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Contending Policies of Russia and Turkey: The Syrian Crisis

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Abstract

For decades, Turkey and Syria have had several long-standing problems that include the Hatay Province question, Syria’s support for Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) instigated terrorism, and water-related issues. None of these problems has been as challenging as the security problems that emerged with the Syrian Civil War, an outcome of the Arab Spring of 2011. The Syrian Civil War has been disastrous for Turkey due to the overwhelming refugee waves flowing from Syria that have caused social, economic, and security problems. The events surrounding the war in Syria have been fast moving and requiring quick and effective policies to handle the problems in order to avoid escalations of sensitive socio-economic and political issues in Turkey. However, Ankara has failed to stay ahead of the events in Syria and to produce consistent policies to deal with important developments stemming from the raging civil war in its neighbor. In 2012, Ankara moved against the Assad government in Damascus to bring about regime change in Syria as a remedy. This approach appeared to be contrary to Russia’s Syrian policy, as from the very beginning the Kremlin has supported the Assad regime. Moscow has had its own political and economic interests in Syria since the Soviet times that have been transformed into Kremlin’s new pro-Assad stance. The contending Syrian policies of Turkey and Russia have caused serious problems for Ankara and Moscow, restricting their abilities to manage the relations constructively for some time. The disagreements between these two states escalated rapidly causing their economic relations to halt in 2015–2017, requiring the top political leaders to develop new policies of reconciliation. The subsequent de-escalation process brought about some signs of convergence in the Syrian policies of Russia and Turkey.
Contending Policies of Russia and Turkey: The Syrian Crisis
Ali Askerov and Lasha Tchantouridze
For decades, Turkey and Syria have had several long-standing problems that include the Hatay
Province question, Syria’s support for Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) instigated terrorism, and
water-related issues. None of these problems has been as challenging as the security problems
that emerged with the Syrian Civil War, an outcome of the Arab Spring of 2011. The Syrian Civil
War has been disastrous for Turkey due to the overwhelming refugee waves flowing from Syria
that have caused social, economic, and security problems. The events surrounding the war in
Syria have been fast moving and requiring quick and effective policies to handle the problems in
order to avoid escalations of sensitive socio-economic and political issues in Turkey. However,
Ankara has failed to stay ahead of the events in Syria and to produce consistent policies to deal
with important developments stemming from the raging civil war in its neighbor. In 2012,
Ankara moved against the Assad government in Damascus to bring about regime change in Syria
as a remedy. This approach appeared to be contrary to Russia’s Syrian policy, as from the very
beginning the Kremlin has supported the Assad regime. Moscow has had its own political and
economic interests in Syria since the Soviet times that have been transformed into Kremlin’s new
pro-Assad stance. The contending Syrian policies of Turkey and Russia have caused serious
problems for Ankara and Moscow, restricting their abilities to manage the relations
constructively for some time. The disagreements between these two states escalated rapidly
causing their economic relations to halt in 2015–2017, requiring the top political leaders to
develop new policies of reconciliation. The subsequent de-escalation process brought about some
signs of convergence in the Syrian policies of Russia and Turkey.
This chapter discusses the Russo—Turkish relations by reviewing three phases of
bilateral ties that developed around the Syria question. First, we discuss the relations between
Turkey and Syria prior to the Syrian Civil War. Then, the relations between Russia and Turkey
are examined briefly, as they were developing prior to the bilateral crisis triggered by the
shooting down of a Russian military jet by the Turkish Air Force in November 2015. We
conclude by addressing the events surrounding the dramatic deterioration of bilateral ties
between Russia and Turkey, the efforts to remedy the crisis, and its implications.
Turkish-Syrian Relations Prior to the Syrian Civil War
Within the general foreign policy philosophy of the zero problems with neighbors
developed by Ahmet Davutoglu1, a former minister of foreign affairs and later prime minister of
Turkey, Erdogan’s government after coming to power in 2002 pursued a policy to improve the
traditional unfavorable relations between Turkey and Syria.2 Erdogan’s charismatic personality,
manifested in his uncompromising approach to Israel3, made him very popular in the Arab world.
Invigorated with this fame, Erdogan was initially very eager to develop Turkish relations with all
the Arab countries, including Syria. In general, however, the Turkish government was
determined to develop and pursue new idealistic/moralistic policies to address the most
intractable and long-lasting national problems both inside and outside of the country. The so-
called evolutionary policies of the Turkish government included the resolution of the most
intractable conflicts such as the Kurdish problem, the Syrian issue, and even the century-long
crisis with Armenia. Improving the relations with Damascus was among Ankara’s top priorities,
and its positive signs were not late to appear. Part of the Ottoman Empire since the early
sixteenth century, Syria became independent after the World War II stripping itself off the French
mandate. In 1938, while being under the French mandate, Syria lost its Hatay region to Turkey
by peaceful means: Hatay Province first became a nominally independent republic, and soon
after, it joined Turkey through a referendum. Although the League of Nations played the key role
in managing the process, according to the established international rules, ever since the Hatay
issue has been one of the major sources of tension between Turkey and Syria. For decades, Syria
allowed the Kurdish terrorists establish bases on its territory to carry out their clandestine actions
in Turkey, and used this as a deterrence strategy against Ankara’s minority policies. Even the
notorious leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, remained in Damascus
until 1998 when Ankara’s diplomatic pressure finally ousted him from Syria.
