Turkey’s Russian Red Light in Syria
Turkey and Syria’s ministers of defense met in Moscow this Wednesday, in their first talks in more than a decade. The two countries’ defense and intelligence chiefs met alongside Russian counterparts, where the three defense heads reportedly discussed “the Syrian crisis, the refugee issue, and joint efforts to fight against all terrorist groups in Syria.” The trilateral talks marked new progress in a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement that, after a decade of acrimony and war, now seems to be picking up speed.
As recently as December, Turkey had seemed on the brink of another ground offensive against Kurdish-led militants in Syria. In late November, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that a Turkish campaign of aerial bombing was just the beginning. Turkish forces would attack by land “as soon as possible,” he said, following up the next day with comments that they would move “at the most convenient time for us.” Turkey’s saber-rattling alarmed Washington, and top U.S. officials discouraged Turkish action repeatedly, in public and in private.
Then Turkey’s threatened incursion didn’t happen — but not, in all likelihood, because of Washington’s objections. Rather, it was Moscow’s opposition that likely prevented a Turkish invasion.
Turkish officials have insisted that they don’t need anyone’s “permission” or “green light” to take what they characterize as defensive counterterrorism action in neighboring Syria. Except they do, it seems — from Russia, not the United States. Turkey’s prior interventions in Syria have proceeded with Russian acquiescence, and often over American objections. Meanwhile, Russian opposition has seemed enough to stymie Turkish action — over this past year, but also, conspicuously, in March 2020. Precedent suggests that sometimes Turkey wins Russia’s assent for a new Syria intervention. Sometimes it doesn’t, and Turkish officials’ escalatory rhetoric goes nowhere.
Turkey’s most recent non-intervention and some of its past Syria incursions — real, or just threatened — help to clarify the limits on Turkey’s freedom of action in neighboring Syria and the terms of its bilateral relationship with Russia. Taken together, these episodes suggest what U.S. decision-makers and other interested parties ought to look for, and worry about, when Turkey next threatens to attack.
Turkey doesn’t seem finished trying for a new Syria incursion, even if this latest escalation was a dud. Ankara has previously managed to get Moscow to “yes,” eventually — and because Russia has suggested lately that a new Turkish military intervention is conditioned on Turkish-Syrian normalization, a process that saw major new progress this week, a renewed offensive can’t be ruled out.
Turkey’s Latest Aborted Intervention
Turkey’s most recent escalation followed a Nov. 13 bombing on Istanbul’s busy Istiklal Street. Turkish authorities quickly detained the alleged bomber, who, Ankara indicated, confessed to being trained and deployed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party across the border in Syria.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has for decades waged an insurgency against the Turkish state. In the course of the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIL) in Syria, however, Washington partnered with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s Syrian affiliate to combat the jihadist group. That affiliate was the central component of the larger, multi-ethnic “Syrian Democratic Forces,” which became America’s primary counter-ISIL partner in Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces’ U.S.-enabled gains against ISIL in northern Syria stoked fears in Turkey of a “terror corridor” along Turkey’s southern border and helped to precipitate a broader deterioration of U.S.-Turkish relations.
Since 2016, Turkey has launched four major interventions in Syria. Three have aimed at preventing the Syrian Democratic Forces from establishing contiguous territorial control along Turkey’s Syrian border. Turkey has coordinated these interventions with Russia and Iran as part of trilateral “Astana format” negotiations, named after Kazakhstan’s capital.
In the year before the Istiklal bombing, Turkey had threatened a ground operation in Syria twice: first in October and November 2021, then again in May and June 2022. Both times, Turkey ran into U.S. and Russian opposition and backed down.
After the Istiklal bombing, Turkey launched “Operation Claw-Sword,” a campaign of aerial bombing against purported Kurdistan Workers’ Party targets in northern Syria and Iraq. Erdogan warned, further, that Turkey would launch a ground attack on three militant enclaves in Syria.
The United States repeatedly urged “de-escalation” and voiced opposition to a new Turkish incursion, particularly after a Turkish drone struck alarmingly close to U.S. troops stationed near their local partners in northern Syria. Senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and CIA head Bill Burns, communicated U.S. protests over Turkish attacks that had endangered U.S. personnel and further discouraged another Turkish military operation in Syria.
Russia seems to have opposed Turkish action as well, albeit less publicly. After an Astana meeting on November 23, Russia’s representative said Moscow had asked Ankara to refrain from a new ground offensive in Syria. Another senior Russian official said on Dec. 12 — after the threat of Turkey’s invasion had apparently receded — that Moscow had been working throughout to dissuade Ankara from attacking.
