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Since Russia intervened in Syria’s civil war five years ago, Russian and Turkish forces have come close to conflict in the region more than once. And in the last week, the relationship between the two has reached a new nadir, after three dozen Turkish troops died in the Syrian province of Idlib, some of them in airstrikes likely carried out by Russia.
Now the onus will be on Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to once again pull their two countries away from the brink of war when they meet in Moscow on Thursday. The most likely outcome of the Putin-Erdoğan talks is a fresh agreement to regulate the crisis, with an accompanying cease-fire, but with perhaps more of the province’s territory being ceded to the government of Syria’s Russia-backed president, Bashar al-Assad.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdoğan “both know full well, despite all this brinksmanship, that a direct confrontation between Russia and Turkey has to be avoided at all costs,” says Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council. “They will almost certainly find a way to make things quiet down, at least for now.”
One of the most dangerous flashpoints on earth at present is the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib.
There, Turkish and Russian military units tensely face each other while their proxy forces wage all-out warfare around them. Three dozen Turkish troops have died in the past week, some of them in airstrikes likely carried out by Russia. A war between Russia and Turkey, along with the explosive shock to the already fraying global order that it would bring, looks disturbingly possible.
The question is whether Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who are set to meet Thursday in Moscow, can once again confound predictions of doom around their two nations.
They have negotiated a path out of conflict in the past, particularly when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane over northern Syria in 2015. Moreover, Mr. Putin has skillfully drawn Mr. Erdoğan closer to Russia’s orbit by encouraging important mutual dependencies, such as the $12 billion TurkStream pipeline, inaugurated by the two leaders earlier this year, to carry Russian natural gas to southern Europe via Turkey. In the military sphere, Turkey has defied its NATO allies by purchasing the advanced Russian S-400 air defense system.
But everyone agrees that this is by far the worst moment in a relationship that’s been a nail-biter since Russia intervened in Syria’s civil war. And even if a resolution can be found, experts warn it may end up just kicking the can down the road.
“Russia and Turkey need each other, even if their goals collide,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Neither can accomplish anything unless the other at least acquiesces, and that is why they regularly craft these ‘solutions’ that solve nothing but lead over time to even worse crises.”
Close quarters in Syria
Russia’s intervention in Syria almost five years ago ended up derailing Turkish hopes for expanded regional influence after what – at the time – looked like the certain removal of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus.
To manage their differences over Syria, the two agreed at a meeting in Sochi, Russia, in late 2018 to create a buffer zone in Idlib, which would be off-limits to Syrian troops while Turkey would protect about 3 million refugees who have fled from rebel-held zones in Syria that have been overrun by the advancing Syrian army.
The plan was that Turkey and Russia would jointly oversee a cease-fire while Turkey used its authority to separate irreconcilable jihadi rebels, particularly those linked with Al Qaeda, from civilians and more moderate anti-Assad opposition in preparation for an eventual peace settlement that would reintegrate the province into Syria.
None of that has happened. Moscow accuses Turkey of backing extreme Islamist rebels instead of disarming and isolating them, and trying to entrench its own permanent control over Idlib. In the past couple of months, Syria has stepped up military operations, with Russian air support, aimed at taking territory and controlling two vital highways.
In recent days Russia has bolstered its forces in Syria and let it be known that four warships armed with deadly Kalibr cruise missiles will be joining its flotilla in the eastern Mediterranean. Russia’s Defense Ministry warned this week that it “cannot guarantee” the safety of Turkish planes flying over Idlib, which sounds a lot like Russian for “no-fly zone.”
The offensive has created what the United Nations calls a humanitarian disaster, with hundreds of thousands of refugees pushed up against the Turkish border with nowhere to go, and Turkey threatening to unleash a major military assault to push Syrian forces back.
“Erdoğan’s view is that as long as Assad is in power, the people of Idlib will be unwilling to return to Syria and it will be Turkey’s duty to protect them,” says Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry. “But Assad is impatient to end the war, and move on to reconstructing the country. The continued presence of heavily armed jihadi forces that are dedicated to overthrowing the regime isn’t something he will tolerate indefinitely. And Russia’s ability to control Assad is far from certain.”
Drawing new lines
Meanwhile Turkey, which already houses almost 4 million Syrian refugees, claims it will open the floodgates and allow them to migrate to Europe unless NATO and the European Union take steps to support Turkey in this crisis.
Yet NATO seems no more likely to come to Mr. Erdoğan’s rescue in this standoff with Russia than it was in previous tense moments.
“If the worst happens and it comes to war, there seems no option for Putin but to support Assad,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “That will not go well for Turkey. And as long as the fighting is confined to Syrian territory – which Turkey is illegally occupying – it will not trigger NATO intervention. We see absolutely no appetite in Europe, or even the United States, to get involved in something like that.”
The most likely outcome of the Putin-Erdoğan talks is a fresh agreement to regulate the crisis in Idlib, with an accompanying cease-fire, but with perhaps more of the province’s territory being ceded to the Syrian government.
“I can picture Putin and Erdoğan sitting and studying a map of Syria, figuring out where to draw the new lines. They will probably find a compromise, but it will be a very fragile and temporary one. Both have very limited possibilities to control the ambitions of their proxies,” says Mr. Kortunov.
“Both know full well, despite all this brinksmanship, that a direct confrontation between Russia and Turkey has to be avoided at all costs,” he says. “They will almost certainly find a way to make things quiet down, at least for now.”
Editor's note: The original version misquoted Mr. Lukyanov about the relationship between Russia and Turkey.