Largely overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, Syria remains a deeply divided and violent country, where military conflict has recently reignited.
This new period of conflict in Syria, with Russia, Turkey and Israel all launching attacks, also reflects some of the battle lines of the Ukrainian war – and threatens to have ramifications for both battlegrounds.
After more than a decade of war, there are already significant numbers of Russian, US and Turkish forces on the ground in Syria. Russia backs the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and the US and Turkey support their own rival local allies.
A highly combustible mix of local, regional, and global security risks have evolved over the past decade in Syria and has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Global and regional forces have been a significant factor, while Russia used the war to illustrate to the world its military strength.
Now, Russia is potentially the biggest beneficiary of Turkey’s recent military gamble to unleash air strikes on local US allies in Syria. It could help strengthen President Vladimir Putin’s relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a time when Russia desperately needs influential allies.
When a bomb exploded in a busy pedestrian area of Istanbul on November 13, killing six people and wounding dozens more, Turkey blamed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mainly Kurdish militia group based in Syria that Ankara links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The SDF, which denies any links to the Istanbul bomb attack, is also Washington’s main ally in Operation Inherent Resolve, a US-led coalition effort against Islamic State (ISIS).
Subsequent Turkish air strikes against SDF targets in Syria and continuing threats of a ground invasion are bad news for the war against ISIS and bad for relations between Washington and Ankara, which are, after all, also NATO allies. Warnings, including from US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have so far succeeded in staving off a Turkish ground campaign in Syria.
The combination of Turkish strikes and threats has led to a suspension of joint US-Kurdish anti-ISIS patrols in Syria, at a time when the latest US assessment of ISIS notes a significant increase in its activity in Syria.
Ramifications for Ukrainian allies
ISIS is not the only potential beneficiary of Turkish air strikes against US allies in Syria. Any division among NATO allies also has broader ramifications for the war in Ukraine. Turkey remains one of only two members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – the other being Hungary – that have yet to agree to the accession of Finland and Sweden to the alliance.
Turkish opposition to their membership is, in part, also related to Finland’s and Sweden’s alleged support for Kurdish militants. The potential to veto their accession gives Ankara more room to follow its own agenda in Syria and limits the amount of pressure that Washington can apply.
Turkey, together with the United Nations, has been instrumental in helping to broker, maintain, and extend a vital deal to facilitate exports of Ukrainian grain. President Erdogan also remains one of the few leaders in NATO who maintain open channels of communication with Putin, something that will be critical if Russia and Ukraine start negotiating an end to the war.
Turkey is perhaps the closest that Russia has to an ally within NATO, and Ankara breaking ranks with its NATO allies will be much welcomed in Moscow. While the Kremlin has been cautioning against Turkish military action in Syria, it has also tried to promote a rapprochement between Erdogan and Assad.
Erdogan has shown some openness to this idea, although it would be highly unlikely to lead to a credible war-to-peace transition in Syria. But if such rapprochement were possible, it would open up the possibility for the return of some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Turkey to Syria and might give Erdogan his security zone along the Turkish-Syrian border that he has demanded for a long time.
This formed the basis of a 2019 deal with Washington and Moscow that ended an earlier Turkish military intervention in Syria, after which Russia and the US were expected to help clear the Turkish border of Kurdish militants. Turkey recently claimed that they didn’t do this. With Erdogan seeking re-election in 2023, adding more border security and easing the refugee problem would improve his prospects for another term.
What Russia needs
But for Russia it is not only critical to support a vital quasi-ally in Ankara, it can also ill afford a greater commitment in Syria, given how badly the war in Ukraine has gone. Rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus, and between the Syrian regime and the Kurds, would cement Russia’s role as a key powerbroker in Syria and thus its presence, and influence, in a strategically important country in the Middle East.
Strengthening the Assad regime would also allow Russia to maintain good relations with Iran, which recently emerged as a supplier of armed drones used by Russia in attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.
Russia is quite adept at playing such multi-level games and connecting the dots between seemingly unrelated, geographically distant theaters of operation. The fact that the war in Ukraine has not been going Russia’s way of late makes it more likely that Moscow will try to exploit crises such as the current one in Syria to its advantage. It will succeed in doing so only if the West fails to pay attention.