In a Dec. 4 interview, Turkish presidential advisor Ibrahim Kalin was asked if Russia and Iran had “approved” or given a “green light” to a new Turkish operation. “Look, we don’t ask for permission,” said Kalin, “we just coordinate with our allies when we face a national security threat.”
But just a few days later, it became clear that a “green light” had not been forthcoming. In a Dec. 6 Al Jazeera article, an “official Turkish source” said that Turkey had decided to give the United States and Russia each a “specific window of time” to remove the Syrian Democratic Forces from Turkey’s southern border, and that this window “would not be extended.” The Turkish source also said the Americans and Russians had made their own offers in trade, including, for Washington, the restructuring of the Syrian Democratic Forces — and, for Moscow, an unspecified bargain related to Ukraine.
An indeterminate “specific window of time,” though, seems less like a deadline or ultimatum and more like spin for a Turkish retreat. Turkey had launched a wave of punishing drone attacks on Syria’s northeast, but had seemingly been denied its hoped-for ground offensive.
The Syrian Democratic Forces had announced a halt to joint operations with U.S. forces on Dec. 2 due to Turkish bombing. A few days later, though, they said that operations had resumed. The threat of Turkish attack had evidently abated.
Since early December, Turkish official messaging has been more subdued. Turkish officials are no longer warning of a looming invasion, although they have emphasized their continued determination to establish a “security corridor” along their Syrian border. And Turkish officials have made new gestures towards Turkish-Syrian normalization, with evident Russian encouragement — most significantly, Wednesday’s trilateral meeting in Moscow.
Russian Green Lights
The record of Turkey’s past Syria interventions suggests that, this past November and December, it was Moscow’s opposition — not Washington’s — that managed to block Turkish military action. All of Turkey’s previous large-scale interventions have gone forward with apparent Russian approval. U.S. consent, meanwhile, has seemed optional.
Turkey launched its first cross-border intervention in Syria’s Aleppo province in August 2016. “Operation Euphrates Shield” came just weeks after Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met and publicly reconciled, after Turkey shot down a Russian jet on the Turkish-Syrian border the previous year. Erdogan and Putin seem to have agreed on Turkey’s intervention at their meeting. The two militaries then worked out a mechanism to deconflict air operations. Once Euphrates Shield was launched, Moscow was conspicuously muted in its reaction, saying only that it was “seriously concerned by the developments on the Syrian-Turkish border” and avoiding any criticism of Turkish actions. Washington, for its part, supported the initial advance by Turkish-backed forces militarily and praised those forces’ initial gains, but never really adopted Euphrates Shield as its own.
Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” in January 2018 also seems to have been pre-agreed with Russia. Whereas Euphrates Shield targeted ISIL most directly and only blocked an advance by the Syrian Democratic Forces into northern Aleppo, Olive Branch aimed directly at the Syrian Democratic Forces in Aleppo’s Afrin area. Turkey launched its invasion over U.S. objections, including a call by President Donald Trump in which he reportedly urged Erdogan to de-escalate. But Afrin fell on the western side of a “deconfliction line” that Russia and the United States had drawn across Syria, along the Euphrates River, to demarcate their respective areas of operation. Russia controlled the airspace west of the Euphrates, and Russia was apparently on board with Turkey’s intervention. The day before Turkey launched Olive Branch, Russia abruptly withdrew its military personnel in Afrin. As the operation got underway, Russia’s foreign ministry said only that Turkey’s action “was received with concern in Moscow” and that it was “closely monitoring the development of the situation.”
Meanwhile, Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” in October 2019 proceeded despite even more energetic U.S. protests. It targeted the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria — east of the Euphrates — where they operated alongside U.S. troops. Erdogan did manage to bully Trump into announcing he would withdraw U.S. troops in the way of Turkey’s advance. That did not mean, however, that the United States approved of Peace Spring. U.S. officials had for months made ill-fated attempts to appease Turkey, and Trump had threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy in the lead up to the invasion. When Turkey launched Peace Spring, U.S. officials condemned it and insisted they had not given it a “green light.” In the first days of the operation, the Turkish military actually trained artillery fire on U.S. troops. The Trump administration even levied sanctions on Turkish ministries and senior officials, only to lift them after reaching an agreement with Ankara that essentially capitulated to Turkish aims.
In a call between Putin and Erdogan on the eve of Peace Spring, meanwhile, Putin only “urged his Turkish partners to carefully consider the situation so as not to damage the overall efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis.” A week and a half into the operation, Putin and Erdogan reached an agreement to deploy Russian and Syrian troops in northeast Syria that advanced Russian ends.
