First friends then foes. Two charismatic leaders, who started out with shared economic interests, advantageous to their respective countries, now clash over Syria.
Two controversial, authoritarian, illnatured and at times impossible leaders, who cultivate the hypernationalistic and identitarian sentiments of their respective nations with the utmost conviction and abundant dollops of cynicism: was it inevitable that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would clash?
A week before Moscow engaged in its first military action in Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Putin and Erdogan were still friends, or at least they appeared to be. On 23 September, the Russian president invited his Turkish counterpart to Moscow for the inauguration of one of the largest and most sumptuous of all European mosques, featuring a cupola larger than St.Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and capable of hosting as many as two million of the faithful. Russia, it should be noted, has around 23 million followers of Islam, and the war in Chechnya, with its succession of gory terrorist attacks, has put Russian institutions to the test in no uncertain fashion.
The Russians and Putin are still smarting with the memory of the Afghan disaster. It was a scorching defeat for the Red Army, which was forced to retreat by the Mujahedin. The war was one of the reasons for the Soviet collapse. But for a major energy producer such as Russia, garnering influence in the Middle East is certainly not a secondary issue, especially if the country in question is part of the safety cordon around its ‘green belt’, the Caucasus and the bordering Islamic republics.
On that occasion in Moscow, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Palestinian President Abu Mazen also in attendance, Putin and Erdogan exchanged warm handshakes. Nothing seemed to anticipate the storm to come. The clash was not unavoidable but perhaps unsurprising for anyone who had kept a close eye on events in Syria. By that time, Moscow and Ankara had taken opposite approaches to dealing with Syria. Over the course of the Syrian Civil War, Russia and Turkey have developed divergent interests and objectives regarding how the crisis might pan out.
Yet things could have gone differently. These days, we tend to forget that Erdogan had developed some form of alliance with Assad over the years. Turkey and Syria were on the brink of war in the ’90s over the Abdullah Ocalan issue, the Kurdish leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who used Damascus as his headquarters. In the end, Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, gave in to military pressure from Ankara and left Ocalan to his destiny. As a result, relations between Turkey and Syria grew closer. With the advent of Bashar and Erdogan, this blossomed into a trade agreement. The two new leaders went as far as liberalizing cross-border exchanges, and Aleppo, one of Syria’s main economic centres, became an industrial hub closely linked to the Turkish company Gaziantep. Erdogan and Bashar even spent holidays abroad together with their respective families. While prime minister, Erdogan even had occasion to clash with Israel and break off relations with the Jewish state following the Mavi Marmari incident in 2010, preceded by the Israeli raids on the Syrian military base in Deir ez Zhor.
These raids had infuriated Erdogan: Jewish fighter planes had crossed Turkish air space without advance warning. No laughing matter for the Turkish leader, who considers Syria his own backyard.
When the revolt against Assad boiled over in Dara in March 2011, Putin avoided direct involvement. He continued to rely on the military base in Tartu’s, but Moscow did nothing more than provide economic backing and military supplies to the Syrian armed forces. Even this assistance was based on agreements that dated back to Soviet times, when Hafez Assad’s Syria led the ‘refusal front’ against Israel as it occupied the Golan Heights in 1967.
The Syrian regional crisis, as Moscow saw it, should have been resolved between Turkey and Iran. Russia had excellent relations with both countries and no intention of marring them. Along with the Lebanese Shiites of Hezbollah, Tehran was the main and most important defender of Assad’s regime, with which it had formed an alliance in the 1980s. Syria was the only Arab country to side with Imam Khomeini’s Islamic republic during the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Iran was supposed to support Assad while Turkey acted as a mediator. To be fair, Erdogan did make an effort. He phoned Assad, suggesting that he call elections and allow the opposition a little breathing room. “You can’t be afraid of losing them”, he ultimately told Assad. But in the Middle East, a leader must never tell another leader what to do.
Shortly afterwards, Assad also refused a sensational offer from the Gulf countries, the equivalent of three years of state funds to break the alliance with Iran. In exchange, the Arab petro-monarchies guaranteed that the revolt against the regime would be snuffed out without any fall out. That’s what it boiled down to: a proxy war against the Iranian ayatollahs, an attempt to avenge the Sunni front that had lost power in Baghdad, handed over to a Shiite majority government by the Americans after its disastrous occupation in 2003.
