If the international community—and Turkey in particular—starts challenging Russia, they might find that Rusia is not as formidable in Syria as it comes across.
It is only due to a concerted campaign of diplomatic pressure on Russia by Turkey and the United States in the 1990s that Abdullah Ocalan is locked in an island prison in the Sea of Marmara, and not running his transnational narco-terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) out of Moscow.
Not for nothing did Ocalan seek political asylum in Russia in 1998 — which at the time hosted an official PKK office and training camp — and has never recognised the PKK as a terrorist group.
Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly, passed a resolution on November 4, 1998, demanding Yeltsin grant Ocalan’s request for asylum, and asserted that “accusations of separatism and terrorism made against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its leader Abdullah Ocalan are groundless”.
Fortunately for Turkey, Russia was in an indescribably weak position, having just defaulted on its debt and generally lacking any notable diplomatic and military clout, and thus caved to demands for Ocalan’s expulsion, leading to his eventual capture in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1999.
While Turkey’s attention has been justifiably focused on US disloyalty in the form of unmitigated political and military support for the PKK’s statelet in Syria (the YPG/SDF), the far more difficult problem of Russia’s presence in Syria looms in the distance.
The US, after all, is solely and myopically pursuing the defeat of the Islamic State (Daesh) in the Euphrates River Valley (ERV) via the fundamentally unsustainable vehicle of PKK expansion. It is not remotely invested in any other aspect of the Syrian conflict, including Ocalan’s political project, which will ultimately succumb to the pressure—being applied not only by Turkey, but by Assad, Russia, Iran, and domestic constituencies within what the PKK calls the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria—and fold itself formally back into the Syrian regime. The US has demonstrated its lack of seriousness and staying power time and again throughout the Middle East, and this time will be no different.
Unlike the US, whose ad-hoc Syrian campaign lacks all legitimacy because it never ceased to recognise the Assad regime as the government of Syria, the Russians have a legal and military framework underlying a presence intended to be permanent. The Soviets had been desperately pursuing basing rights in Syria since the 1970s, something Hafez al Assad absolutely refused to grant, and it was only in 2017 that the long-sought-after documents were signed thanks to the Syrian regime’s inability to maintain bona fide sovereignty.
While the United States has become a circumstantial enemy of Turkey in its alliance with the PKK as the result of short-sighted expedience, Russia is an inherently inimical power and is in Syria to stay. Already in 2012, for instance, even before it established a permanent base, Russia allegedly ordered the shooting down of a Turkish F-4 Phantom in Syria.
Unfortunately, since Russia’s full-fledged intervention into the Syrian conflict in September 2015, regional and international powers have refused to call its bluff.
Russia is, in reality, a weak state and has absolutely no leverage over even its putative allies, much less its adversaries. Therefore, the primary thrust of its Syria campaign has been a media circus designed to create the impression of Great Power manoeuvres.
In both the diplomatic and military sphere, Russia has contrived a number of stand-alone performances, most recently its campaign against and declaration of victory over Daesh in the ERV. From the “Syrian People’s Congress” farce in Sochi to the concert in the Palmyra amphitheatre after a short-lived and dubious victory, headlines around the world seem to agree that Russia is calling the shots in Syria and therefore Moscow has to be dealt with in order to get anything done in the Levant.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Enabling Russian designs in Syria—which it could not bring off without Turkey—is damaging to Turkey's own interests. Russia can’t enforce agreements, and its coercive capabilities are limited to disruption, obstruction, and irritation.
Russia is the ultimate hedger; that is, it plays with all parties to the conflict, while ultimately possessing no capacity to influence any of them. Its maintenance of “deconfliction channels” and relationships with Turkey, Jordan, Israel, the US, and the PKK may give the impression of a powerful country balancing interests, but they are actually just hollow affectations. Russia’s sole strength lies in the acquiescence of regional powers and the international community.
A handful of jets and anti-aircraft systems don’t allow Russia to constrain the Turkish air force. In the short-term, Turkey may believe that its interests are better served by a transactional relationship with Russia, but in the long haul this will only further solidify its hostile presence. Instead of holding high-level talks and treating Russia as an equal partner, Turkey should call Russia’s bluff. Incidentally, Russia planned to establish relations with the PKK as soon as it intervened in Syria, and would have aided them regardless of Turkish actions insofar as it could help Assad or undermine the United States’ influence with them.
The past two months in Syria have once and for all stripped the Russian lie away and exposed them for the fragile spoiler they are.
First, relatively small-scale drone attacks on the Russian airbase at Khmeimim and Tartus port in the first week of January established the ease with which the Russian nerve center in Syria could be put at risk for no cost. Then, despite all the commentary over Russian motivations for “allowing” Turkey’s operation “Olive Branch” in Afrin, Russia simply had no choice but to withdraw.
In February, a Russian jet was downed over Idlib by a Man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS) and Russia was forced to turn to Turkey for help. A few days later, a probing attack by the Russian “Wagner” front against a joint US-PKK outpost near the Conoco gas plant in the ERV was repulsed with massive casualties and no Russian response. Only a few days after that, a large Israeli air raid stultified Russian and regime air defenses. It should be noted that between Afrin and the Wagner attack in the ERV, Russia has likely lost its sole source of already superficial leverage over Turkey by at least temporarily rupturing relations with the PKK.
Turkey has been forced by the US to prioritise the PKK over the downfall of the Assad regime, but it should not abandon this goal entirely. The Astana pact between Russia, Iran, and Assad is an effort to convince Turkey into doing for Russia what it cannot do for itself in Syria—namely fortifying Assad in power—with no recompense for Turkish interests.
To the contrary, Russia’s weakness means that Moscow is unable, even if it acted in good faith, to secure Turkey’s interests. Russia has proven no more capable than Iran in stabilising Assad’s rule, an impossible task with a regime this structurally decrepit, which can’t reliably take or hold territory despite an overwhelming preponderance of fire power.
Turkey thus has several low-cost avenues to diminish Russia in Syria, primarily via the opposition, in which Turkey would hold all the cards in terms of potential escalation.
According to a report by the British Centre for Economics and Business Research, Turkey will have a larger GDP than Russia by 2032, but it is already a more powerful country, at least regionally. It’s time for Turkey to recognise Russia’s weakness, as it did in the 1990s, and to teach them the important lesson that little powers don’t get to have spheres of influence in Turkey’s backyard.
Oved Lobel graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a bachelor's degree in Russian Language and Literature. He is currently completing his MA in Government, with a focus on diplomacy and conflict studies, and works as a policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council
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