By Grigor Hakobyan
While meetings between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aiyev in Munich have caught the attention of international community and political observers another major conflict is quickly brewing in the Middle East where Russian and Turkish strategic interests have clashed in Syria with greater frequency and intensity. The inability of both countries to resolve their differences is threatening the region with major conflagration that may not leave Armenia and Azerbaijan unscathed. Furthermore, the Armenian communities in Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq may face renewed threats to their existence due to their extreme proximity to the epicenter of the Russian-Turkish conflict. To understand most likely scenarios that may unfold in case if Russia and Turkey do not find a way to resolve their differences one needs to look no further in history than the last five hundred years of Russian-Turkish wars which have made their mark in shaping the present day Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
The Russian-Turkish conflict isn’t new as it has spanned for over five centuries through more than a dozen of military clashes and wars of varying magnitude. At the crux of it is perhaps the Turkish desire to recreate the Ottoman Empire and the Russian desire to recreate the Russian Empire. Both sides for the past one hundred years have been stripped from their former imperial possessions but not their everlasting imperial ambitions. While Russia may perceive itself as the descendant of the former Byzantine Empire similarly Turkey perceives itself as the descendant of the former Mongol Golden Horde that at one time spanned across Eurasia striking fear in all of its former subjects who for more than a century couldn’t envision themselves free of the Mongol rule until Russians dared to do so. Fast forward a few centuries the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire appeared and took its place. The mutual drive to expand their empires inevitably led to multiple Russian-Turkish wars of such a ferocity that was not observed since the time of Mongol invasion.
Losing its battle against Western European nations at the Battle of Vienna (1683) and after getting pushed back by the Russian Empire in the north (leaving behind its former possession of present day Georgia and Armenia), the Ottoman Empire drew its boundaries across Mediterranean, Northern Africa and the Pontic Mountains while being constrained by Iran to its east. Soon the WW-1 and Communist Revolution in Russia (1917) put an end to both of their empires and gave rise to modern countries of Turkey and Russia. As the history would have it, for the past thirty years both countries embarked on their previous historical trajectories following in the path of their former empires which brought them again into a direct clash with each other over Syria and Libya. If history is any guide, unless peaceful resolution is found, the Russian-Turkish battlefield will expand by pulling into their confrontation much smaller countries such as Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan which happen to be caught in between the two regional rivals.
Several years ago, the United States deployed its troops in Syria to fight ISIS. Its local allies on the ground became the Kurdish militias (YPG and others) which aspired to create their own country in the north of Syria soon after the defeat of ISIS forces in the north. The Kurdish-American alliance in Syria have seriously angered Turkey which threatened to invade the region unless Americans stop supporting the Kurds and withdraw their militias from the border with Turkey. Alas, as history would have it, the ISIS was defeated but a new Kurdish state long awaited by the Kurds for many generations didn’t materialize. Unwilling to fight their NATO ally to defend their local ally on the ground-the Syrian Kurds, United States quickly declared victory over ISIS and began to reduce its footprint in the northern provinces except for the area in Syria’s north-east that is full of oil and gas reserves. In the face of impeding Turkish invasion the Kurdish militias had no other choice but to mend fences with the Syrian government of Bashar Assad and agree to the deployment of Russian-Irianian-Syrian troops along with their proxy militias in the region while withdrawing their own troops from the close proximity to the Turkish border.
American-Kurdish alliance in Syria have soared the relations between the two NATO allies, the U.S. and Turkey causing warming up of relations between Turkey and Russia. The Russian-Turkish “alliance” came to such point that Turkey began acquiring Russian military hardware (S-400 air-defense systems) at the cost of losing out on co-production and deliveries of F-35 aircrafts to Turkish military. It seems that the American military involvement in Syria and its close cooperation with local Kurdish militias have caused the two unlikely regional competitors, Russia and Turkey to become tenuous “allies” in Syria where Turkish role was to frustrate Americans from achieving their strategic goals (among them creation of a pro-American Kurdish state), sawing discord within NATO and blackmailing Europe with new influx of Syrian refugees while receiving various supports from Russia, including the construction of the TurkStream gas pipeline (in defiance of American sanctions) envisioned to transport Russian gas to Europe (thus challenging American LNG deliveries to its European consumers), construction of nuclear power plants in Turkey and a host of other economic incentives. It was probably a matter of time before Russian-Turkish “honeymoon” was going to run its course and reach its end as unexpectedly as it has started in the first place.