Soon after that, when Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current ruler of Syria died in 2000,
Turkey and Syria had a remarkable opportunity to open a new chapter in their history, and they
did not miss it. Bashar al-Assad, the new president of Syria, visited Turkey in 2004 and a year
later, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer of Turkey visited Syria, ignoring the pressures and protests
by both domestic and international opposition. The relations developed rapidly due to the
responsive policies of the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad, who seemed to have
desired positive change in his country. Shortly thereafter, President Assad and Prime Minister
Erdogan initiated new efforts to advance Turkish-Syrian relations, the warmth of which also was
reflected in their personal interactions. Assad made informal visits to Turkey, where his meetings
with Erdogan were reflected in the media. However, the favorable process of improving their
relations did not last long: it started to slow down and then deteriorate with the Arab Spring
hitting Syria in 2011. This was a turning point in Syria’s public and political life entailing serious
decisions about the future of the country. Naturally, Assad decided to resist the uprising brought
about by the 2011 protest movement to preserve the national unity and territorial integrity of his
country. Soon, international powers started to intervene in the Syrian conflict either by opposing
or supporting the Assad regime.
It took some time for Turkey to define its new position within the meaningfully regional
circumstances. The dramatic change of the Turkish policy vis-à-vis Syria was partially a result of
Syria’s antagonistic policy toward Turkey, as the official Damascus started to view all moves at
Syria’s border with a great suspicion. The first hostile act by Syria was shooting down a Turkish
military jet in June 2012 that reportedly slightly violated Syria’s air space.4 Ankara, on the other
hand, started to repeatedly express its concern for civilian casualties in Syria, and came out in
general opposition to the policies of Assad’s regime. However, ambiguities of Turkey’s Syrian
policy have persisted for a long time as Ankara needed more time to examine how Syria was
being altered by the warring factions to formulate its policy to serve its national interests in the
best way. New challenges emerged for Turkey that not only threatened its security, but also put
its territorial integrity in danger. Partially under the influence of the US policies, Ankara started
to support the Free Syrian Army (FSA) trying to topple the Assad regime. This meant that
Ankara severed diplomatic relations with Damascus, and put itself in opposition to Russia and
Iran who supported the Assad regime. For some reason, Ankara believed in a rapid and decisive
victory of the FSA over the regime, and possibly made plans to exercise its influence to shape the
new administration in Damascus. Later, when the Obama administration shifted its priorities in
Syria and began to cooperate with the Kurdish insurgent group PYD/YPG, Ankara understood
that it has miscalculated and hasty decisions to cut off ties with Syria.5 As Chapter 5 discusses it
in more detail, Ankara sees PYD/YPG as a continuation of the PKK in Syria, a Kurdish terrorist
organization that threatens Turkey’s territorial integrity.
By severing the diplomatic ties with and withdrawing its ambassador from Damascus,
Ankara disabled itself from reaching the Syrian leadership through the diplomatic channels,
which is a necessary means for managing conflicts peacefully. For a country that has claimed to
have zero problems with its neighbors, having leverage is important to manage conflicts
peacefully. Moreover, Turkey’s new Syrian policy affected its own economy more adversely than
that of any other country in the region because of the myriad trade restrictions emerged out of the
conflict. Currently, Turkey hosts more than three million refugees from Syria, which is extremely
costly. In such circumstances, having no political leverage over the Syrian issue is a serious loss
for Ankara. Ostensibly, Turkey, as a regional power, weakened its own influence in Syria, and the
region as a whole, by removing itself out of the main stage of the power game. Prime Minister
Erdogan’s obsessive usage of religious rhetoric while condemning Syrian political leadership
undermined Turkey’s credibility as a fair and impartial actor in the region. Over time, it has
become clear that other powers such as Iran, not to mention Russia and China, exercise more
power and influence in Syria than Turkey—the latter has deprived itself of the opportunities of
having a political weight in its neighboring country. Erdogan defended this policy by appealing
to the themes of justice and human rights, which Damascus accepted with some sarcasm due to
the human rights problems existing in Turkey itself.
The reality is that Turkey has established itself in a position of gaining more influence in
Syria since it abandoned its old zero problems with neighbors policy, which helped neither peace,
nor war. By rejecting Damascus, Ankara missed the historical opportunity of forging close
relationships with the Assad government, which it needed to exercise leverage for a peaceful or
relatively less violent transformation of the conflict. Instead, the Turkish government blamed the
Syrian government for violating human rights, and called upon the Assad government to resign,
which was a move made in line with Western policies .6 Erdogan’s government miscalculated the
events in Syria thinking that the Syrian government would suffer the fate of the other Arab
regimes that had been toppled by the Arab Spring. But it was not only Ankara that failed to
weigh the consequences of Russia’s presence in Syria, the Western allies remained surprisingly
passive in preventing Russia from establishing its dominance in Syria. The shooting down of the
Russian military jet by the Turkish Air Force in November 2015 was an attempt to deter
Moscow’s active and aggressive actions in Syria, which in the end did not yield to any positive
change for Turkey and its allies. As discussed in the final chapter, having economic sanctions
imposed on Turkey, the Kremlin managed to masterfully use the incident in its own favor by
making Ankara proceed in line with Moscow’s design of the reconciliation process.
The Russian–Turkish Relations Before the Crisis
The Russo-Turkish relations have been discussed in chapters one and three. Our intention
here is to highlight certain points of strategic importance that would help describe the situation
before the Syrian crisis emerged, and explain the gap between the pre-crisis and post-crisis
situations. As mentioned in chapter two, one of the most prominent signs of strategic cooperation
between Russia and Turkey was the joint project of the Akkuyu Nuclear Plant, which was to be
built in cooperation with the Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom per a contract signed in
2010, over which President Erdogan and President Putin met three times. Each time they met, the
leaders stressed that despite the disagreements in their foreign policies, the two countries would
promote economic cooperation. Turkey’s economic relations with Russia helped Erdogan
develop the sense of high tolerance so that he did not react seriously to Putin’s statements made
during the anniversary of the tragic 1915 events of the Ottoman Empire, which Putin identified
as the Armenian genocide, a designation that is normally strongly condemned by Ankara.