Assad, under pressure from his family and the Alawites, did not want to appear weak. For his part, Erdogan had mistaken intelligence on the internal situation. His foreign minister had assured him that Assad was going to be ousted by the revolt, but this information came from Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ Palestinian leader who headed into exile in Qatar shortly thereafter.
Turkey made two strategic mistakes. The first was believing that Assad could be eliminated in just a few months. The second was the unconditional support of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Thus, in just a few years, Turkey found itself wrong footed in the region and could no longer count on its historic Israeli ally.
Putin, however, was also making his own mistakes in Ukraine as well as in Syria. He believed that Tehran and Hezbollah would make short work of the armed opposition. But Iran was also engaged in Iraq, supporting the Shiite majority government. At first, Iran was supporting Iraq against pressure from the domestic Sunni revolt and then from the caliphate. Hezbollah was also preoccupied, engaged in furious battles to take the strategic mountain range of Qalamun, close to the Lebanese border. Meanwhile, Assad’s army was suffering heavy losses and was having trouble recruiting troops. The Russian intervention on 30 September 2015 thus became inevitable.
By this time, Turkey had opted to support the opposite faction. Ankara had opened the ‘jihadist highway’ in the province of Hatay (Antioch), on the border with Syria, through which thousands of volunteers from all over the Muslim world and even from Europe poured in to fight against the regime in Damascus. This enabled the jihadi groups to grow in strength, with some of them later joining IS. Everyone knew about the jihadist highway, particularly the Americans, who through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had silently backed the Turkish manoeuvres. Only later, when the attempt to knock Assad off his perch failed and the United States refused to bomb his forces in September 2013, did Washington remove its backing of Erdogan’s pro-jihadi ventures. This didn’t sit very well with Ankara and might explain the lengthy negotiations required before the US was granted use of the Incilik Air Base for its anti-caliphate raids.
The contradictions in the Putin and Erdogan’s relationship must be viewed in this ambiguous context. The Turks and the Russians did not intend to reach a breaking point. They were still united by billions of dollars of business enterprises and one shared project, the South Stream pipeline, renamed Turkish Stream once the Europeans opted out as part of their sanctions against Moscow.
Erdogan has always been very careful not to upset his Russian partner, a formidable player in Turkey’s attempt to become an international gas hub. Turkey went so far as to be the only country in NATO that did not impose sanctions on Moscow when, after the Ukrainian crisis, Russia had annexed Crimea (notably home to a sizeable Tatar Muslim minority).
Until 24 November and the downing of the Russian Sukhoi fighter plane, Moscow and Ankara had worked hard to smooth over their profound differences of opinion regarding the Syrian crisis. But that event changed everything. Putin’s response was in many ways similar to the US’ reaction to the Russian intervention in Crimea. At first, Moscow imposed sanctions. Next, Putin attacked Erdogan’s inner power circle, including his son Bilal, whom Russia accused of engaging in oil trafficking with the caliphate. Then, as a further hostile gesture, Putin invited Salehettin Demirtas, the leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the Kurdish Party that Erdogan has accused of betrayal, to Moscow. In this way, Putin has not only taken sides on Syria but also on the conflict within Turkey by siding with the Kurds. Ankara had done exactly the same a few years earlier by supporting the Chechen resistance over a long period.
How far will the two leaders dare to go? They both have plenty to lose. Moscow is experiencing economic troubles; its budget is under duress due to the drop in oil prices. And Russian gas supplies to Turkey are still essential for Ankara. But this is a vital gambit in which neither player intends to lose. Another question is whether NATO is prepared to go all-in defending a historic yet unreliable alley such as Turkey. One thing, for the time being, is certain: the future of Syria and Assad will not be decided without Putin’s Russia, and this is already a blow for Erdogan and his neo-Ottoman ambitions. In the power play between the three former empires – Russian, Iranian and Ottoman – for now it’s the Sublime Porte that has to suffer the initiatives of the other competitors.