The Syrian War that Brought Russia and Turkey Together Is Also the Wedge that Could Drive Them Apart

Faisal Al Yafai

Eight years after the first agreement between Russia and Turkey to build a nuclear power plant, the ground-breaking ceremony finally took place last week at Akkuyu, on the Mediterranean coast. As expected, it was a launch full of pomp, ceremony and expressions of friendship. As a statement of intent, the message of the launch was unmistakable. Less than a week after Western states expelled scores of Russian officials over the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in an English town, here was Vladimir Putin, in his first foreign trip since his re-election as president, speaking of a new strategic relationship with Turkey, a major Muslim country and a member of Nato. Far from being isolated, Russia still had powerful friends in the world.


If Russia will indeed seek a new relationship with the Muslim world as relations with the European Union cool, it is to Turkey that it must first look. The Akkuyu reactor is the high point of recent political and economic ties, but the relationship has been growing closer for more than a decade. Yet it was the Syrian civil war, which at first placed the two countries on opposite sides, that really brought them together in a strategic sense. It is also the very issue that could rupture relations, as has already happened once. The very war that has brought them together could be the wedge that will drive them apart.


Relations between the two have been warm for a decade. Bilateral trade has doubled and doubled again since 2010. Russia has agreed to sell Turkey its highly sophisticated S-400 missile-defense system. A flagship construction project called Turk Stream, which will see a direct gas pipeline between the countries built under the Black Sea, began last year. Turk Stream was itself a reaction to pressure from the EU, which cancelled a previous pipeline from Russia into Europe in 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea. By the end of the year, Turk Stream had been agreed.


In many ways, the still EU binds them. Both feel the EU has marginalized their security concerns, Turkey over its recent coup, Russia about Western encroachment on its borders; both feel the EU refuses to treat them as more than the regional powers they consider themselves to be.


But it was the Syrian conflict that highlighted the possibilities of closer cooperation.


At the start of the conflict, Turkey was very engaged in the uprising, while Russia took a hands-off approach. But as the war escalated, both decided it would be best to contain the conflict.


For Turkey, the reason was immediate and quantifiable: the millions of Syrians crossing its borders. For Russia, the reason to get involved was less quantifiable, but no less a matter of national security. ISIS viewed Russia as a legitimate target and a valuable recruiting ground and pumped out Russian-language extremist material. This danger was anything but lost on the Kremlin, which recognized the danger of hardened militants with an easy route through the Caucasus back to Russia.


But as the conflict went on, both came to see a valuable opportunity for realignment. For Turkey, inserting itself into the conflict allowed it to both halt Kurdish expansion, while also projecting power into Syria, through its patronage of the Free Syrian Army. For Russia, the narrow goal of protecting the Assad regime and the Russian military base in the port city of Tartous morphed into a bridgehead for a much wider strategic realignment.


Yet all of this closeness could be undone by Syria. It has been once already. In November 2015, weeks after Russia entered the Syrian civil war, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that strayed into its airspace. Russia retaliated with an embargo on Turkish imports, the end of Russian tourists going to Turkey and a pause on construction projects, including Turk Stream. One Turkish economist later estimated the response had cost the Turkish economy $10 billion.


While that sort of military clash is unlikely to take place again, the longer-term outcome of Syria is still in doubt, and Turkey and Russia are two of the most energetic players seeking to bring about some sort of resolution.


But there are potential minefields. One is over the fate of the Syrian Kurds. Russia has backed down twice in the face of Turkish objections, once when the Kurdish PYD party, which Ankara detests, was disinvited to Sochi, and another when Russia accepted Turkey’s attack on Afrin. But these are skirmishes. If there is ever a serious peace process, Moscow has declared that “all ethnic groups” must be a part of it. That may cause a break with Ankara.


Another, related, landmine is Turkey’s continued operations to clear the border of Kurdish groups. When Russia’s foreign minister was heckled by Syria’s delegates at Sochi earlier this year, it was because of Turkey’s military operation in Afrin. A third is Turkey’s continued sponsorship of the Free Syrian Army. If, in time, the Assad regime, with Russian support, can re-establish control across much of Syria, where will that leave the FSA? Ankara will essentially control a rebel army that is an avowed enemy of the Russian-supported Assad regime.


For now, Putin and Erdogan are all smiles. Both need allies. But they also have hard geopolitical interests in the Middle East that neither will easily give up. A relationship forged by nuclear power remains ripe for a meltdown.


Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.