Turkey vexed with Russia after Syria strikes convoy
Following Syrian airstrikes on a Turkish convoy, Russia appears to be keeping calm and staying the course, but developments on the ground are spinning quickly.
Aug 20 2019
By Maxim A. Suchkov*
MOSCOW — Syrian air force strikes on a Turkish military convoy in Idlib province Aug. 19 are straining relations between Russia and Turkey.
An Aug. 19 press release on the situation from the Turkish Defense Ministry doesn’t
mention Syria once, but refers to the Russian Federation four times — making it clear
Ankara sees the deadly incident as a face-
Turkey said the attack took the lives of three civilians and wounded 12, but provided no information on the victims.
Following Turkey’s statement, Russian officials and state media kept mum, waiting for the Kremlin’s reaction, which didn’t take long. After welcoming French President Emmanuel Macron to Moscow that day, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated Moscow’s support for Damascus' military push in Idlib province.
“I would like to note that before the corresponding agreements were signed in Sochi on the demilitarization of part of the Idlib zone, about 50% of that territory was under terrorist control, and now that number is 90%. We are observing constant raids from there, and more than that, we are seeing the movement of militants from that region to other parts of the world, and this is extremely dangerous,” Putin said.
“There were also numerous attempts to attack our air base in Khmeimim from the Idlib zone, so we support Syrian army efforts to carry out local operations to neutralize these terrorist threats,” he added, signaling Russia’s rationale for the military action in Idlib.
Putin also brushed off Western accusations that Russia violated the very principle of the deescalation zone.
“I would like to remind you that no one ever talked about terrorists having an opportunity to concentrate in the Idlib zone and to feel comfortable operating there. On the contrary, it was stressed that the fight against terrorists would continue,” he said.
Russia and Turkey had seen positive momentum in their relationship, with Moscow acting
as a “strategic security provider” to Ankara. Russia delivered the first part of
The situation in Idlib, however, has been threatening to sour the relationship for quite some time, with the most dramatic disagreements kicking in since April.
The deal that Russian and Turkish leaders brokered last year in Sochi was expected
to navigate the stormy waters, but fell short of serving its purpose. Moscow pins
the blame for this failure on Ankara, though it refrains from critical public statements
on the subject. Ankara on the one hand supports Syrian opposition groups loyal to
Turkey in their battles with the Hayat Tahrir al-
Russia perhaps could have lived with this if the forces grouped in Idlib that oppose
Syrian President Bashar al-
In this respect, the continuous shelling and drone attacks on the Russian air base provide Moscow with a perfect reason to back the Syrian army advance on areas that are held to pose a threat to Russia’s own military — something Putin pointed out.
In other words, Assad has a strategic problem with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Idlib, while Putin has a tactical one. This doesn’t necessarily make things any easier for any party, but provides a reason to believe that Russia and Turkey are unlikely to go to war with one another over Idlib — if, of course, no major incident happens to change their positions toward each other.
Another reason to presume the parties are capable of playing it cool is the communication
issue. Among the many things Moscow and Ankara learned during the stress test of
November 2015, when Turkey downed a Russian jet, was the need to communicate with
each other, rather than past each other, when deadly incidents occur. As there have
been only a couple of public statements on the attacked convoy so far, some military-
However, as the fighting in the Idlib “deescalation” zone rages on, pretty much all
the options on the table are uncomfortable for both Russia and Turkey. To make matters
This leaves Ankara to choose whatever it considers the lesser of two evils.
One option may include additional Turkish reinforcements and subsequent escalations with the Syrian army and, by extension, Russia — something that seems to be happening just now. Another option may imply an updated, if not a new, deal between Ankara and Moscow that — even though it might not sit well with Erdogan and his constituency — might still be better than open hostilities with Putin.
Russia, in turn, also risks getting itself dragged into a conflict that has little
to do with the overarching objectives of its Syria campaign, which were mostly about
dealing — both constructively and destructively — with the United States, not the
local powers. In theory, Russia could agree to the Ankara-
A popular Russian joke suggests that “a marriage of convenience” may prove the best solution, as long as the “convenience” is rightly calculated. In Idlib, Moscow and Ankara seem to be trying to ensure the “marriage” has common strategic interests.
*Maxim A. Suchkov, is editor of Al-