Undoubtedly, one of the most significant projects between Russia and Turkey was the Turkish
Stream project, a pipeline development offered to Ankara by Putin in 2014. The agreement was
signed by Moscow and Ankara in Istanbul in the presence of both Putin and Erdogan on 10
October 2016.7 An exciting project for both states, which started to materialize in the early 2015,
it envisioned to carry Russian natural gas to Europe through Turkey. Interestingly and strangely
enough, the signing and implementation of the project was delayed by the sides. It is generally
believed that the primary reason was that the sides could not agree on the price of gas supplies.8
According to some media claims in Russia, however, Ankara deliberately delayed it to guarantee
the discount on natural gas it would buy from Russia.9 Eventually, the project halted long enough
without being signed by the parties, and the blast of the jet crisis in November of 2015 delayed it
further.
Putin’s participation in the memorial ceremonies for the alleged 1915 Armenian genocide
organized in Yerevan on 24 April 2015, did not anger Erdogan contrary to the expectations. In
Yerevan, unlike his earlier written statement, Putin was reluctant to use the word ‘genocide’
which could have been interpreted as one of the first signs of the mutually satisfactory
cooperation between Ankara and Moscow on the Akkuyu project, the foundation for which was
laid only ten days earlier. Putin and Erdogan met on 13 June 2015, during their joint visit to Baku
for the purpose of participating in the opening ceremonies of the European Games.10 This summit
removed all doubts about the cooling off relations between Russia and Turkey that started when
Erdogan did not honor Moscow’s invitation to participate in the 70th anniversary of Russia’s
victory over Nazi Germany in May of 2015.11 Shortly thereafter, the Kremlin’s statements about
the past meeting appeared publically; they stressed that President Putin and President Erdogan
discussed the joint projects of their countries, in addition to the situations in Syria and Ukraine.
The prognosis about the future of the Russo-Turkish relations was positive; the partners
envisioned to increase the trade volume to USD 100 billion by 2020. Erdogan’s visit to Moscow
in September of the same year consolidated the cooperation, but both presidents confessed that
they had different foreign policy worldviews; the main source of stress was the developments
and the involvement of both Russia and Turkey in Syria.12 Erdogan’s serious criticism of Russia’s
policies in Syria started with the use of force by Russia in Syria in late September 2015, even
though it was used against the terrorists.
Before that, many remarkable events occurred in the region with Russia’s direct
involvement. Russia’s attack of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the
initiation of war with Ukraine are among the gravest events that took place in Turkey’s proximity
to the north to which it did not react severely, although both Ukraine and Georgia are of
significant geostrategic importance to Ankara, let alone the historical ties between them and
Turkey. Moscow’s antagonism towards Georgia and Ukraine grew consistently with the progress
of Tbilisi’s and Kiev’s pro-Western policies. Those policies of Ukraine and Georgia, developed
under their respective presidents Viktor Yushchenko and Mikhail Saakashvili, were perceived by
the Kremlin as hostile and incompatible with Russia’s interests. Before taking any serious steps
in Ukraine—which Russia had seen as its little brother—Moscow wanted to tame what it
regarded as an “unruly” Georgia, which geographically separates it from Turkey.
The October 2006 live fire exercise conducted by Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the vicinity
of Georgia’s main sea-port Poti, followed the Tbilisi-Moscow spy row and signaled a sharp
deterioration of Russo-Georgian relations. After imposing a comprehensive economic embargo
on Georgia, and organizing mass deportations of ethnic Georgians from Russia, the Kremlin
highlighted the vulnerabilities of Georgia’s defenses—its Black Sea coast has been virtually
undefended from a potential sea invasion since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The small
Georgian navy and the coast guard could not do much to deter Russia’s hostile acts let alone
repel a full-scale invasion. Moscow fully utilized this advantage during the August 2008 war
with Georgia—although the Georgian ground forces managed to hold of the Russian ground
forces advancing through the mountain passes from Russia’s North Caucasus, they had little
choice but to sue for peace when the Russians deployed the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol,
Crimea, and landed on Georgian soil virtually unopposed. The Georgian ground troops fighting
in central Georgia would have been surrounded and destroyed—their enemy did falter in the
mountains, but once gaining control over Georgian lowlands the Russians acquired a huge
strategic advantage.
Curiously, Ankara’s official reaction to the invasion of Georgia was rather muted despite
the fact that Moscow was demonstrating its readiness to wage an unlimited war in Georgia
seeking to overthrow its government. As the French-brokered ceasefire took shape, the Turkish
leadership praised President Medvedev of Russia,13 and then Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan
visited Moscow on August 14 2008 to confer with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.14
Similarly, Ankara’s reaction to Russia’s takeover of Crimea and the invasion of southeast
Ukraine in 2014 was reserved as if Russia was dealing with its internal affairs. Ankara issued
alarms regarding Moscow’s militaristic foreign policy pursuits only after the Russian military
deployments in Syria in the fall of 2015, and tried to reverse the changed strategic balance. After
disregarding Russia’s aggressive moves on its northern borders, Ankara grew alarmed when it
found similar Russian actions on its southern borders, essentially surrounding Turkey by Russian
combat troops. It is possible that Ankara perceived the Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine
as a settling of some post-Soviet squabbles, but it did miss important warning signs of how far
Moscow was willing to go to settle similar scores elsewhere, including Syria.
