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Russia's balancing act: Why Putin will always support Assad over Erdogan

For Putin, history plays an important role, and he sees Syria's enemies as Russia's enemies
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Damascus on 7 January (SANA/AFP)

Turkey has now lost around a dozen soldiers in multiple incidents over the past week, in direct hits by the Syrian military. Meanwhile, pro-Turkish forces shot down a Syrian army helicopter in Idlib, a sign that Turkey is prepared to escalate its support for rebel groups in its confrontation with Damascus.

The serious clashes between Ankara and Damascus have put significant pressure on Russia to either ease tensions or choose a side. 

As the Turkish and Syrian governments refuse to back down, the onus is on Russia to mediate. But so far, it seems Russian President Vladimir Putin is firmly in the corner of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - and despite growing strategic ties between Moscow and Ankara, Putin will not abandon the interests of Damascus. 

While this is a tough balancing act, Russia feels it can extract more out of Turkey, given Ankara’s near-complete isolation in the Mediterranean and from the EU over its position on Libya and energy geopolitics. 

Imperial rivalry

Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan both see themselves as a product of their imperial pasts, aiming to impose the former glory of their empires in regional and international affairs. The past relationship between the Ottomans and the Tsarists is littered with confrontation and a direct ideological battle to control the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East. 

During the first world war, Russian and Ottoman armies were clashing on various fronts, including a direct battle for the safety of the Orthodox community in Anatolia and present-day Syria. The majority of the Armenian population was driven out to what is now Syria. The Orthodox and Armenian factor plays a big role, alongside security dimensions, in Russia’s motivation to support Damascus. 

It is very clear that Russia sees the latest escalation from the Syrian government prism; nothing has changed

Earlier this year, on Orthodox Christmas, Putin made a poignant visit to the old Marian cathedral in Damascus that dates back to the beginning of Christianity. Russia has for long also seen it self as a Third Rome, in direct opposition to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, and since then the defender of Eastern Christianity. 

Similarly, the Turkish security apparatus, well before Erdogan, has long supported groups in the Caucasus opposed to Russian hegemony - another legacy of the clash between the Ottoman and Tsarist empires. In the current conflict, Putin has deftly used Chechen fighters to support the Russian and Syrian cause against Turkish interests.

Collapse in Turkish policy

Turkey’s much-vaunted Arab policy has collapsed over the last few years, mostly because of its obtuse control over Syrian policy. Major Arab countries - such as Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia - have come over to the side of Damascus, condemning Turkey’s actions in Syria. 

Recently, Turkey’s actions in Libya have isolated it further among major Arab states. Turkey’s tensions with the EU are also at an all-time high, given the latest energy competition in the Mediterranean - and even a Turkish ally, the Turkish Cypriot leader, has voiced concerns over Turkey’s policies in the region. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Ankara on 12 February (AFP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Ankara on 12 February (AFP)

All of this has played into Turkish dependence on Russia, and Putin’s all-out support for Turkey after the failed coup of 2016 meant that at his most vulnerable time, Erdogan threw in his lot with Russia. The subsequent defence deals, energy pipelines and significant agriculture and tourism dependence on Moscow has made Turkey more in need of Russia than the other way around. 

After the recent Syrian attacks on Turkish positions, Russia asserted that Turkey was not doing enough to root out terrorists from Idlib. This is very much the narrative that Damascus itself perpetuates, so it is very clear that Russia sees the latest escalation from the Syrian government prism; nothing has changed. 

Military advantage

Whether it be the Astana or Sochi process and the temporary success of various de-escalation zones, where an agreement on the cessation of hostilities was reached between rebel groups and government forces in four mainly opposition-held areas of the country over the last two years, developments on the ground point to Russia giving a military advantage to President Bashar al-Assad.

In the latest Idlib clashes, the US has already stepped in to support Turkey, a move more aimed at driving a wedge between Moscow and Ankara than supporting Erdogan’s policy. 

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A clash between Syrian and US troops also saw the Russians step in to mediate, quelling a potentially dangerous new escalation.

There is considerable anger in Turkey over Russia’s clear support for Damascus. Still, Russian and Turkish officials will continue to work towards a solution in Syria, and growing defence and economic ties mean Turkey will also continue to rely on Russia amid its isolation on Mediterranean and Arab affairs. 

Meanwhile, for Putin, in a direct choice between supporting Turkish influence in Syria and opposing it, he will choose to support the Syrian government. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Kamal Alam
Kamal Alam specialises in contemporary military history of the Middle East. He was a Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute from 2015 to 2019. Currently, he is a Fellow at The Institute for Statecraft and lectures at several military staff colleges across the Middle East.