The Kremlin has confirmed that Turkish President Erdogan is travelling to Moscow on 9th and 10th March 2017 for a summit meeting with Russian President Putin and with other top officials of the Russian government.
The Turkish media in discussing news of the visit has said that the full range of Russian – Turkish relations will be discussed. This will cover military and economic relations – doubtless including the mooted sale of advanced S-400 anti aircraft missiles by Russia to Turkey – and of course the conflict in Syria.
On the subject of sales of S-400 missiles to Turkey, given that Turkey remains a NATO country and that part of the S-400’s effectiveness is that the US knows little about it, I suspect the Russians will be very wary of selling it to Turkey less details of the system are compromised and leaked to Israel and the US.
Apart from economic relations, the focus of the talks between Putin and Erdogan will be Syria.
The two countries have jointly agreed a ceasefire between the Syrian army and the Jihadi groups that Turkey is backing, and for the greater part this has been holding. Turkey is also a co-sponsor along with Russia of the Astana peace conference.
Discussions between the Russian and Turkish Presidents about Syria will however be far more easy.
Given Turkey’s sustained effort over the past six years to overthrow the Syrian government, it is understandable that the negotiated capture by the Turkish army of Al-Bab from ISIS is causing concern, though I personally strongly doubt that the people of Al-Bab would prefer rule by ISIS to rule by the Turkish army.
However it is worth remembering that the Russian air force actually helped the Turkish army take Al-Bab by providing air to ground support to the Turkish troops there, making the conclusion unavoidable that the Turkish army took Al-Bab with Russia’s agreement.
There is therefore clearly a measure of cooperation between the Russians and the Turks in Syria at the moment, though it is likely that the degree of agreement between them is limited, and it is easy to see how things could quickly unravel.
As to the reasons behind the cooperation between the Russians and the Turks in Syria, it is not difficult to see what they are.
For the Russians the key point is that they need the help of the Turks to keep both the ceasefire and the talks in Astana going.
The motivating factor here is the limited size of the Syrian army. I have written about this often, most recently on 28th January 2017
Events since the Syrian army’s capture of eastern Aleppo highlight its continuing problems.
The Syrian army has been obliged to send reinforcements to repel ISIS offensives in Deir Ezzor and Palmyra regions, and to repel an attempt by ISIS to cut the Khanasser road, which connects Aleppo to the heartland areas under the Syrian government’s control in central and southern Syria.
At the same time the Syrian army has to find troops to protect Aleppo itself, whilst carrying out an advance towards the strategic ISIS held town of Al-Bab to the north of Aleppo.
The Syrian army also needs to contain a large and dangerous concentration of Al-Qaeda fighters in northern Hama province, whilst maintaining pressure on the Al-Qaeda’s main bastion, which is Idlib province.
Lastly, it has been forced to commit troops to clearing the countryside around Damascus, including taking control of Wadi Barada in order to restore the water supply to Damascus, whilst maintaining security in Damascus itself and in the various town and cities under the government’s control.
So many operations on so many widely dispersed fronts stretches the Syrian army’s limited resources, and puts intense strain on its soldiers, even despite the fact that they must now feel that they have the momentum of victory behind them.
Quite simply the Syrian army cannot be overwhelmingly strong everywhere at the same time, which is why it occasionally has to retreat, and why its advances – unlike those of its opponents when they occur – have to be incremental.
This point was recently made by – of all people -the director of Russia’s Hermitage Museum (whose museum is responsible for the restoration of Palmyra), who has explained ISIS’s recapture of Palmyra by the delay in launching the offensive to capture eastern Aleppo, which meant that there were insufficient numbers of high quality Syrian troops available in and around Palmyra to defend the town. This is of course essentially the same point the Russian military has also made.
Criticisms of the various ceasefires in Syria that the Russians broker (including the present one), which sometimes explain them in terms of divisions within the Russian government, in my opinion fail to accord sufficient weight to this factor.
Precisely because the Syrian army’s resources are both limited and so highly extended, it is the Syrian army not its opponents which benefits most from the ceasefires, which give it the time and space it needs to rest and resupply, and to concentrate its otherwise over-stretched forces in those places where fighting continues to take place.
The Syrian war is a gruelling war of attrition. The Syrian army’s limited resources mean it cannot be otherwise. Ceasefires are an inseparable part of the sort of war the Syrian army has to fight. They key point is that it is winning it.
Since the Syrian army does not have enough troops to be strong everywhere, it needs a ceasefire against the Turkish backed groups so that it can take the offensive against its two most dangerous enemies: Al-Qaeda in the west of Syria, and ISIS in the east. That is the military reality which lies behind the Russians’ agreement of the ceasefire and the Astana talks with Erdogan and Turkey and why, since it is the Turks who are in a position to decide whether there is a ceasefire or not, the Russians have to work with the Turks and acquiesced in the Turkish capture of Al-Bab.