Ankara reacted to Russia’s involvement in Syria on 30 September 2015, as Russian
forces commenced bombing so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other anti-Assad
rebels. The first reactions came from Feridun Sinirlioglu, Turkey’s foreign minister; but before
long, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Russia in hitting the moderate opposition forces
in Syria, which Moscow rejected.15 On 3 October 2015, President Erdogan stressed that he had
some difficulties understanding Russia’s involvement in Syria, as Russia and Syria shared no
borders.16 Erdogan’s surprising and rather naïve comment explained a lot why Ankara was so
passive on the Georgian and Ukrainian issue.
The first and second violations of the Turkish air space by Russian jets took place on 3
October and 5 October 2015, respectively. Ankara’s concerns expressed through diplomatic
channels pushed the Kremlin to make statements that the violations were related to inclement
weather conditions.17 According to the statements of the Turkish Ministry of Defense made on 6
October 2015, eight Turkish F-16 jets performing reconnaissance flights over the Turkish-Syrian
border were put on radar lock (which enables missile systems to automatically follow a target) by
an unidentified MIG-29 aircraft for several minutes.18 Alongside with President Erdogan’s
objections, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed his doubts about Russia’s
violations of Turkish airspace to be unintentional.19 This was indirect support for Turkey from
NATO, which encouraged Ankara to oppose Russia’s increasingly aggressive involvement in the
Syrian quagmire. Although Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, claimed that Putin called
Erdogan and apologized for the violations, things continued to deteriorate rapidly, putting the
Russian and Turkish militaries on a collision course.20
The last meeting between Erdogan and Putin before the crisis took place on 15 November
2015, at the G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, where they discussed the issues of fighting ISIS,
and finding a political solution to the Syrian Civil War. The details of the meeting were not
publicized, however, the leaders reached an agreement on meeting in Russia on December 15 for
the sixth summit of the High Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council. This never
materialized due to the crisis that began on November 24. At the G20 Summit in Antalya, Putin
implied that Turkey was one of the countries financing ISIS, at least through illegal oil trade;
however, Erdogan chose not to react due to the rules of Turkish hospitality 21. Just a few hours
after Turkey downed the Russian jet on November 24, Putin accused Turkey of protecting ISIS at
a press conference organized in the Kremlin. Claiming that Russia’s plane was downed over
Syrian territory by an air-to-air missile from a Turkish F-16 jet, Putin accused Turkey supporting
terrorists and smuggling oil from the areas controlled by the ISIS.22 This was a beginning of the
crisis between Russia and Turkey that would last for about eight months.
Clashing Policies, Syrian Stalemate, and Conflict Escalation
In Syria, Russia has waded into more dangerous and uncharted waters, but by moving
smartly, Moscow has managed to force the West to make another step back after the Crimean
crisis, now in the Middle East. Russian actions in Syria have also addressed the strategic rivalry
with the United States, by forcefully demonstrating Moscow’s advantages in this area that
remained unanswered by the United States until the April 2017 Tomahawk cruise missile attack
on the Russian-protected Syrian airfield in reaction to the use of chemical weapon by the Assad
government.
As discussed above, Ankara strongly objected to Russian Air Force combat missions so
close to its borders, demanded that Russian pilots cease violating Turkish air space, and
threatened Moscow with sanctions. Among other things, Turkey promised that it would stop
purchasing the Russian gas—about 60% of Turkey’s natural gas came from Russia in late
November 2015, when Turkey shot downed a Russian ground attack jet in Syria for reportedly
violating Turkish airspace, the relations between them deteriorated to the lowest point in a very
long time.23 The Russian pilots survived the attack, but as they parachuted from the doomed jet,
one of them was killed in the air by pro-Turkish Syrian rebels. Another Russian serviceman died
in the rescue mission for the other downed pilot.24 Presumably, Ankara had a very good reason to
pursue a Russian jet. Armed Russian fighter jets on combat missions violated Turkish airspace—
the first ever such incident in NATO’s history.25 In response, protests against Russia were issued
in Ankara and Brussels, and Moscow responded that they would look into the claims.26 Ankara
found subsequent Russian explanations unsatisfactory and expressed its deep dissatisfaction with
Moscow.27 President Erdogan had threatened to stop purchasing Russian gas,28 and in the end,
Ankara took this decisive measure as no other solution seemed to be viable.
The Russians were very bitter about the downed jet, but not because of the fatalities—
Moscow has never believed in tears when it comes to war casualties. The Turkish attack on a
Russian jet highlighted weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the Russian operations in Syria. It took
the Turks only few minutes to register the jet, track it, and shoot it down without the Russians
realizing that they were threatened. The Russian ground attack SU-24 jet was vulnerable to aerial
attacks, but it was not accompanied by jet fighters, and no electronic measures were taken by the
Russians to protect it. The Russians have suffered similarly embarrassing military setbacks
during their war adventures from 2008 on, exposing weaknesses in their military forces. In the
August 2008 invasion of Georgia, the Russians lost a number of jets, including their famed long-
range Tu-22M3 bomber. Additionally, Russia was not confident it had air superiority in Georgia
during the five days of war,29 and its ground force advance was stalled by the Georgian side. The
Black Sea Fleet was very slow to deploy, but once it did, Georgia had to sue for peace as it was
lacking a viable naval force and coastal defenses. In Ukraine, only the indecisiveness and
incompetence of the Ukrainian side allowed Russia to avoid heavy casualties—the rapid-action
light infantry Russian troops deployed in Crimea were essentially defenseless sitting ducks for at
least two weeks, as their support was late to show up in numbers.
