“Shift-of-axis” has been a concept often used to describe Turkey’s drift in the early 2010s away from the U.S. and the West in general, and its closer ties with Russia and, for a while, with Iran. On top of this debate, Turkey has even strengthened its relations with Russia through the purchase of an S-400 missile system, the construction of a new natural gas pipeline, and the on-going development of the Akkuyu nuclear plant.
Russia, in fact, emerged as a balancing card in AKP’s foreign policy, and Erdoğan utilized his personal ties with a like-minded Putin for leverage against the U.S. This was indeed a legacy of Turkish foreign policy dating back to the founding era of the early 1920s, which was revived even during the Cold War years after 1965.
Inside Syria, Turkey, so far, has been able to maintain a very delicate balance between Russia and the U.S. However, this policy had its limits. It has contained risks from military and tactical points of view, and Idlib has been the riskiest military operation in Turkey's history of security operations. Turkey’s military presence in the Idlib region poses a severe problem — but the issue goes well beyond Idlib. It involves at least two broader strategic considerations. At this point, I challenge the widespread assessment prevalent within opposition circles that Turkey's insistence on maintaining troops in Idlib is driven by the ideological motives of the AKP government and its affinity with radical Islamists there. I argue that Idlib is essential for Turkey's control of the Afrin area, and at this juncture, the AKP government has realized that it will not be possible to prolong the status quo when it comes to this issue with Russia.
It is the first time since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, which is gradually moving from a proxy to inter-state conflict, that Syrian regime forces killed Turkish soldiers. Given the fact that Turkey had already notified the Russians about the troop deployment, it was likely a well-calculated move by the Russians to show the limits of Turkey’s domain in Syria.
Is it Idlib, or Afrin?
Idlib is of high strategic importance for Syria because it lies within the intersection of Aleppo, Latakia, and Damascus. It also hosts thousands of radical Islamist fighters, which the Assad regime has to clear to secure the area and stabilize the most critical, population-dense region of the country. On the other hand, for Turkey, it is Afrin that has strategic value since it is located in the border region between its Hatay province and the southern border area, and it has a Kurdish population. Turkey’s security mechanism is aware of the fact that once the Syrian regime takes control of Idlib, it will inevitably push further north to recapture the Afrin area — which Turkey is determined to control for security concerns.
This is part of a new phase in Turkey's security policy in which the AKP government, in its coalition with the nationalists, adopted the idea of a cross border defense posture that envisages Turkish troop deployment in the surrounding regions. The idea that Turkey’s defensive line begins within territories across its border has dominated its security perception for a while. Therefore, Turkey’s position in Idlib is more about nationalist and defensive concerns than its Islamist orientation. Turkey’s attempt at military reinforcement and its sending of more troops to the strategically-important Saraqeb area in order to deter the Syrian army from moving inside Idlib are signs of its new policy of confrontation with the Syrian army and its determination to control the area. Initially, the deal made in Sochi between Russia and Turkey in 2018 included the demilitarization of Idlib, and Turkey would have overseen this process through its observation posts. Because the Syrian army intensified its military offensive towards Idlib and the Russian air force increased its attacks on civilians, thus forcing the civilian population to flee the province in a punishing manner and head to the nearest Turkish border, Ankara had to take extra measures to stop the refugee flow outside its borders.
Balancing in Reverse?
The Idlib crisis may mark a transition into a new phase in the Turkish-Russian relationship, and a reshuffling of Turkey’s balancing policy of the West with the close cooperation with Moscow. With the Syrian regime and Russia out of patience in Idlib, and with Turkey and Russia facing each other again on opposite sides in Libya, Turkish-Russian relations have come to a crossroads.
Since the end of December 2019, Erdoğan has been criticizing the Moscow-based Wagner group for its operations in Libya, implying Russian involvement there, and a week ago, Erdoğan directly slammed Russia for not abiding by the Astana and Sochi processes, which called for a ceasefire. And in an interesting move, Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu invited Georgia, Turkey’s neighbor, to join NATO during a meeting on the sidelines of the Davos Forum. It is not difficult to anticipate that the Russians were likely irritated by this announcement. And during his visit to Kyiv on February 2, Erdoğan stressed that Turkey does not recognize the annexation of Crimea by Russia and pledged to send 200 million Turkish lira (35 million dollars) of military aid to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the suspension of the ongoing Halkbank case in the U.S. seems to be a gesture from Washington. It should be added that the U.S. strongly backed Turkey in the Idlib incident and lent its full support to what it called Turkey’s justified actions of self-defense. Some pro-AKP journalists have been taking a critical approach towards Russia and urging closer cooperation with the West against growing confrontation with Russia both in Syria and Libya. Even Erdoğan himself sent a letter to Politico on Jan. 18 in which he called Turkey "an old friend and loyal ally of Europe," language that we have not heard from Erdoğan towards Europe for a long time.
For now, it may be too early to call a break-up in Turkish-Russian ties, and many of the areas of cooperation will hold in the future. But it seems likely that Turkey has reached its limits in its policy of balancing the West with Russia in regional issues. Turkey is stuck with its balancing policy, but it realized that it could not go further with this policy, and needs U.S. (and EU) support both in Syria and Libya. Now, it is trying to balance Russia with the U.S. and the EU, showing signs of a tilt towards the West in order to prolong its control in Idlib.
If the AKP redirects its policy towards closer ties with the U.S. and the EU and drifts away from its partnership with Russia in regional issues, this would be another twist in Turkey's relations with Russia, just as it’s a move that has been a characteristic of Turkish foreign policy in recent years.