The Russians definitely did not give Erdogan the green light back in August to launch Operation Euphrates Shield and send his troops into Syria. On the contrary they were taken badly by surprise when Erdogan did it. However given the reality of the need to obtain Turkish support to preserve the ceasefire, the Russians have been obliged to hide their anger and cooperate with the Turks in Syria, though only to a limited degree, and with no formal statement of support from them for Operation Euphrates Shield or for the Turks being there.
On the subject of Al-Bab, given the extent to which President Erdogan’s personal prestige had become bound up with the Turkish army’s capture of the town, the Russians – given their need to work with Erdogan in Syria in order to preserve the ceasefire there – had no option but to help Erdogan take Al-Bab.
A Syrian army attempt to take Al-Bab would have risked a direct clash with the Turkish army, whilst the only other option would have been the intolerable one of leaving Al-Bab under ISIS control.
Either of these options would moreover have risked causing the whole edifice of Russian – Turkish cooperation in Syria to unravel, with Erdogan in either case feeling that the Russians were working against him. It is easy to see how in that case the ceasefire might have collapsed, causing the fighting between the Syrian army and the Turkish backed Jihadi groups to resume, multiplying the Syrian army’s problems.
If the realities on the ground in Syria have obliged the Russians to work with Erdogan and to acquiesce in the Turkish capture of Al-Bab, they will nonetheless almost certainly seek to use the talks in Moscow to lay down red lines, warning Erdogan of how far they are prepared to allow him to go. Undoubtedly they will rule out any further Turkish advance towards Aleppo, and quite possibly they will warn Erdogan against any Turkish advance on Raqqa, which might cause a clash with the Kurds.
There are objectively good reasons why President Erdogan might accept these red lines. My colleague Adam Garrie has described the surrender of Al-Bab to the Turkish army by ISIS as the replacement of “a comparatively weak occupational force by one of the strongest forces in the world”.
I question whether the Turkish army really is “one of the strongest forces in the world”. Though the Turkish military is numerically big and is indeed – as Adam Garrie correctly says – on paper the second biggest in NATO, the Turkish army has been repeated bested by ISIS in a string of battles in and around Al-Bab. To some extent this may reflect the disorganisation of the Turkish army by the mass purge of Turkish officers which has been underway since the attempted coup in July. However it is mainly the product of President Erdogan’s unwillingness to embrace the huge political risks of sending large numbers of conscript Turkish infantry into Syria.
The result is that the Turkish forces in Syria are thin on the ground and vulnerable to attack either by ISIS or by the well-organised local Kurdish militia the YPG.
So far US and Russian diplomacy has prevented a full-scale clash between the Turkish military in Syria and the YPG. However given that the two consider each other mortal enemies, it is not difficult to see how that could happen, in which case Erdogan’s and Turkey’s problems in Syria could multiply.
Operation Euphrates Shield is in fact a good example of President Erdogan’s repeated mistakes in diplomacy. In August, in the aftermath of the coup attempt and with efforts to patch up relations with Moscow underway, he saw an opening and used it to steal a march on the Russians by launching Operation Euphrates Shield by sending his troops into Syria. However as always he did not calculate the risks fully, and over the last weeks has looked dangerously close to seeing his troops in Syria becoming bogged down whilst suffering heavy losses. In order to avoid this debacle he first had to call on the Russians for help, and then was finally forced to strike a deal with ISIS to get them to withdraw from Al-Bab.
Having now taken Al-Bab – thereby preserving his prestige – the sensible thing for President Erdogan to do is to quit whilst he is ahead, and to leverage such gains as he has achieved through Operation Euphrates Shield to improve his position in the talks about Syria’s future in Astana. If so then he should have no difficulty accepting Moscow’s red lines.
The problem with President Erdogan is that he is absolutely not the sort of person who can be relied upon to do what is sensible. There is unfortunately a very real risk that having taken Al-Bab the “success” will go to his head and – forgetting how close he came to disaster there – he will instead forge ahead and gamble further. Already there is delusional talk of setting up a Turkish backed ‘protectorate’ in northern Syria, a venture which over time can only involve Turkey in more conflict on the ground in Syria with the Syrian government, the Kurds, Iran and Russia, which Turkey cannot afford, and which will only drain away its resources.
President Putin and the Russians will no doubt try to explain all this to President Erdogan when he comes to Moscow in March.
There have been moments over the last year when President Erdogan has seemed to show glimmers of understanding of this and of the limitations that ought to constrain Turkey’s actions. However he has never seemed able to do this for long and he seems temperamentally unable to put his overweening ambitions for himself and for Turkey behind him. The success or failure of the talks in Moscow will ultimately depend on whether and if so to what extent he is able to let calculations of self-interest rule his emotions, and unfortunately no-one who has followed Erdogan’s career carefully would put any money on that.
As for the Russians, it must be frustrating for them to have to deal in Erdogan with a partner who is so volatile that he cannot be trusted. It is a reflection both of the extent of Russia’s commitment to Syria and of the difficulty of dealing with President Erdogan that they are having to spend so much time doing so.