A new-born entente between Russia and Turkey exploits conflicts and promotes their regional influence
The war in Nagorno-Karabakh is over. Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to cease hostilities in South Caucasus. Azerbaijan will hold on to areas acquired during the conflict and Armenia will withdraw from adjacent locations. Out of the violence, between thousands of soldiers and civilians dead, as well as displaced people, Russia and Turkey are standing as true geopolitical winners.
Russia acted as a mediator between the two warring sides. Now, Russian peacekeepers will be deployed in a region that Moscow perpetually viewed as its back yard. On the other hand, Turkey will help in implementing the ceasefire. Ankara supported its “two states, one nation” policy by providing military assistance to Baku before the beginning of the conflict. The actions of Russia and Turkey bring back memories from Idlib. After all, during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turkey made favors to the Russian interests in Syria.
Russia and Turkey have been engaged in the past years with a special entente that benefits from regional conflicts. The two powers, no matter how different their interests are, are grabbing a fair share of influence by military and diplomatic involvement in the region’s unrest. Many have argued that this is a result of a power vacuum created by the West. At the same time, the international community fails in providing peace to critical locations of the world. What follows though is a new order in the balance of powers that is being monitored by Russia and Turkey.
Birth from the ashes of Syria
On November 24, 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian attack aircraft on the Turkish-Syrian border due to -as Turkey claims- a violation of its airspace. The incident caused a massive uproar since Turkey is a NATO member. Russia and Turkey saw its relations declining at a historical low. However, through dialogue, they transformed this disturbing event into a turning point of entente construction that peaked with a military cooperation agreement in 2019. This newly found special status needed to be tested. And the most fruitful ground for such a cause was the Syrian civil war.
Russian military intervention in Syria was the first one to a non-Russian bordering country since the Soviet Union era. In 2015, Russia set foot in Syria to protect a longstanding ally, Bashar al-Assad, which dealt with insurgency and terrorism. Through the disarray of Syria, Kurdish militias gain significant power also. Autonomist tensions among them alarmed Turkey, a country in which approximately 15 million Kurds reside. Turkey stepped up to tackle any possible threat in 2016 when it launched its first military operation in Syria. As of now, Russia and Turkey play a pivotal role in the developments of the war-torn country.
The case could not be any different. When ISIS was defeated, the Russian-backed regular army of Assad recaptured major cities. Since the rebel forces did not enjoy much western assistance, they quickly retreated. In the shrunken “Syrian Opposition”, Turkey sponsored the Islamist factions which still remained strong in Idlib. At the same time, USA left Syria and the Kurdish allies remained unprotected. Furthermore, Iran, which supports Assad, cannot disrupt Russian leadership when Israel continues to bomb Shia militias inside Syria and endangers everything Assad acquired.
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Out of this entanglement, the only powers that withstood the flow of chaos and continue to influence outcomes since the first day of their involvement were Russia and Turkey. The two powers have worked together in facilitating the works of Sochi and Astana peace talks, in implementing and monitoring ceasefires in Idlib and in creating a buffer zone in northern Syria. Even when escalations between proxies are taking place, the resolution comes only through Russia and Turkey. In other words, Russia and Turkey increased their influence by participating in the Syrian conflict.
The same kind of tactic was quickly adopted in the Libyan front where Russia and Turkey have conflicting interests. Back in 2011, NATO allies decided to topple the longstanding Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi. In the civil war that followed, warring parties tried to fill the power vacuum. At the same time, Islamist terrorists and local tribes gained prominent power. In 2016, UN efforts established an interim government in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord (GNA). But the legitimacy of this initiative was quickly questioned. Field marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA), which increased his power after numerous battles against Islamists, supported the Tobruk-based authority of House of Representatives.
Russia found an ally in the face of the strong field marshal and quickly established communication routes with LNA. Similarly, Turkey found acceptance through the Islamist links of the GNA. The private military of the Russian Wagner Group assisted the efforts of LNA, while Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries stood in defense of GNA. LNA’s resolve in the battleground, with the additional support of Egypt, UAE and France, led to large territorial gains. In 2019, Haftar’s forces launched an offensive in Tripoli. The survival of the GNA was based mostly on Turkish help, where Turkey intervened military in 2020 in favor of Tripoli.
The situation, as unfolded, created again conditions for Russia and Turkey to gain influence in a region where they didn’t have an established presence before. It is important to highlight that the Berlin peace process, which was sponsored by European powers, failed to provide results, while the Russian-Turkish peace initiatives in summer 2020 led to a present-day ceasefire and peace talks. Moscow and Ankara are key powers that will largely decide the next day in Libya.
Towards a consolidation?
Since 2015, Russia and Turkey went from war threats between them to cooperation in the establishment of peace initiatives for their allies. Simultaneously, they monitor security as they please in the areas that they are involved in.
A significant proof for this engagement can be traced when during the successful Azerbaijani offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh, in which Russia never intervened in favor of Armenia, Turkey systematically withdraw from crucial military posts inside Idlib. This paved the way for Russian airstrikes to return in Syria for the shake of Assad’s recapture goals. Russia and Turkey are active players of the geopolitical chessboard and continue to act with prudence in giving and taking from each other.
On the surface, someone can see a proxy conflict between Russia and Turkey that expands on many fronts. But deeply, this is more like an entente that feeds from war and destabilization as both powers expand their regional influence. This new regional order, of course, tries its best to exclude western powers wherever is this possible. Russia and Turkey are taking advantage of the geopolitical situation and turn the game in their favor.