The Russian strike against the Jabal al-Duwailah camp in Idlib constitutes a turning point in the course of the Russian-Turkish understandings in northern Syria. This strike has targeted Turkey’s most important proxies in the country’s northwest, namely Faylaq al-Sham (the Levant Corps), in light of the state of calm that the two sides established in the region, and the de-escalation of the demarcation lines since the armistice agreement in March 2020. This shift raises many questions about its causes and the extent of its impact on the existing balances in northwest Syria.

A swinging balance

The game of balances between Russia and Turkey has undergone many changes. Russia has continuously changed its positions vis-à-vis those balances, and reformulated them according to the priorities of interests and the balances of power on the ground. This prompted the Russian actor to change the rules of engagement based on its assessment that the path followed does not serve Russia’s interests, or on its belief that the developments must impose different balances and that the new developments have rendered the previous rules invalid. Russia has skillfully used this approach in the agreements on the "de-escalation zones" that it ended, one by one.

Russia often argues that the understandings on the Syrian front are temporary because essentially all regions have to be returned to the control of the regime as the representative of the Syrian sovereignty, and that the armistice periods are a temporary situation whose aim is to search for exits and alternatives to the current situation, leading to a settlement, which is mostly confined to the pattern that was applied in the other de-escalation zones, namely by handing over the land to the Syrian regime and resolving the status of the fighters and disarming them.

The Russian decision-maker is coming under pressure by the Russian military leaders, both in the Syrian field and in Moscow, as well as by Russian opinion and media leaders, to exit the game of balances with Turkey, considering that the latter is a far less capable player compared to Russia, and therefore it is wrong to give it certain advantages in Syria or elsewhere at the expense of the Russian interests.

Drivers of the shift in the Russian position

A number of factors, both Syrian and foreign, stand behind the shift in the Russian position towards Turkey. These are associated with the common issues of interest and the arenas in which both countries participate:

The M4 highway

Russia believes that Turkey is delaying the implementation of its obligations that were approved in the Sochi Agreement (5 March 2020), which stipulated that Turkey evacuate the armed factions, especially Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, Organisation for the Liberation of the Levant), led by the Jabhat al-Nusra (Front of the Supporters), from the areas near the highway to restart its operation for commercial and civilian traffic. Russia is betting on operating the highway that constitutes a part of its investment plan in Syria, given the highway’s vital role in linking agricultural crop production areas with the Syrian coast and interior, in addition to its role in promoting the reconstruction process. Russia has expressed its objection to the Turkish procrastination policy by stopping the joint patrols with the Turks and through the statements made by the Hmeimim base command regarding the need to expedite the evacuation of the factions and the dismantling of the extremist organisations on both sides of the highway.

Russia is watching, with fear, Turkey’s continued mobilisation of its forces and weapons in northern Syria in an attempt by the latter to impose a fait accompli that is rejected by Russia which now sees that one of the drawbacks of the recent Sochi Agreement was that it established a staus quo that was not intended or wanted by Russia. This drives Russia to think of changing the rules of engagement and formulating new ones in its own favour.

Calm on the Libyan front

The shift of the Libyan front into the path of settlement and the de-escalation of the conflicts therein constitutes one of the backgrounds for the escalation of the Russian stance against Turkey in Syria. The calculations of the conflict in Libya prompted the two sides to make arrangements for de-escalation in Syria, given the rapid developments on the Libyan front, which took up part of their military and diplomatic efforts due to the importance of the Libyan issue in their geopolitical projects in the region.

However, the way the settlement was reached in Libya does not seem to have been satisfactory to both sides, especially after the US got involved in the settlement process. What is important for Russia is that it would not forget that the complications created by Turkey in its confrontation with Russia resulted in Russia’s loss of an important area of ​​influence on the Libyan front. What is more important is that Russia has become free from its obligations towards Turkey in the Syrian arena.

The Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict

The current conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia constitutes one of the most powerful drivers of the Russian move against Turkey in Syria, for several reasons, namely:

  • The Faylaq al-Sham is one of the factions most relied upon by Turkey in sending fighters to the Nagorno Karabakh region, which is disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Russian President Vladimir Putin had expressed his concern to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the recent phone call between them regarding the despatch of fighters from Syria and Libya to participate in the ongoing fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Some Russian quarters have also expressed concern about the possibility that some of those fighters might infiltrate into the the Russian territories, which is a clear indication of Russia's intention to strike the actors participating in the war.
  • The Turkish intervention in what Russia considers its backyard, and Turkey’s encouragement of the Azerbaijani President Ilham Haydaroglu Aliyev to continue to fight against Armenia and the support it offers him in the form of various types of weapons, especially drones and fighters, and the progress made by Aliyev on the ground in the Nagorno Karabakh region, even as Russia seeks to de-escalate the conflict, despite its mutual defence treaty with Armenia. Russia believes that Turkey is forcing it to take steps that it does not want to take, such as interfering overtly alongside Armenia and risking its interests with Azerbaijan. Therefore, the recent strikes carried out by Russia in Jarablus (located in the Euphrates Shield area) and Jabal al-Duwailah in Idlib both fall within the context of messages of alert and annoyance at the Turkish position in the Caucasus.
  • Russia's desire to snatch the power cards from Turkey’s hands. Russia demands that Turkey gets involved as a key partner in solving the Caucasus crises, so that Turkey becomes a sponsor and guarantor for Azerbaijan, as opposed to Russia which would guarantee Armenia. Russia considers this a recurrence of the Syrian scenario and warns of its repetition.
  • On the other hand, the conflict in the Caucasus prompted Turkey to play in the Soviet space through the visit of the Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar to Central Asian countries, the discussion of the military cooperation agreement with Kazakhstan, and the return of talk about a unified army for the Turkish peoples, which is considered by Russia an overstepping of its red lines regarding its national security.

Syria as a postbox

Russia is using the Syrian arena to pass its messages to Turkey, given that Russia holds effective power cards in this arena, and possesses a target bank through which it can inflict harm on Turkey, especially by hitting those it considers Turkey’s proxies in northern Syria.

The Turkish President has expressed his dissatisfaction with this behaviour by accusing Russia of being unwilling to bring peace to Syria. The armed factions had responded to the Russian strikes by targeting the positions of Assad's forces in the countryside of Idlib, Aleppo, Hama and Latakia. Turkey has also reinforced its forces and positions in Jabal al-Zawiya, which was considered by observers a message to Russia that it must de-escalate in Idlib.

Conclusion

The Russian-Turkish arrangements in northern Syria are entering a new phase as a result of the two countries’ complicated relations in the other aspects of the conflict, especially in the Caucasus. There are indications of a Russian desire to torpedo the understandings agreed upon with the Turkish side in an attempt to weaken Turkey in the Caucasus and pressure it to make concessions in Syria.

The war in the Caucasus seems to be proceeding in favour of Turkey and its ally Azerbaijan. Russia will not accept this loss which is likely to be made up for in the Syrian arena by grabbing control of certain areas in the country’s north, especially the Jabal al-Zawiya region and the areas close to the M4 highway according to some assessments, especially that Russia has a strong card, namely the Sochi Agreement which obliges Turkey to evacuate this region from the armed factions.

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