The Syrian civil war was conducive to Russia establishing permanent military bases in Syria, thereby consolidating its power in the Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the very beginning of the Syrian war. Russia expanded its naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus and operates Khmeimim Air Base, located southeast of the city of Latakia. As a result, Putin’s Russia controls much of Syria’s airspace and has deployed more than 60,000 troops to Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s persistent hostility toward Assad paved the way for Putin’s entry into Syria, and the Russian president needs to keep Erdoğan close to ensure the security of the Russian presence in Syria.
Turkey has been backing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and jihadist groups in Syria since the civil war began in 2011. The United States had supported the FSA for the first two years of the war but later redirected its support to armed Kurdish group the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other jihadist groups. Major European governments have also cooperated with the Kurdish groups against ISIS. But for Turkey, the armed Kurdish groups are no less of a threat than ISIS since Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish groups as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought for an independent state within Turkey since 1984.
Russia, unlike Turkey, does not recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization. The United States, as well as the European Union, has listed the group as a terrorist organization. On the other hand, Russia does not staunchly back Kurdish groups in Syria as the Western countries do. For Russia, supporting Assad staying in power remains a priority. It is for this reason that Putin has been collaborating with Erdoğan to find a political solution in Syria. Turkey, Russia and Iran launched the Astana process in 2017 to find a solution for peace in Syria.
The Soviet Union maintained strong ties to Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria from 1971 to 2000. Ninety percent of Syria’s arms imported between 1974 and 1985 came from the USSR, and Syria benefitted tremendously from the Soviets’ financial assistance. Hafez al-Assad established his regime based on the Baath ideology, which has its roots in communism. Syria’s current leader Bashar al-Assad took over after his father, ruling the country since 2000. Syria remains Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East. Moreover, Syria’s geopolitically important location offers Russia the opportunity to maintain a foothold in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Russia’s strong leader Putin, who has been in power since 2000, has continued Russia’s close ties with Assad the son.
Russia is unhappy with the US, Turkey and any other nation’s military presence in Syria, and Moscow has been backing the Assad regime since the beginning of the Syrian civil war to ensure the safety of Russia’s interests in the country. Turkey’s direct military operations into Syrian territory forced Putin’s government to work with the Turkish government, and Putin and Erdoğan have met several times since Turkey’s first military incursion into Syria in August 2016. Putin stepped up support for Assad’s regime after ISIS began seizing control of territory in Syria in 2013. Following ISIS seizing control of Syria’s Rakka and Iraq’s Mosul in 2014, the United States increased its support for the Kurdish YPG, while Putin and Iran backed Assad’s regime to defeat ISIS. The Turkish-backed FSA had to simultaneously fight against the YPG, Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian Armed Forces and ISIS. Hence, Turkey launched a military operation named Euphrates Shield on Aug. 25, 2016 into Syria, and Turkish forces and the FSA recaptured territory in northwestern Syria as a result. Turkey’s military success disturbed Moscow since Russia maintains ties with the Kurdish groups in Syria’s Western Euphrates region. Russia and Turkey signed a ceasefire agreement on Dec. 20, 2016. Turkey’s military presence in Syria forced Iran and Russia to establish the Astana mechanism in 2017 to find a solution to the Syrian war.
The Erdoğan government continued its military operations in Syria, with the Turkish army conducting Operation Olive Branch in 2018 and Operation Peace Spring in 2019. Turkey’s military operations in Syria displease Russia. However, an advantage for Putin is that Turkey prevents the US-backed Kurdish armed groups’ movement to Syria’s Mediterranean coastline, where Russia’s military bases are located. Western countries supported Kurds against ISIS and remain critical of the Assad regime’s human rights violations against Kurds. Moscow, however, still prefers the Assad regime over the Kurds. Turkey’s main concern is the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region within Syria’s borders since it fears Kurdish autonomy in Syria, as in northern Iraq, will encourage Turkey’s Kurds to establish a similar kind of independent Kurdish region in Turkey. The Turkish government has repeatedly expressed frustration over the Western military and financial support for the YPG.
Erdoğan mentioned that Putin asked him during a meeting in Sochi in August to cooperate with Assad’s regime to resolve the Syrian conflict. According to some media reports, Erdoğan and Assad may hold a meeting on the sidelines of the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit that will be held Sept. 15-16 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Putin opposes Turkey’s new military operation in Syria to target Kurdish groups, and a possible rapprochement between Turkey and Syria will strengthen Putin’s power in Syria as a mediator.
Turkey’s geopolitical position is crucial for Russia as Turkey controls the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits, connecting the Aegean and the Black seas via the Sea of Marmara and regulated by the 1936 Montreux Convention. Russia also needs Turkish airspace to reach Syria. These straits are not just the only seaway for Russia to reach the Mediterranean. Montreux also prevents NATO maritime forces from posing a threat to Russia in the Black Sea. Hence, a close relationship with Erdoğan, the leader of NATO member Turkey, is key for Russia reaching the Mediterranean and countering the United States in Syria.