In all these instances, Turkish-Russian negotiations eventually yielded compromises that moderated some of Turkey’s more maximal aims, while still pushing the Syrian Democratic Forces away from Turkey’s southern border.
This does not mean, of course, that every detail of these interventions was pre-agreed and perfectly choreographed. The precise scope of Turkish action and the geographic limits of Turkey’s advance may have been negotiated on the fly, with means that may have included more coercive signaling.
Take, for example, Russian air strikes that “accidentally” killed several Turkish troops in the Aleppo countryside in February 2017, as Turkish-backed Syrian militants and the Russian-backed Syrian military each approached the Aleppo city of al-Bab. In a call with Erdogan shortly afterward, Putin “expressed his condolences over the tragic events that led to the deaths of several Turkish soldiers near al-Bab” — not an especially fulsome apology.
Or take the airstrike that killed more than 30 Turkish troops in Idlib province on Feb. 27, 2020, amid a Russian-backed Syrian military advance on opposition-held Idlib. The airstrike hit a Turkish convoy that entered a still-contested area and came after Turkish-backed Syrian militants had mounted a successful counterattack against Syrian government forces. Russia denied carrying out the airstrikes, but also said Turkish troops should not have been in the area and did not communicate their location in advance. Russia’s disavowal of the strike is widely believed to have been false. Despite that, Ankara indulged Moscow’s exculpatory narrative and blamed Russia’s Syrian partners instead. Turkey focused its retaliation on the Syrian military, in what it called “Operation Spring Shield.”
A Bright Red Light
Russia has signaled several red lights to Ankara over the past year, including, most recently, this November and December. The resolution of Operation Spring Shield, though, may be the clearest example of how Russia can apparently dictate to Turkey.
Turkish forces originally entered the Idlib “de-escalation zone” in October 2017, per another agreement with Russia and Iran. Over the next several months, Turkey established 12 observation points along the agreed perimeter of the Idlib zone. After Turkey failed to deliver on repeated commitments to declaw Islamist militants in the Idlib area, the Syrian military launched a Russian-backed offensive on Idlib in April 2019 and then again in December 2019. As the Syrian military seized more territory on Idlib’s periphery, it moved past Turkey’s observation points, leaving them isolated behind Syrian lines. Turkey attempted to frustrate the Syrian military’s advance — establishing new Turkish positions, equipping Syrian partners to counterattack — while demanding, with increasing urgency, that the Syrian army halt its offensive and withdraw behind Turkey’s original positions.
Then came the Feb. 27 air strike. Turkey shortly announced Operation Spring Shield and unleashed a barrage of drone attacks on Syrian military positions in Idlib. Turkish media said it had “neutralized” thousands of Syrian military personnel, while Turkish and international media hailed the drone surge as a paradigm shift in modern warfare. When Erdogan and Putin met for negotiations over Idlib on March 5, Turkey was riding high from this show of military force.
Erdogan and other Turkish officials had consistently messaged their aims ahead of the March 5 summit: The Syrian military not only had to halt its offensive, but also retreat to the original boundaries of the Idlib zone. Erdogan reiterated that demand on, for example, Feb. 5 and Feb. 15. “We … will definitely push the regime out of the boundaries we have determined,” he told Turkish lawmakers on Feb. 26. Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar insisted that Russia “use its influence over the regime to make it halt its attacks and withdraw to the lines set under [a 2018 agreement]” as late as March 1 and March 2.
That is not what happened. After hours of closed-door negotiations, Russian and Turkish officials announced a new ceasefire, but one “along the line of contact” — it did not require the Syrian government to cede any territory or to retreat behind Turkey’s observation points. Their agreement additionally burdened Turkey with new commitments in Idlib, including the establishment of a “security corridor” along a key Idlib highway.
This was not the outcome that Turkish officials had promised ahead of the summit. Erdogan and others had clearly signaled their desire to push the Syrian military back to Idlib’s edges — Putin had apparently said otherwise.
Ankara insisted at the time it would not abandon its observation posts stranded behind Syrian lines. Months later, it did.
Turkish Agency in Syria
That March 2020 summit and this past year’s non-starter interventions illustrate the real extent of Turkish agency in Syria, and how Turkey now depends on Russia’s approval to undertake major new action on its southern border.
It seems impossible that Turkish officials would have over-promised as they did in February-March 2020 and this past year if Turkey really had unfettered freedom of action in Syria — if Turkey didn’t have to “ask for permission,” in Kalin’s words. Additionally, Ankara must not have known in advance how talks with Moscow and Washington would turn out, and whether it really could get that permission — if it had known, it presumably wouldn’t have raised expectations only to have to awkwardly reverse itself.