The unhappy ending of Russian-Turkish “alliance” and Sochi Agreement had many causes among them recent military advances by the Syrian government troops into the Idlib province and significant reduction of the American military presence in the northern provinces of Syria. Now that American troops are largely out of the way the Russian and Turkish militaries came directly head-to-head with each other in a dangerous “game of chicken” as each side began ratcheting up their threats against each other to the point where it is very hard to climb down without losing face at home and the confidence of their subsequent allies on the ground. Although both sides are now shooting at each other using every means possible they haven’t yet reached the point of no return. Even the downing of Russian Su-24 in 2015 followed by a brutal killing of its pilot and the subsequent assassination of Russian ambassador in Turkey in 2016 didn’t cross Russian “red lines” to invite a subsequent retaliation which leads one to wonder if there are any red lines for Russia and what could be considered as a “point of no return”. As such the uncertainty of it makes the present situation in Syria even more dangerous than before.
The present Russian-Turkish conflict in Syria has multiple ways of escalating further as well as multiple ways for de-escalating. At least two of them are most likely paths that will unfold in the coming days and weeks. The first option to consider here is de-escalation with potential escalations later on. The most immediate de-escalation that can occur is after the halt of the present government troops advance towards M4 highway without pullout of the troops from their present positions. It is obvious that the government of Bashar Assad and its Iranian allies will not agree to withdraw to the previous line of contact that was agreed upon during Sochi Summit months ago, consequently a new cease-fire agreement will be necessary that will allow the government troops to retain their present positions and the control over M5 highway while leaving the remaining area of Idlib and the M4 highway under the control of the opposition and the Turkish military. Furthermore, the Turkish military observation posts presently found behind “enemy lines” most likely will be allowed to withdraw to a new line of contact along the M4 highway, Idlib city and surrounding towns and villages. It is also possible that totally different scenario may happen instead. The options are many.
Considering much success that the government troops have accomplished in the last few weeks, it will be impossible to persuade Assad and its Iranian backers to halt their advance unless they get something in return, in this case either a peaceful withdrawal of the opposition forces from the remaining parts of the Hama province or “permission” to force them out from those areas. This cease-fire will not stop the war but will allow both sides to consolidate their positions and prepare for another round of escalation in the Idlib province later on. Considering that Turkey has de-facto annexed parts of Syria in the west, it is unlikely that the Syrian government will accept another annexation of its territories that constitutes the Idlib province. As such, even if any kind of agreement is reached for a temporary cease-fire in Idlib such an agreement will not have a strong basis to last for long as another push by the government forces into Idlib province would be expected at a later time. It is also hard to imagine that the Syrian government will concede to the loss of its territories in the west even after it manages to drive the opposition forces out of the area and takes full control of Idlib province. In most likelihood, the government troops will turn west soon after they drive the opposition forces out of Idlib thus causing yet another escalation in the region yet to come and another political fallout that will test Russian-Turkish agreements over Syria and require new accommodations for yet another cease-fire.
The second option to consider is the path of further escalation in terms of greater frequency and intensity of military clashes on the ground. The clashes will happen not only between Turkish and Russian led forces but also more direct confrontations between the two regional militaries and their many proxies. Under such scenario Turkey will have no other choice but to carry out full military invasion of the province by utilizing not only its numerous ground troops but also its air forces or decide to withdraw its troops and proxy militias to the western parts of Syria that are already under Turkish control. Pulling back to the west will allow Turkey to consolidate its forces and prepare for another round of confrontation with Assad’s forces and their allies. Under such a scenario Turkey will not be able to request NATO’s protection under Article 5 as the Turkey itself has not been attacked. The Turkish forces are suffering loses in Syria where Turkey doesn’t have any internationally approved mandate to be there in the first place. Furthermore, Turkish confrontation with the European powers over oil and gas reserves found in the Mediterranean Sea near Greece and Cyrus, undermining U.S. strategy in Syria and controversial deployment of Turkish troops in Libya didn’t win Turkey any friends in NATO. As such, it is very hard to imagine any of them running to aid Turkey in its confrontation with Russia, Iran and government-led forces in Syria.