None of the above-mentioned shortcomings resulted in a major setback for the Russians
due to timidity, incompetence or self-imposed moderation by their opponents. However, the
April 2017 missile attack on a Syrian airbase by the US Navy turned out to be a serious warning
message to the Russians, and the first credible response to Moscow by the United States since
August 2008. More directly, the American Tomahawk cruise missiles countered the spectacular
October 2015 Russian cruise missile attack on various targets in Syria aimed at the Islamic States
and other militant groups. The Russian air and missile attacks in Syria posed a significant threat
to Turkey, a NATO member with the second largest standing force, especially since the Russian
action there went uncontested for almost eighteen months. As Russia entered the Syria war in fall
2015, it undertook the first of a series of the impressive cruise missile attacks on ISIS and other
targets. The first round was fired by Russia’s Caspian Sea Flotilla in a dramatic demonstration of
Russia’s military capabilities, and its newly found confidence. The attacks were launched by four
Russian warships on 7 October 2015, on President Putin’s 63rd birthday, from neutral waters off
the coast of Azerbaijan with nuclear warhead-capable 26 sophisticated cruise missiles.30 The
Caspian cruise missile attack went as expected and it appeared to be a complete surprise to
NATO—always an unpleasant combination of words when ‘missile attack’ and ‘surprise’ are
used in the same sentence. More, the Kalibr (Klub) missile system used by Russia to carry out
this attack is capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Four Russian warships participated in the
launch of the missiles, meaning that Russia has a significant and very dangerous strategic force
in the Caspian Sea, capable of reaching far beyond what had been previously believed. The
maximum range of the Kalibr missiles is 2,500 kilometers—the Caspian flotilla with these
missiles covers the entire Caucasus, the Black Sea, most of the Middle East including the Persian
Gulf, major parts of the Red and Arabian Seas, eastern parts of the Mediterranean Sea, parts of
NATO members of southeastern Europe, and can reach any part of Turkey, Central Asian states,
including Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Most importantly, the Caspian Sea flotilla can easily
support in combat Russia’s Black Sea fleet—a unique situation given that the Caspian Sea is
landlocked and separated from the Black Sea by three states and a series of mountain ranges.
This is noteworthy considering the strategic importance of Black Sea for Russia. The Russian
cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea entered Iranian airspace and then crossed into Iraq
before hitting targets inside Syria.31 Moscow had permissions to fly over the airspace from both
Iran and Iraq; a good indication of the close cooperation among these three, which should be
worrisome news for Washington and Ankara, as Iran is their strategic foe, while Iraq is supposed
to be a close ally. Russia has used the war in Syria for an effective demonstration of its
conventional and strategic military capabilities—a very useful method of deterring potential
adversaries contemplating conventional military operations—but the Kalibr missile attack had
the far-reaching message.
As it was mentioned above, the Kalibr/Klub cruise missiles are capable of delivering
nuclear payloads. This missile system is the most sophisticated in its class as it reportedly has
two stages, the final stage kicking in as the missile approaches its target. The Kalibr missiles, and
cruise missiles in general fly very low to the surface and their long-range detection by radar is
impossible. They can be detected in about 24 or 26 (about 15 miles) kilometers from their target,
and it is possible, in theory, to intercept and destroy it, but at this point Kalibr missile’s second
stage engages and gives it a supersonic speed making it nearly impossible to shoot it down. The
message the Russians sent to Washington, Ankara, and all other allied capitals implied in no
uncertain terms that Moscow possessed devastating weapons against which the allies had no
defense. In other words, the strategic balance between Russia and NATO was now demonstrably
in Russia’s favor. The cruise missile deployments have been limited since the late 1980s
following the US-USSR treaty restricting the intermediate nuclear forces in Europe, the so-called
INF Treaty. However, if the rivalry between Russia and NATO were to escalate, Russia can
withdraw from the 1987 treaty, extend the cruise missile range, and restart a Cold War-type
rivalry with the strategic balance in its favor.
The April 2017 American attack on the Al Shayrat air base in Syria was designed to deter
Russia from pursuing the path of escalating the conflict. The pretext for the American cruise
missile attack was the alleged chemical attack by the Assad regime on al-Qaeda affiliated rebels
near the Turkish border few days prior. American warships in the Mediterranean launched 59
Tomahawk cruise missiles that perform in similar fashion to the Russian Kalibr missiles, but
they do not have a supersonic stage. These missiles can be shot down, but instead of making it a
surprise, the American military warned its Russian counterparts of the upcoming missile attack.
Despite the advance warning, all missiles reportedly reached their targets inside the air base, in
other words, even though the Russians knew about the incoming Tomahawks, and theoretically
they were able to intercept and destroy them, the Russian forces could not manage to destroy
even a single Tomahawk. The Tomahawks, just like the Kalibr missiles, can be detected by radar
when they are about 24–26 kilometers from their targets, at which point the tracking device will
follow them and aid the ground-based computerized missile interceptors to shoot them down.
Each Tomahawk missile will need at least two Russian anti-missile systems firing
simultaneously, and if successful, the incoming missile can be brought down at about 8
kilometers (5 miles) from its intended target. In other words, to repel the American attack with
59 cruise missiles, the Russians had to have at least 59 radars and 118 advanced missiles
interceptors at the Al Shayrat base. No Russian air base, let alone an expeditionary one in Syria,
can ever have this much defense from cruise missiles, and even if they had enough radars and
interceptors, nothing prevents the US Navy from launching twice as many Tomahawks in the
following round. The same logic applies to other Russian military installations and to everything
else with strategic importance. In short, the United States made sure the Russians and everyone
else involved in the Middle East understood that they were back in the balance of intimidation
game with the Russians, the engagement in which they had abstained from since August 2008.