Without that advance knowledge, Ankara may escalate its rhetorical aims as, in parallel, it escalates militarily — as it did, for example, with its “Operation Claw-Sword” bombing campaign this November. But it appears to do so as a coercive bargaining tactic, and without the surety that it will secure international consent for more wide-ranging military action. Sometimes, that consent is not forthcoming.
Turkish officials’ threats to act in Syria likely signal real intent — they don’t seem like bluffs. But Turkish intent does not always equate to Turkish capability.
When Ankara does run into international opposition to another intervention in Syria, only Russia’s objections seem really insurmountable. Ankara is apparently prepared to disregard Washington’s protests — it has before. But while it may be uncertain how, exactly, Russia vetoes Turkish action, the fact of this veto seems clear — it exists. And while that could change in future, thus far it has not, even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and all its attendant demands on Russian military and economic power.
This Russian veto power means that Moscow’s asks of Ankara matter. Those asks have lately seemed to center on Turkish-Syrian normalization. After an August 2022 summit following Turkey’s aborted attack in May and June, Erdogan said Putin had encouraged him to coordinate with the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to resolve Turkey’s counterterrorism concerns. Russian officials have for years encouraged Turkish-Syrian normalization on the basis of the two countries’ 1998 Adana Agreement. They have said the agreement could permit Turkish hot pursuit of militants in Syria while safeguarding Syrian sovereignty — importantly, by forcing Ankara to work bilaterally with the government in Damascus. After that August summit, Turkish officials began to suggest that Ankara might normalize relations with Damascus. Normalization actually seems to be popular in Turkish domestic politics because of how this policy has been linked, in Turkey’s political discourse, to the return of Syrian refugees in Turkey to their home country. Much of the Turkish public has now soured on the millions of Syrians in Turkey, and increasingly draconian measures to limit Syrians’ freedom of movement have not assuaged angry voters. Erdogan has essentially committed to normalize ties with Syria and organize large-scale return of refugees, appropriating one of his opposition’s most compelling propositions ahead of Turkey’s 2023 elections.
Syrian officials, for their part, have not ruled out normalization or dictated hard preconditions for negotiations, but have nonetheless appeared suspicious of Ankara. They have also been wary of being used as a prop in Turkey’s upcoming elections, and of gifting Erdogan a handshake photo opportunity without much tangible in return.
Still, Turkey has seemed determined to attempt another Syria intervention. For Erdogan, there are strong-seeming incentives to launch a new incursion in Syria ahead of next year’s elections. Erdogan and other Turkish officials have signaled publicly and to Russian and American counterparts that they remain intent on establishing a “security corridor” in northeast Syria. Erdogan has also said he “requested support from [Putin] for future joint [counterterrorism] steps with Russia and, maybe, for the implementation.” Turkish defense minister Akar has said that Ankara continues to talk with Moscow about opening Syria’s airspace to Turkish aircraft.
In parallel, Erdogan proposed phased trilateral talks joining Turkey, Russia, and Syria that would progress from meetings of intelligence officials to military officials and then diplomats. Russian officials welcomed his call for trilateral diplomacy. And, on Wednesday, Erdogan’s proposed normalization took a big step forward.
As for the United States, it is left to watch Turkish-Russian negotiations that might enable a Turkish intervention — one that could threaten the U.S. counter-ISIL mission in Syria, and potentially endanger U.S. personnel. For Washington, continued efforts to discourage a Turkish incursion seem worthwhile. Unfortunately, they also seem like they won’t be enough.
Russia has, for years, had an apparent up-or-down vote on any major new Turkish action in Syria. Now Moscow seems to have successfully used that leverage to drag Ankara into normalizing relations with Damascus incrementally, if only to allow for a new incursion in Syria before next year’s Turkish elections. The result may be another Turkish offensive, this time launched in coordination with Syrian authorities — striking jointly at a U.S. partner that poses a problem for both parties and, in the process, further legitimizing the Syrian government in Damascus.
Whether Turkey actually invades Syria again, though, is a decision that will likely be made in Moscow, not Ankara. So when Turkish officials next threaten an incursion, U.S. officials and other concerned parties need to be watching for another Turkish-Russian convergence. Another agreement between Erdogan and Putin could mean not only a new military offensive in northern Syria but also, if it entails Turkish-Syrian normalization, a huge political shift in Syria’s war.
Sam Heller is a Beirut- and Athens-based researcher and analyst focused on politics and security in Lebanon, Syria and their regional neighborhood. He is a Fellow with Century International, The Century Foundation’s center for international research and policy. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.
Image: President of Russia