Considering that Turkey is capable of deploying large number of troops and hardware in Syria in a very short period of time it is unlikely that Turkey will need much help from its NATO allies to achieve its objectives in Idlib anyways. If Turkey decides to engage in full military invasion of Idlib province it is most likely that it will be successful considering that Russia doesn’t have significant number of aircrafts and artillery systems deployed in Syria to stop such an invasion from happening. The only wild card could be Iran whose physical proximity to the epicenter of the conflagration allows it to deploy large number of troops and military hardware in support of the Syrian government forces over a very short period of time. On the other hand if Iran attempts to increase its military presence in Syria another trip wire will go off. Specifically, Israel would consider the deployment of a large number of Iranian troops and military hardware in Syria as a direct threat to its own national security which will prompt Israel to increase the frequency and intensity of its air raids on Syrian based Iranian forces many fold. Considering the time and distance that it will take for Russia to increase the number of Russian troops and military hardware in Syria it is most likely that in case of full Turkish invasion the Turkish military will have the upper hand while Russian troops and Russian led forces in Syria will be forced to switch from an offensive posture to a defensive one.
Perhaps the only way that Russia will be able to stop or slow down full Turkish invasion would be through the use of its naval forces and strategic air force that can muzzle Turkish advance with precise missile strikes while winning some time for the arrival of additional ground troops and military hardware from Russia to Syria. Such a situation on the ground will be advantageous for the U.S. and NATO as two of their major opponents: Russia and Turkey would clash with each other in Syria, far away from their borders, draining away their blood and treasury and becoming weaker in the long run. A clash of such magnitude may cause a stalemate on the battlefield or give a short-term victory to one of the conflicting sides. At the same time the cost of such victory could become the foundation of its long-term defeat. Considering the economic decline and rising inflation in Turkey and a similar situation in Russia the consequences of one’s victory or defeat in Syria may have a far-reaching repercussion for both countries in short-term and long-term, as such both sides may view the potential clash over Idlib as a zero-sum game. Consequently, when no red lines are known and no side is willing to de-escalate, the clash over Idlib may become a battle of egos at the cost of thousands of lives that will extinguish in the process.
Regardless who wins in the confrontation over Idlib, the Syrian war itself will most likely not end any time soon because the conflict itself cannot be resolved quickly through military means. If the military path is chosen, the war may go on for a very long time until all conflicting sides get tired of fighting each other and realize that a political solution is needed. Prolonged war in Syria may indirectly benefit U.S./NATO but to the detriment of people who were unfortunate enough to get stuck in the middle of this conflict. The inability of Russia, Turkey and their proxies to resolve their differences through peaceful means is threatening the region at large with a major conflagration that may not leave Armenia and Azerbaijan unscathed. Furthermore, the Armenian communities in Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq may face renewed threats to their existence due to their extreme proximity to the epicenter of the conflict. If Russia turns out unable to stop Turkish invasion of Idlib the Azerbaijan will perceive Russia as weakened regional power which may inspire Azerbaijan to attack Artsakh one more time.
On the other hand, if Turkish invasion of Idlib fails due to Russian resistance Turkey may decide to get even with Russia by instigating another round of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Artsakh. This time the conflict may not end in four days and may last much longer, possibly up to a year. Either way, as long as there is no peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan another round of fighting may resume as a direct consequence of ongoing conflict in Syria. After all, Syria is not a geographically isolated place far from Armenia, it is just one country over from its borders. As such, Armenia has no other choice but to keep its guard up and further beef up its defense capabilities in preparation for the resumption of war in Artsakh. Furthermore, Armenia will need to get over quickly with proposed constitutional changes and prolonged trials of criminal oligarchs and former presidents of Armenia to be able to focus on more pressing issues- security threats to its very own existence by Azerbaijan and Turkey.