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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Why did Russia and Turkey set sights on a war-torn Syria?

It has now been a decade since the Syrian civil war started and has disrupted the peace and normalcy of the country especially after the entry of other state and non states actors. The author talks about the chaotic Syrian civil war and what were the national interests of Russia and Turkey that made them involved in Syria despite the region's never ending instability.

Russia and Turkey have always been like two sides of the same coin when it came to their intervention in Syria. Both the countries have their starkly opposite interest when it came to the outcome of the ongoing Civil war of Syria. Russia is a staunch supporter of the incumbent regime of Bashar al Assad while Turkey in cohorts with several regional countries is striving to unseat Assad. The current civil war in Syria has its roots in Arab Springs of 2011.

In March 2011 when pro democratic demonstrations erupted in Syria started demanding political reforms and removal of the current regime from power.  These demonstrations were also the result of the piled up frustrations over growing unemployment, corruption and lack of freedom and civilians rights. The government retaliated with brute force to suppress the protestors. However, the use of force had the unintended consequences to increase the scale and intensity of anti-regime protests.

Read more: US-NATO proxy war against Assad’s Syria

Syria as a ground for regional rivalries 

The defection of regular troops of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FAS) led to an organized armed resistance against the government. Assad labeled this crackdown as “foreign backed terrorism”. As the scope and scale of the violence increased, it roped in various groups and ethnicities thereby turning the conflicts into a full blown civil war.

The multiplicity of international stakeholders with divergent and often conflicting interests as well as the involvement of foreign non state terrorist actors only tended to exacerbate the conflict in Syria. This prolongation of the conflict has led to terrorist organizations like Islamic State and Al-Qaeda flourishing.

Involvement of other nation states 

The Syrian government’s major supporters are Russia and Iran while Turkey, France, UK and the USA are opposed to it. In 2015, Russia officially entered the Syrian Civil war by launching attacks on the opposition while declaring its support for the Syrian government. According to the Russian military, they only target the terrorists involved in unrest but it has been proved that their attacks have harmed civilians on regular basis. It has been said that Iran has spent billions of dollars to ensure Assad’s regime continues.

The UK, US and France have supported rebel groups but they have been particular by only using nonlethal weapons ever since the Jihadist has taken over and became a dominant force. Turkey has always been militarily and diplomatically involved in Syria. At first, they only condemned the actions of the Syrian Government. Later Turkish government got fully involved when they sent Turkish troops for military assistance and also started to provide support to anti-government rebels.

Read more: Syria bleeds: Israeli airstrikes kills three civilians including a child

Turkey’s interest in Syria

While talking about self serving goals of both Russia and Turkey; one can think that Erdogan has some major reasons for his involvement in Syria like wanting to prevent the building of an autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Syria. The Turkish government fears that such things can fuel the ambitions of the Kurdish lead population in Turkey and can also motivate them to do the same.  Another aim to fight a war is that it can destabilize the government of Assad and establish an Islamist government.

These moves can increase the influence of Erdogan in the region and can also make Islam a dominant power. Lastly, Erdogan hopes to continue to maintain his government which has been in power for 18 years although this has caused them problems like economic and political crises. Erdogan’s goals could be achieved if he will collaborate with Russia and Iran and move away from western influence, this also helps him in increasing his international alienation.

Turkey, Russia Iran and Syria have always been vary of western powers in the Middle East and have always wanted to minimize their interference especially the US. As far as Russia is concerned, their strategy is very clear that they will support Assad’s government until all the opposition parties are defeated, this can give the opportunity to control Turkey without causing serious armed conflicts. In this way, they can control their interests in Syria and the Middle East.

Russia has supported Syria with enormous investments and the only way those investments can be fruitful is by ensuring Assad’s victory even if the cost is at the altar of Turkey’s national interest. For the Assad regime, Idlib province of Syria is very important since it has become a bastion of militant groups of all shades. There is a possibility that if Syria repactures Idlib it will break the terrorist infrastructure in the country. However, this goal remains a formidable one due to the strength of the militant groups like Hayat Tharir al-Sham (HTS) which was formed when Al Qaeda split in Syria in 2017.