Considering the developments in Syria, it is unlikely that this conflict will come to a conclusion
anytime soon. The Russian-supported Assad regime continues to face resistance not only from
the extremist terrorist groups like the ISIS and al-Qaeda, but also from the groups backed by
Turkey and its NATO allies, such as the so-called Free Syrian Army. Also, the US has trained,
armed, funded, and supported non-ISIS affiliated opposition groups to fight the Assad military
that are seriously weakened by Russian attacks. Russia’s active support of Damascus will have
negative effects on American positions in the Middle East itself, and Russia’s long-term military
presence in the region will make Washington’s future attempts of assembling a NATO coalition
for regional engagements all but impossible. If Moscow manages to weaken US influence in the
Middle East by waging a successful military campaign in Syria, it will be the biggest
achievement in this region by any Russian regime in Russia’s history.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that due to this new military expedition in the Middle East,
the Russians should not be in a position to afford fresh military troubles elsewhere. Although
geographically not far from Syria, the Caucasus has not direct links or relations with the Syrian
War. It can, however, become a support region to the front in Syria, especially if things do not go
according to Moscow’s overall plans. Spillovers from Syria can reignite the Azerbaijani-
Armenian stand-off over the Mountainous Karabakh region and its surrounding areas that are
controlled by Armenia, but formally belong to Azerbaijan. If Russia’s Syria gamble succeeds and
ends quickly, Baku will find its positions even more weakened, as Russia’s increased influence
will embolden Armenia and Iran, Russia’s traditional allies and historical rivals of Azerbaijan. If
Baku were to elicit any concession from Armenia regarding the issue of its occupied territories in
the foreseeable future, it may decide to act militarily while Russia is tied up in Syria.
Ostensibly, Moscow’s entry into the Syrian war is another step in Russia’s deliberate and
well-planned quest to reassert itself as a major world power and to restore a balance of power
with the United States. The Syrian case is an opportunity for Moscow to outmaneuver the United
States, and it seems, the Kremlin has successfully used it. The American plans in Syria to bomb
ISIS, arm ‘moderate opposition’ to the Assad regime, and force Assad’s resignation have failed—
none of these objectives were achieved by summer of 2017, neither could the United States
muster credible support for any of it.32 Moscow’s objective, on the other hand, is much clearer
and straightforward: keep the Assad regime in power. Moscow sees only Assad as capable of
fighting ISIS (alongside with the Kurdish forces), maintaining state institutions in Syria, and
guaranteeing Russia’s military presence in the country, at its Tartus naval base. Therefore, the
Russian Air Force in Syria targets all who threaten the Assad regime, including those ‘moderate’
groups armed and supported by the United States,33 and occasionally those supported by Turkey
(not because of the fear of upsetting the Turks, but due to a simple fact that pro-Turkish groups in
Syria tend to be numerically inferior and strategically less significant). At the same time, Kurdish
groups, allied with Russia and/or the United States, have been targeted by Ankara. By end of the
Obama administration in January 2017, the US was seen in no position to protect it’s people it
supported in Syria from the Russian attacks and this further undermined Washington’s credibility
in the region .34 More, unlike the US, Russia possesses clearly defined and credible allies in the
Syrian War—primarily, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah—both of whom are very crucial for
Russia’s long-term military influence in the Middle East. This fact, more than anything else, has
encouraged the Erdogan government to overcome its hatred of the Assad regime and its
suspicions of Iran’s true intentions in the region, and to seek an accommodation with the other
two. By end of 2016, Russia, Turkey, and Iran agreed on trilateral talks on Syria, and by May
2017, they found common ground on some key issues, including establishing the so-called safe
zones in Syria to promote a de-escalation of the civil war.35 Such agreements may not solve much
initially, as the warring parties tend to ignore them, especially those affiliated with ISIS and al
Qaeda, but the process of bringing Russia, Turkey, and Iran together for a common solution is
very significant in post-Cold War Middle East politics.
Being engaged in the Syrian question promises major rewards for Moscow, and its stakes
there are not as high as they are in Ukraine. Russia’s long-term gains include establishing a
stronghold in the Middle East, and for this Assad has to prevail in the war. This is why Moscow
has mobilized its diplomatic and military capabilities to reach the outcomes it seeks in the region.
Russia also makes its neighbors take notes on how Moscow develops its strategic arms policies.
Moscow has also been diligently rebuilding its nuclear-capable platforms as has been evidenced
by the October 2015 performance of four Caspian warships. This new Russian military doctrine
makes a ‘preemptive’ nuclear strike against non-nuclear weapon nations into an explicit policy of
the Russian state.36 This is a worrisome development that would have been regarded with great
alarm in the United States only three decades ago: low flying, very fast, long range and accurate
cruise missiles tip the strategic balance in favor of Russia. Soviet/Russian military doctrines have
always allowed for preemptive nuclear strikes, but only in cases of an imminent nuclear attack
by the enemy or a conventional attack by an enemy aimed at crippling Russia’s strategic forces.37
The new strategy of the preemptive nuclear strike has been emphasized by Russian officials to
give additional weight of Moscow’s threats to defend Russia’s territorial integrity and that of its
allies. Although Moscow’s implicit threats are currently chiefly directed at former members of
the Soviet Union, especially Ukraine and Georgia, its new policies indicate to the West as a
potential military threat as well. If Russia’s military escapades in the last decade teach its
neighbors anything, it is that Moscow will not hesitate to pursue further military campaigns in
the areas of its stated vital interests. Lesser former Soviet states will do well to avoid such
conflicts and keep Russia’s attention directed toward the West or the Middle East, where it
rightfully belongs.
