Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers are being withdrawn from Syria to be sent to join the fight in Ukraine, leaving a void in Syria to be vied for by Iran and Turkey. The Russian bases that have been left behind are believed to have been given to Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah. Tehran is expected to deploy more troops into Syria to fill the vacuum left by Russian forces. The Syrian government is, not surprisingly, favorable to Iranian assistance. In early April, Luna Chebel, a leading advisor to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, stated that help from Iranian forces is welcome. Iran and Syria are allies, both of their governments being more religiously aligned (Iran is Shiite and Assad is of the Alawite sect, which is an esoteric branch of Shiaism). Supposedly Iran is forming a new militia, paralleled to its elite forces, in order to fill the gap left by Russian forces. This new force is, reportedly, stockpiling on drones, ballistic missiles and even chemical weapons. Syria is relying on Iran since the latter backs the Assad regime; but Syria is very worried about Turkey, since the Turks back the rebellion that wants to topple the establishment government. Turkey wants to replace Assad’s regime with a proxy state, while Russia needs the Assad regime to remain so that Moscow can keep its foothold in the country. Russia’s grip over Syria gives it direct access right into the Mediterranean through its ally Assad, and with Turkey blocking the Straits from the Russian navy, Moscow’s pathway into the major maritime territory has been greatly limited.
Since Syria gives Russia an entry into the Mediterranean, Russia does not want to just give up the Near Eastern country. “Russia has invested a lot in Syria over the years,” says Mehmet Emin Cengiz, research fellow at Al-Sharq Strategic Research, “and there has been a long-standing rivalry between Russia and Iran for influence in Syria. Even if Russia relocates some of its soldiers or withdraws them from Syria, it will not leave the field entirely to Iran”. Iran is then simply going to act as the proxy for the Russians in Syria, filling up any gaps left by Moscow. “After the Ukraine crisis, contacts between Syrian and Iranian officials increased. Recently, Bashar Assad paid a visit to Tehran. He might receive economic assistance from Tehran in the face of a deep economic crisis in Syria,” Cengiz said. Turkey also closed its airspace to Russian planes, but, in the words of Nikola Mikovic, “such a move is unlikely to jeopardise relations between Moscow and Ankara.” Russia, on the other hand, has acted mild about this whole thing, with Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stating: “Moscow understands Ankara’s decision to close Turkish airspace to Russian planes flying to Syria”.
Russia, supposedly, sees Turkey’s decision as simply the result of American pressure. Russian planes now have no choice but to fly through Iranian and Iraqi airspace. But since Iraq is under the watchful eye of America, Baghdad may get pressured to block its airspace to Russian planes. If such were to happen, then Russian troops in Syria would be severely isolated. Konstantin Sivkov, a Russian military expert, stated that “The closure of Turkish airspace for Russian planes, both military and civilian, flying to Syria is an unfriendly step by Turkey. It is even a hostile step by Turkey. With this step, Turkey is trying to encircle the Russian military bases in Khmeimim and Latakia as much as possible … Of course, in these circumstances there are opportunities for Russia to open a corridor with Iran and Iraq and provide the technical equipment of our cargoes in that region. But this corridor makes our way longer and harder”. Regardless of Turkey’s use of the Montreux Convention to block Russian naval ships from having access through the Straits of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus, Russia has found loopholes. The Montreux Convention only blocks military ships, but not civilian ones. So Russia has been utilizing civilian cargo ships to transport military necessities to Syria. According to Yoruk Isik:
“Russia can no longer supply its Syria operation or deliver defense exports to its customers using navy ships. However, close observation of traffic through the Turkish Straits reveals that Russia is continuing its naval operations in the Mediterranean and Black seas.”
Isik details how Russian cargo ships “regularly carry military cargo from Novorossiysk to Syria and from Baltic ports like Ust-Luga and Kaliningrad to Novorossiysk… Russian-flag tankers regularly carry jet fuel to Hemeimeem Air Base in Syria. Several smaller tankers, especially Russian-flag Sig and Yaz, have been documented transporting aviation jet fuel to Baniyas, Syria for years.”
Turkey is trying to maintain a very thin line between diplomacy and animosity with Russia. On one hand, Turkey’s economy is greatly diminished and is reliant on Russian tourism, oil and gas. On the other hand, Turkey is an historic enemy of Russia and has been, for years, in a struggle with Russia over Syria and Iraq. It should be remembered that in early 2020 the Russian and Syrian air forces slaughtered dozens of Turkish soldiers. There is violent enmity between these countries, but at the same time there is a necessary diplomacy that must be maintained, for now. According to Ishaan Tharoor, Turkey “has kept its doors open to Russian travelers and is hoping to encourage sanctioned Russian oligarchs to plow their wealth into Turkey’s tanking economy. … At the same time, Turkey has a long-standing historic rivalry with Russia over the Black Sea and sanctioned the sale to Ukraine of a fleet of lightweight Bayraktar TB2 drones, which have featured in prominent Ukrainian strikes on Russian targets and stoked Russian ire.” As Turkey has supported Ukraine with bayraktar drones which have slaughtered many Russian soldiers, Turkey also has kept economic ties with Russia, refusing to join NATO’s imposition of sanctions on Russia. Soner Cagaptay and Rich Outzen recently stated:
“Erdogan’s strategy in Ukraine … is to provide quiet military support to Kyiv even as he seeks to sustain diplomatic channels to Putin and economic profits from Russia … [it] is unlikely that the Russian leader will pick a fight with Turkey right now, especially if Erdogan provides him and his oligarchs with an economic lifeline.”
Diplomacy is being kept, for now. But, considering that Turkey and Russia have been vying over Syria, a Russian withdrawal from Russia serves as an opportunity for Turkey to sink deeper into the country. Turkey’s motives have been pointed out by the Syrian government recently after Turkey’s statement about establishment of a “safe zone” in northern Syria. The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that “the cheap statements of the head of the Turkish regime about the establishment of a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria reveal the aggressive games that this regime is plotting against Syria and the unity of its land and people.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that “the establishment of such a zone does not aim at all to protect the border areas between Syria and Turkey,” explaining that “the main objective is colonialism,” adding that it aims to create a “fiery hotbed that basically helps to implement terrorist plans directed against the Syrian people.” The Foreign Ministry even described Turkey’s aspirations as demonic: “the countries in the region and abroad, which have invested themselves in financing and propaganda for these criminal projects, to immediately stop supporting the Turkish regime to realize its demonic delusions.”
Turkey’s interests are to dominate the Middle East as part of the vision of reviving the Ottoman Empire. There is no way that such interests do not conflict with Russia’s interests. Eventually the two countries will clash.