Read more: Not the first catastrophe! Syrian refugees using war resilience against COVID-19

Erdogan, on the other hand, has been seen in a predicament as his influence seems to be no longer work on the opposition parties but this cannot stop him from forsaking them and if he decides to end his interference in Syria that might result in terrorists’ activities in Turkey. As of now, it is difficult to predict what will be Erdogan’s next move in Syria but it is clear he is not backing down easily despite the consequences and is also not afraid to take bold steps either like we have seen military operations of 2019 in Syria.

Analyzing Russia’s role in the Syrian war

On the other side, Russia has vowed to not back down too and will not hesitate to take down Turkey if needed. Putin has already helped Assad’s government with military intelligence, equipment, airpower and military training but has always avoided being involved in an open military conflict. This can be seen as a rather clever strategy by Russia where they can always defend themselves by claiming that they protected Syria so that they can claim their sovereign territory back against Turkish military presence.

It is very likely that Erdogan is moving away from the option of war when so many important aspects are at stake like involving the US and using the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) card and the Europeans fear of another flood of Syrian refugees. Erdogan will be happy if he can expand the safety zone in Syria with the continued presence of the Turkish military and Russia will accept this if all the Jihadists group clear Idlib and leave.

Read more: UN asks Turkey to allow more Syrian Refugees in!

In this way, both sides can claim victories and deescalate the tension. But as of now, any Turkish military success is very unlikely because Russia completely controls the airspace and can cause serious damage to Turkish ground troops if they cross the line. It is in Russia’s best interest to finish this war where they have invested so much. It is only a matter of time when Assad’s government. Russia has always maintained the picture of fighting terrorism in Syria when actually they have always attacked anti-Assad’s rebels.

Russia’s interest in Syria goes back to the time of the Soviet Union when they used to supply arms and aid to Syria but after their collapse of 1990 reduced their influence as well. Ever since Putin became president he looked for Middle Eastern countries where he can expand the Russian military, when Libya overthrew Muammar Gaddafi Russia saw this as a collapse of its influence. Previously they had invested billions worth of arms that was pending in Libya but due to the collapse of Gaddafi’s government, Russia started looking for allies elsewhere.

The Syrian conflict has given chance to Russia to actually test their military equipment and doctrine. This also sends a strong message to global leaders of what Russia is capable of. Also, this helps them gain customers from other countries; those customers can be of future governments of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Despite strong opposition by the West, Russia’s decision to support Assad’s regime is driven by its national interests.

Read more: Russian strikes kill 15 civilians in Syria amid Erdogan-Putin talks

The aftermath of the conflict

Syria, therefore, remains a key source of concern for South West Asia’s regional stability given the multifarious threat spectrum that emanates from it. A major cause of this lingering instability in Syria is the power struggle among neighbors as well as regional and extra-regional countries who want to shape the new Syria.

The deadly civil war that has taken place in Syria resulted in humanitarian crises. Idlib is the most affected region as it has been under attack for years and is now the last place that opposition has. Idlib has been the victim of airstrikes, shelling and ground-based missiles. Almost 11 million people have escaped to neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and many still remain displaced at Syrian borders and more than a million Syrian children are born in exile.

Read more: Syrian humanitarian aid: it’s high time for long-term sustainable planning

The resources to accommodate these people are scarce, camps and settlements are getting overcrowded and many are forced to sleep outside of camps that too in freezing temperature. Living in refugee camps does not mean the end of tensions as they mostly live in poverty; unemployment is also an additional problem therefore fulfilling basic needs is a difficult objective.

The author is a research associate and sub-editor at GVS. She has previously worked with Express News Islamaabad. She can be reached at az.aeliya@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.