The silence of Russia and Turkey on Hezbollah’s deal with the ISIS is quite remarkable. Is it because the deal sets Iraq as the destination for ISIS fighters? Forces funded by Iran in Iraq have accused the US of displaying double standard and of opening a way for ISIS fighters from Tal Afar to escape towards Kurdistan. A representative of Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq said on Al-Mayadeen television channel on Sunday that he had proof that the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, had issued orders for receiving them. Is there a conspiracy being hatched against the Kurds in Iraq, or against the Kurds in general? Is this why Russia and Turkey have remained silent? There is enough cause for speculation.
Ganging up against the West
Last year, relations between Russia and Turkey improved. It seems the two countries think it is necessary to cooperate in different fields as their main concern has been to focus on the war in Syria where their interests converge. Improving bilateral military and economic relations is also important. According to Turkish and Russian officials, preparations have been made for Turkey to buy Russian S-400 defense system. This worries Turkey’s allies in NATO – although some analysts believe the deal may not materialize in the end. They also doubt whether Turkey will ever receive the surface-to-air missile defense batteries. It is even contended that the motive here is not the defence acquisitions but the sending of a message to the West.
According to a British political analyst, Moscow and Ankara are playing up this cooperation to show that the West is displeased with them. Ankara in particular may be doing so as it is frustrated by Washington’s continuous military cooperation with Syrian Kurds.
Russia is helping Turkey develop a nuclear station and is participating in building a Turkish gas pipeline project which will enable Russian gas exports to reach south Europe by circumventing Ukraine. The war in Syria is thus just one of the arenas where they can cooperate. Although each one has a different point of view regarding the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow and Ankara are also cooperating to control regional aspirations of Kurds inside Syria.
Russia, Turkey wary of Iran
Russia has closely worked with Iran ever since the Syrian civil war first broke out in 2011. This cooperation distanced Turkey from Russia. However, there are increasing signs of growing disagreements between Russia and Iran over the future of Syria. The Iranian formula to support the Syrian regime does not include any concessions to the Assad family, particularly for Bashar. Meanwhile, Russia has always been willing to make concessions on the diplomatic front as long as its basic interests in Syria are guaranteed, i.e. its military bases and its political influence.
In Syria, Russian and Turkish perspectives in terms of restraining Iran’s regional ambitions also coincide. Ironically, the factor that is pushing Ankara and Moscow to cooperate is the US. Turkey is a NATO member and it is expected to be an ally of Western powers in Syria. However, Turkey has been serving its own interests, which are based on its geopolitical realities and interests in the Middle East. There is no secret that Ankara is worried of US aid to Kurds in Syria and is upset by Washington’s changing points of view regarding the future of the Assad regime. The same applies to Russia which is worried of American operations in Syria – although US President Donald Trump recently suspended military aid to the Syrian opposition and Washington and Moscow brokered a ceasefire in southwest Syria in July. Thus, Turkish-Russian rapprochement is partially pushed by the two countries’ opposition of American interests.
Apart from these problems in the Middle East, Turkey and Russia have also had difficult relations with the EU. Before Chancellor Angela Merkel said Turkey should not become an EU member, Ankara was strongly criticized by Brussels. Moscow has also had disagreements with Europe since the 2014 Russian intervention in Ukraine.
History of Rivalry
Still, age-old territorial disputes between Turkey and Russia continue to the day. Thanks to its geography, Turkey has the longest coast on the Black Sea. It naturally controls the straits of Bosphorus and Dardanelles which makes it capable of exercising its military and economic prowess over the Black Sea.
The region has historically been a battlefield between the Russian and Ottoman empires from the 18th century until the Cold War. Both countries have natural interest in expanding their influence in the Black Sea. This offers little chance for both to find a mutually acceptable solution for the long term. Since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, Moscow has gained the upper hand in terms of military infrastructure and capability over all Black Sea shores.
East of the Black Sea and south of Caucasus, Turkey and Russia face their long-term historical battle over Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, Turkey has worked to reconnect South of Caucasus with its growing market for energy consumption by launching different energy and infrastructure plans from the East to the West. The Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline and the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway are some of the projects which Ankara currently supports. Although it’s highly unlikely for Turkey to militarily confront Russia in the region now, it does not mean Ankara will not consider increasing Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s military capabilities.
There are other deep-rooted disagreements between Russia and Turkey such as the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Russia has its own interests for resolving this issue and in fact it prefers to keep the status quo for as long as possible. This is why Russia wants Turkey, Azerbaijan’s ally, to stay away from this conflict for as long as is possible. It is said that Moscow seeks to deploy its peacekeeping troops in Karabakh in lieu of having Armenia give up few areas around Karabakh. Meanwhile, east of Central Asia, Ankara is capable of seeing itself as the natural ally of all Central Asian countries as there are strong ethnic ties between Turkey and the Turkic people in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan has always been more influenced by Iranian culture.
The Syrian Theatre
Both Russia and Turkey cannot afford to remain hostile to each other now. Turkey sees in Russia a door to Syria and the cover that Ankara needs if it has to accept Assad’s stay in power instead of accepting a Kurdish autonomy. Russia and Turkey will continue to work together in Syria whether there is peace or conflict. The two countries’ present exigencies will push them to find common ground to cooperate and oppose Iranian and American interests in the Middle East. Turkey cannot bear the loss of its last influence over an Arab territory. Economic and military communications will improve between them because Russia cannot lose the Turkish market which is very important for its gas exports. Furthermore, Russian-Turkish relations will be subjected to geopolitical pressures due to geographic and security causes. The Black Sea and south Caucasus – as well as Central Asia to a lesser degree – will be the most contentious regions between Moscow and Ankara.
There are interests, ambitions, military bases and cultures between these countries that clash and coalesce with each other. The two have taken Syria as their arena to meet, cooperate and to impose their influence. Russians, Iranians, Turks, Europeans and the Americans are involved, and there are also Chechens, Uzbeks and Kyrgyzstanis who are fighting with the ISIS and whom we’ve seen as captives in videos broadcast by the Kurdish television in Iraq. Where is the Arab role in all of this? We have not seen it yet!
This article is also available in Arabic.
Huda al-Husseini is a political writer who focuses on Middle East geopolitics.