Conclusions
By reviewing the November 2015 crisis between Russia and Turkey, we have
demonstrated the hazards of two powerful and generally friendly states getting involved in a
regional war on opposing sides. The crisis, which resulted from the downing of a Russian ground
attack jet by the Turkish Air Force on 24 November 2015, has been subsequently resolved;
despite its injured pride, the Russian leadership left a door open for Ankara to make amends, and
the Turkish leadership slowly realized that they alone were powerless to alter the power balance
with Russia. Soon after the military incident involving a Russian jet, President Putin said that
Russia did not see Turkey as an enemy despite the military jet crisis but it was Ankara who
should make the first step for reconciliation.38 President Erdogan, who initially said that if there
was a party that needed to apologize, it was Russia, also gradually changed his approach to
restore good relations with Russia. In fact shortly after the incident, he also stated that if they
knew that the jet was Russian, they would act differently, although Putin did not immediately
accept these words as credible.39 Nonetheless, Ankara developed deep feelings of remorse over
time due to the economic price it had paid. More, the increasing cooperation of the US with the
Kurdish PYD/YPG forces despite Ankara’s objections made the latter reconsider its policy vis-à-
vis Russia. Although Russia’s approach to the Kurds of Syria is not much different from that of
the US, Ankara found maneuvering its strategy to a balanced policy between the US and Russia
more advantageous for its interests. Currently, despite their conflicting interests in Syria, Russia
and Turkey are convinced that cooperation would serve their mutual interests much better than
hostility involving a power struggle that normally makes the competing parties to pursue zero-
sum policies. At the same time, the recently restored cooperation was possible due to the heavy
costs paid by both sides. The many ambiguities between Russia and Turkey still remain, although
they are subject to change according to the unforeseen developments in the region. The crises
could also be triggered deliberately by either country as their interests require it, that is difficult
to anticipate in any context, let alone the overall complexities of the regional conflict in the
Middle East.
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Notes
1. Ahmet Davutoglu, “Stratejik Derinlik – Turkiye’nin Uluslararasi Konumu”, 2012, Kure
Yayinlari, Istanbul.
2. Askerov, Ali. “Turkey’s “Zero Problems with the Neighbors” Policy: Was It Realistic?”
Contemporary Review of the Middle East 4, no. 2 (2017): 149–167.
3. Unlike the traditions of the Turkish foreign policy, Erdogan had criticized Israel’s
Palestinian policy harshly. This had gradually created serious problems between Israel and Turkey
and culminated in the Mavi Marmara crisis. See, for example: Katrin Bennhold, “Leaders of Turkey
and Israel clash at Davos panel”, The New York Times, January 29, 2009,
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/30/world/europe/30clash.html;
4. “Syria shot down Turkish jet in international airspace, claims foreign minister”, The
Telegraph, June 24, 2012
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9352113/Syria-shot-down-Turkish-
jet-in-international-airspace-claims-foreign-minister.html
5. See, for example: Abdulkadir Selvi, “ABD ile iliskilerde ezber bozan yaklasim”,
Hurriyet, July 18, 2017, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/yazarlar/abdulkadir-selvi/abd-ile-iliskilerde-
ezber-bozan-yaklasim-40523248
6. See, for example: Jonathon Burch, “Turkey tells Syria’s Assad: Step down”, Reuters,
November 22, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-idUSL5E7MD0GZ20111122
7. “Turkish Stream gas pipeline: Moscow & Ankara sign agreement in Istanbul”, RT,
October 10, 2016, https://www.rt.com/business/362279-gazprom-turkish-stream-pipeline/
8. See, for example: Elena Holodny, “Russia and Turkey can’t agree on gas proces”
Busliness Insider, July 1 2015
http://www.businessinsider.com/russia-and-turkey-dispute-over-gas-prices-turkish-stream-
2015–6
9. 2015’te Rusya-Turkiye iliskileri: Startejik ortakliktan krize giden yol. Sputnik.
12.31.2015. https://tr.sputniknews.com/analiz/201512311019961413-rusya-turkiye/
10. “Russian, Turkish leaders meet, discuss Russian gas pipeline proposal.” Fox News, June
13, 2015, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/06/13/russian-turkish-leaders-meet-discuss-russian-
gas-pipeline-proposal.html
11.“Kremlin: Erdogan 9 Mayis kutlamasina neden katilmayacak, bilmiyoruz.” Sputnik, May
7, 2015, https://tr.sputniknews.com/rusya/201505071015357297/
12. Semih Idiz, “Do Erdogan’s post-Moscow visit remarks indicate change in Syria policy?”
Al Monitor, September 24, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/09/turkey-russia-
erdogan-visit-nothing-really-new.html
13. “Dmitry Medvedev had a phone conversation with President of Turkey Abdullah Gul,”
The Kremlin, August 13 2008.
