods for managing the domes­tic opposition. These include setting up fake opposition parties and groups to side­line real threats, as was exemplified in the early days of the Turkish republic when President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk set up a government-sanctioned communist party while eliminating the leaders of the authen­tic Communist Party of Turkey.

Where Is the EU in All This?

The EU is one of the enablers of Turkey’s policy towards Russia. Positioning itself within Western multilateral arrangements gives Ankara an edge over Moscow.

Syria is a good example. Western support helps Ankara pressure Moscow to limit the Russian-backed advances of the Syrian regime in Idlib. The Transatlantic Alliance’s sup­port is currently not conditional on Turkey coordinating with the West on broader Syrian policy. In other words, Ankara plays Western support as a card when negotiating with Russia, but it does not coordinate its actions with its partners. Leading Euro­pean countries such as Germany and France have so far limited themselves to providing passive diplomatic, political, and economic support for Turkish actions in Syria. Realis­ing that it is an enabler of the Turkish bal­ancing act against Russia, the EU could make its support conditional in order to push Tur­key towards more effective cooperation.

Understanding Turkish-Russian relations within the framework of power imbalances and the analysed mechanism, the EU could make a more realistic assessment of the nature of the adversarial collaboration be­tween Moscow and Ankara. The adversarial positioning in each of these theatres of war will not lead to active confrontation between Ankara and Moscow. This assessment, which runs contrary to some analysts’ expectations, will remain the case as long as Russia holds the cards, such as po­tential intervention into the Kurdish con­flict by threatening to provide rebels with access to sophis­ticated Russian weaponry.

Although a military confrontation be­tween Russia and Turkey is unlikely, the equilibrium between Turkey and Russia may still change and lead to one of the two gradually losing out. The killing of dozens of Turkish soldiers in Idlib as a result of Rus­sian-backed aerial bombardment was one episode showing how Turkey could lose out if and when coordination with Moscow fails.

The Russian-Turkish partnership paradigm, which is, in essence, a military con­trol model, has proven to be useful in controlling conflicts and turning them into frozen ones. Keeping conflicts frozen could be more costly and risky than bringing about reconciliation to those conflicts in a way that would allow Moscow and Ankara to maintain influence. This potential weak­ness is on display in the arduously slow pace of political resolution efforts in Syria under the Astana Process. But in Libya, Moscow and Turkey may see the first big failure of their model: The UN-led process for reconciliation between the Tripoli and Benghazi governments received support from a significant portion of military lead­ers on the ground as well as backing from the United States, France, and increasingly Italy. The Libya example demonstrates that the Russian-Turkish model is weaker against attempts made by third parties to achieve peaceful reconciliations.

Therefore, if Ankara wants to have a long-term, lasting influence in the conflict-ridden regions, aligning itself with Euro­pean part­ners is a better option to win the peace – and not just to control the conflict.

By: Güney Yildiz – IPC-Stiftung Mercator Fellow at the Centre for Applied Turkish Studies (CATS) at SWP.

Source: The Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS) – SWP

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