The geopolitical gamesmanship of Syria war
Dubai - The delicate geopolitical tango between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Syria is both an extension of historical rivalry and a fundamental clash of world views.
As Turkey accuses Russia of another violation of its airspace with ground-attack aircraft, Russia is refurbishing and expanding airbases — one in Latakia and another in Hasakah — in northern Syria mere kilometres from the Turkish border. The prospects for even more serious clashes between Turkey and Russia have never been higher.
Putin believes that Russia’s near-abroad is threatened by NATO and an aggressive US policy to surround and constrain Russia and its strategic allies. Conversely, Erdogan sees a Moscow that increasingly echoes historical imperial ambitions as it looked to expand beyond the Caucasus and the Black Sea into areas considered by the Turks to be their traditional sphere of influence.
A mere seven years earlier, Erdogan was personally heavily invested in pulling Syrian President Bashar Assad into the Turkish orbit and made major strides in expanding trade and political engagement between Turkey and Syria. Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East was not geared towards necessarily constraining or competing with either Iran or Russia but became increasingly strained with Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan and, by 2011, in Syria.
Turkey faces a unique conundrum with its support for anti-Assad Sunni rebels as Russia expands its presence on the ground backing Assad’s forces.
At a time when both Islamic State (ISIS) and Kurdish separatists are launching terror strikes within its borders, the prospect of further entanglement with a Russia eager to flex its newly outfitted military is leaving many officials in Ankara on edge.
With the recent revelation of a secret basing-rights agreement between Assad and Putin that gave Russians troops and personnel special exemptions and extraterritorial immunities from regime state authorities, Russia enjoys almost total freedom of manoeuvre in areas under nominal regime control. Assad’s extraordinary dependency on Russian logistical, intelligence and materiel support has arguably turned Damascus into an auxiliary vassal-type of Moscow.
But it was just a year before the Syrian uprising in 2011, when political and military analysts were heralding the new era of strategic cooperation between Ankara and Damascus. Erdogan did not totally break ties with Assad until August after investing significant effort to convince the Syrian president to enact sensible limited reforms and to halt violence aimed at the unarmed protesters filling the streets from Deraa to Deir ez-Zor. Erdogan felt betrayed as Assad reneged on the purported commitments he made.
No one can say with absolute certainty why Assad opted to spurn Erdogan’s entreaties. Economically and strategically speaking, Assad would have been much wiser to entrench bilateral bonds with Ankara and Gulf Arab states. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members invested heavily to draw Assad away from Iranian influence. Assad, however, chose to believe his own propaganda that the uprising was not a by-product of his regime’s incompetence and misrule but was a result of a concerted Turkish and Gulf conspiracy.
Indeed, within the first few months of the uprising’s civil resistance phase, pro-Assad politicians and media outlets were deriding Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” designs over Syria. Russian state media and Kremlin insiders likewise argued that the uprising in Syria was an extension of long-standing US backed “colour revolution” strategy to destabilise states that Russia considered as falling under its clientele umbrella.
Just as Putin fears an expansionist NATO, he clearly views Turkish aims in Syria to be mutually exclusive with Moscow’s expanded ambitions in the region. Turkey’s alignment on its Syria policy as part of its new-found rapprochement with the GCC and Saudi Arabia presents a formidable threat to the Russian backed axis.
The recent statement by the Turkish and Saudi foreign ministers on their respective commitment to the Syrian opposition signalled that Russia’s aggressive expansion of its military presence and flaunting of firepower in Syria will face a determined counter-force.
The military competition for Syria between all sides has one wild card that could dramatically alter the current course: the United States.
Neither the Turks nor allied Arab states have succeeded in convincing the United States to enhance its involvement in Syria. The Obama White House has vetoed establishing safe zones and limited no-fly zones for fear of directly clashing with Russia. Expanding the quality and quantity of military aid to the rebels has likewise faced trepidation from a Washington that sees little national security benefit in directly confronting Iranian and Assad forces.
The United States views Syria from a narrow aperture. Countering ISIS is the main effort. But the United States would do well to explore the strategic benefits of pushing the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition it is backing to align and cooperate with Sunni rebel forces operating in Aleppo.
Assad will continue to attempt to triangulate the Kurdish self-defence forces as a means to thwart Turkish interests and to place pressure on Sunni rebels. The Russians are also doing their part to co-opt Syrian Kurdish fighters as they expand their presence in the regime-controlled airbase outside the predominately Kurdish town of Qamishli in the north-east.
The intricate dance for Syria continues. Assad believes that he has outsmarted the Americans, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and company.
Or, perhaps in a case of being overly clever by half, Assad may just very well find himself overly reliant on Russian-Iranian commitments that may not prove sustainable.