14. “Başbakan Erdoğan Rusya'ya gidiyor,” mynet haber (in Turkish), August 13 2008
http://www.mynet.com/haber/politika/basbakan-erdogan-rusyaya-gidiyor-364097–1
15. “Russian warships launch missiles against IS in Syria”, RFE/RL, October 7, 2015,
https://www.rferl.org/a/russis-syria-air-strikes-ground-attack/27292481.html
16. “Erdogan: Rusya’nın Suriye’ye sınırı yok, niye bu kadar ilgileniyor.” BirGun, October 3,
2015, http://www.birgun.net/haber-detay/erdogan-rusya-nin-suriye-ye-siniri-yok-niye-bu-kadar-
ilgileniyor-91202.html
17. “Erdogan says Turkey cannot endure violation of its airspace by Russia”, Radio Free
Europe, October 6 2015, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-turkey-erdogan-warning-airspace-
violation/27291396.html
18. Turkey reports 2nd day of harassment by Russian military”, CBS/AP, October 6, 2015,
http://www.cbsnews.com/news/turkey-second-day-harassment-by-russian-military/
19. CBS/AP, October 6, 2015.
20. “2015’te Rusya-Turkiye iliskileri: Startejik ortakliktan krize giden yol.” Sputnik.
12.31.2015. https://tr.sputniknews.com/analiz/201512311019961413-rusya-turkiye/
21. “Putin: ISIS financed from 40 countries, including G20 members.” RT, November 16,
2015, https://www.rt.com/news/322305-isis-financed-40-countries/
22. Don Melvin, Michael Martinez, and Zeynep Bilginsoy, “Putin calls jet’s downing ‘stab
in the back’; Turkey says warning ignored.” CN, November 24 2015
http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/24/middleeast/warplane-crashes-near-syria-turkey-border/index.html
23. “Turtsiia progrozila prekratit zakupki rossiiskogo gaza,” lenta ru (in Russian), October 8
2015 http://lenta.ru/news/2015/10/08/gas/
24. “Turkey’s downing of Russian warplane – what we know.” BBC, December 1 2015
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-34912581
25. “NATO warns Russia over airspace violations as Syria airstrikes widen” The
Washington Post, October 5 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/turkey-warns-russia-
over-airspace-violations-as-syria-airstrikes-widen/2015/10/05/19d2e7b0–6b47–11e5-b31c-
d80d62b53e28_story.html
26. “Russia says checking claim its plane violated Turkey’s airspace for second time,”
Reuters, October 6 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/06/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-
idUSKCN0S00SX20151006
27. “Turkey ‘cannot endure’ Russian violation of airspace, president says,” The Guardian,
October 6 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/06/nato-chief-jens-stoltenberg-russia-
turkish-airspace-violations-syria
28. “Turtsiia progrozila prekratit zakupki rossiiskogo gaza,” lenta ru (in Russian), October 8
2015 http://lenta.ru/news/2015/10/08/gas/
29. “Friendly fire downed Russia jets in Georgia – report,” Reuters, July 8 2009
http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL8262192
30. “Russian missiles ‘hit IS in Syria from Caspian Sea’,” BBC News, October 7 2015
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-34465425
31. Western sources reported that some missiles failed to reach targets and crashed in Iran:
“Syria crisis: Russian Caspian missiles ‘fell in Iran’,” BBC, October 8 2015
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34479873. Russian sources categorically denied any
missile missing its target: “Rossiia oprovergla fake o padenii “Kalibra” v Irane, Vzgliad, (in
Russian), October 9 2015 http://www.vz.ru/society/2015/10/9/771400.html.
32. “Covert CIA Mission to Arms Syrian Rebels Goes Awry,” The Wall Street Journal,
January 26 2015 http://www.wsj.com/articles/covert-cia-mission-to-arm-syrian-rebels-goes-awry-
1422329582 “Secret CIA effort in Syria faces large funding cut,” The Washington Post, June 12
2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/lawmakers-move-to-curb-1-billion-
cia-program-to-train-syrian-rebels/2015/06/12/b0f45a9e-1114–11e5-adec-
e82f8395c032_story.html; “US Shoots Itself in the Foot By Accidentally Arming ISIS,” The Fiscal
Times, June 4 2015 http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2015/06/04/Fog-War-US-Has-Armed-ISIS
33. “Russia accused of bombing US-armed rebels,” CBS News, October 1 2015
http://www.cbsnews.com/news/russia-bombing-us-trained-rebels-in-syria-says-john-mccain/
34. Stephen Hayes, “An Extraordinary Show of Weakness,” The Weekly Standard, Vol. 21,
No. 05, October 12 2015 http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/extraordinary-show-
weakness_1039612.html
35. “Syria: Russia, Turkey, Iran agree on safe zones at ceasefire talks,” CNN, May 4 2017
http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/04/middleeast/syria-ceasefire-talks-deescalation-zones/
36. “New Military Doctrine to Allow Preemptive Nuclear Strike,” November 24 2009, The
Other Russia http://www.theotherrussia.org/2009/11/24/new-military-doctrine-to-allow-preemptive-
nuclear-strike/
37. Pavel Podvig, ed. Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,
2001, pp. 49–66.
38. “Putin Turkiye’yi dusman olarak gormuyoruz” (in Turkish), Sputnik, 18.12.2015.
https://tr.sputniknews.com/rusya/201512171019719324-putin-turkiye-
dusman/#article_item_1019724450; “12 yasindaki Rus kizdan Putin’e garip soru” (in Turkish),
Haberler, 14 April 2016, https://www.haberler.com/putin-e-batarsalar-ilk-erdogan-i-mi-yoksa-
8357374-haberi/
39. “Erdogan: Rus ucagi oldugunu bilseydik farkli davranirdik” (In Turkish). BBC, 26
November 2015, http://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler/2015/11/151126_erdogan_rusya_suriye
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.