With the Assad regime targeting Turkish troops, Moscow and Ankara have hit a rough patch, but both sides have left room for dialogue to repair their faltering ties.
Tensions have escalated between Russia and Turkey after the Assad regime targeted Turkish observation posts in northern Syria's Idlib province, the last opposition bastion, killing seven Turkish soldiers and one civilian.
In a strong retaliation, Turkey eliminated at least 70 regime soldiers and sent strong warnings to Moscow that Damascus should respect the tripartite peace process between Turkey, Russia and Iran, and cease attacking Turkish positions.
Although Turkey and Russia are officially committed to building strong bilateral ties and establishing peace in Syria, the two sides differ on their approach. While Russia is a staunch supporter of the Assad regime, Turkey supports the Syrian opposition. Now with the attack on Turkish positions last week, the warming relations between Russia and Turkey have quickly turned frosty, raising many questions about the future of their relationship.
In September 2018, Moscow and Ankara agreed to form de-escalation zones in Idlib to prevent civilian casualties and another big refugee flow to Turkish borders. Turkey is already hosting more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, and any other refugee influx will put a heavy strain on the country's resources. The Turkish government is avoiding facing such a situation.
But repeated ceasefire violations by Moscow and the Assad regime and Moscow's lack of interest in reining in Assad has filled Turkey with too many doubts and suspicions, making the country weary of Russian President Vladimir Putin's promises.
So far, Russia and the Assad regime have reneged on most ceasefire deals and tripartite meetings under the Astana Peace Process, which has led to an understanding in Ankara that Moscow's presence at the negotiating table is to provide a diplomatic cover for Assad's brutal ground and aerial attacks on civilians in Idlib.
“We also don’t accept the excuse of ‘we cannot fully control the regime’ here,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recently said, referring to Russia's possible complicity in Assad-led carnage in Idlib.
Since the beginning of December, more than 520,000 people have been displaced, according to the UN, under the renewed regime onslaught over civilian populations in Idlib. They are all heading toward the Turkish border.
Despite escalating tensions, both Moscow and Ankara have appeared to want to control their anger. Beside their recent trouble, the two countries have developed some important joint projects.
They have recently inaugurated the TurkStream pipeline, a Black Sea project, which aims to bring Russian natural gas through Turkey to Europe. Ankara also has not hesitated to buy Russian S-400s to strengthen its air defences against Washington’s protests and threats.
“There is no need for us to be engaged in a conflict or a serious contradiction with Russia at this stage,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his communication with journalists on his way back to Turkey from Ukraine, where he applauded Kiev and criticised Russia’s annexation the Crimean peninsula, which was part of Ukraine.
“We will of course sit down and discuss everything. Not with anger, though. Because those who sit down with anger, get up with losses,” said Erdogan, a skillful politician, who is keen to use opportunities that favour Turkey and is careful about not going to extremes to risk crucial gains.
Cavusoglu also followed Erdogan’s lead saying that the Astana process and the Sochi deal signed last year “did not disappear completely” but he warned that “the damage has started".
"We want to give momentum to the political process as soon as possible, along with a permanent ceasefire and a constitutional commission. But there's no way we can tolerate attacks on us," Cavusoglu emphasised.
His Russian counterpart also appeared to be conciliatory toward Turkey, showing its willingness to address Idlib clashes and to persuade Damascus to abide by the de escalation zones agreement.
“... Russia cannot solve this problem alone, but can continue trying to achieve unconditional, sincere and full implementation of the existing agreements on Idlib [by all sides involved],” Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with a Russian newspaper on Tuesday.