The Implications of Russia’s Syria Intervention for Turkey

Russia’s recent deployment of aircraft and military equipment in Syria runs counter to Turkey’s efforts to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The introduction of Russian aircraft and surface-to-air missiles prompted many to argue that Moscow is seeking to prevent the establishment of a US- and Turkish-backed air-exclusion zone over parts of northern Syria. While Russia’s actions may complicate the air campaign in northern Syria, the intervention has the potential to undermine Turkey’s Syria policy, independent of Ankara’s participation in the anti-ISIS coalition’s airstrikes.

Despite agreeing to open Incirlik airbase to US aircraft in July, Turkey remains dissatisfied with the coalition’s singular focus on the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Ankara has indicated that its participation in the air-campaign is designed to create an ISIS-free zone between the Syrian town of Azaz and the Euphrates River. Ankara envisioned that the increased air traffic over Aleppo would result in the creation of a de facto air-exclusion zone. In doing so, the Syrian air force would face difficulty striking Turkish backed rebels, ultimately contributing to the regime’s expulsion from Syria’s largest city.

In other parts of Syria, Ankara has pursued a similar policy. During indirect discussions with Iran, for example, Ankara helped broker a ceasefire arrangement in the southern town of Zabadani between Jaysh al-Fateh and the Syrian regime/Hezbollah. The 25-point agreement provides for UN monitoring and a regime commitment to refrain from conducting air operations in the ceasefire areas. If the Zabadani agreement remains in place, Ankara will have created two de facto air-exclusion zones in rebel held areas in the north and south.

Jaysh al-Fateh includes numerous different rebel groups, including Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra and the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham. The group also receives support from numerous other rebel groups that the US supports via a Military Operations Command office in Reyhanli. Jaysh al-Fateh has battled ISIS in northern Aleppo while also managing to expel the regime from Idlib and is now threatening the regime stronghold of Latakia.

Russia’s deployment of SU-30M, SU-24M, and SU-25 aircraft, as well as attack helicopters at Al-Assad International Airport could complicate any Turkish backed offensive in Latakia. However, much will depend on Moscow’s rules of engagement and potential Russian strikes on Turkish-allied rebel positions in Idlib and Aleppo. The base’s location and size suggests that Russia’s primary mission is point defense of Latakia, rather than a large-scale operation to retake territory the regime has lost to the opposition. However, Russian forces could also choose to bolster the regime’s front line positions along the northern and southern fronts with the rebels, or strike ISIS targets independent of the coalition.

The Russian strategy appears to have two aims: Bolster Assad’s military forces and strengthen the regime’s hand in any future negotiations to end the conflict. Ankara has an immediate interest in working with the United States to discern Russian intentions, particularly as they pertain to Idlib and in northern Aleppo. Beyond this, Ankara will resist the incorporation of Russia into air operations against ISIS.

Turkey has also rejected any role for Assad in a future Syrian government, but has signaled that it will support the terms in the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué. Thus, in any potential transfer of power scenario, Assad could remain in power while the opposition and the government work to establish a transitional governing body.

Turkey, however, continues to argue that the Syrian regime is the root of the current problems inside Syria and that Assad has no place in any future government. Ankara believes that Assad will only compromise if rebel forces threaten the regime’s hold on power. The anti-ISIS air campaign is only one piece of a far broader effort to put pressure on the regime to force it from power. Russia’s military actions are partly designed to counter the success of Turkish-backed rebels and is therefore diametrically opposed to Ankara’s Syria strategy. In the near term, Ankara may turn to Saudi Arabia to increase the flow of TOW anti-tank missiles to the Syrian conflict to offset Russia’s introduction of tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Any rebel-Russian clashes, however, risk diverting forces from the fight against Assad and ISIS. Ankara could try to take advantage of the memories of the Afghan jihad to boost the morale of certain rebel brigades it supports. However, the further radicalization of the Syrian insurgency could pose a longer-term problem for Turkish efforts to use Ahrar al-Sham to marginalize ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (albeit to a much lesser extent). Turkey believes that the two groups’ foot soldiers are ideologically flexible and can be convinced to join with other Salafi or nationalist elements of the Syrian insurgency. While references to the Afghan jihad may temporarily boost morale, it risks undermining a key element of Ankara’s ongoing efforts to undermine ISIS.

While Russia’s deployment remains relatively limited, but the decision has an outsized effect on Turkey’s approach to the Syrian conflict. In response, Ankara may choose to deepen its support for the Syrian rebels to bolster the insurgency’s capacity to combat a better-equipped regime backed by Russian land and air forces. These dynamics suggest the hardening of battle lines in the Syrian civil war, which have increasingly begun to reflect the interests of the outside powers h elping to sustain both sides of the conflict.

Aaron Stein is a Nonresident Fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. 

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, September 23, 2015. (Reuters)