A cost-benefit analysis of Idlib for Turkey and Russia
Asymmetry is the best term to describe the state of Turkish-Russian relations.
Let’s start with the trade imbalance. For every 15 cents Turkey exports to Russia, $1 is imported. This gap is due to Turkey’s energy dependence on Russia, which stands at 37.8 percent in terms of natural gas, coal and oil combined. Some call it “asymmetrical interdependence.” Turkey is an important client for Russia, but Turkey would stand to lose more than Russia if the flow of energy resources were to be disrupted. The asymmetry in energy is set to grow since Russia will build the country’s first nuclear power plant.
Whatever Turkey sells to Russia, like fruits and vegetables, it is not the main supplier. Russia can easily replace Turkey’s tomatoes. The composition of investments is also highly asymmetrical.
Turkish construction companies are active in Russia, but they can easily be replaced by their Chinese competitors.
Russia, however, has invested in strategic sectors like banking and energy, as well as the media with at least two media outlets in Turkish.
How about the nearly 5 million tourists coming from Turkey? No doubt, the tourism sector would not want to recall the nightmare they endured after Turkey downed a Russian jet in 2015, after which there was an immediate halt in the “flow” of Russian tourists.
When it comes to political issues, from Crimea to Cyprus, Turkey and Russia have not been on the same page on many regional and international issues, but as many academics have pointed out at series of panels organized last week by the Economic Development Foundation and Sabancı University’s Istanbul Policy Center the two countries succeeded to compartmentalize their relations and managed the crisis along the way. But, as one academic said, “compartmentalization works until it does not work.”
And the crisis in Idlib is set to show that we have come to the limits of the so-called Turkish-Russian strategic relationship.
What perhaps Turkey’s ruling elites and pundits might have missed is the asymmetry in terms of what Syria and Idlib mean for Russia and Turkey.
Russia wants to restore old clients
According to Can Kasapoğlu, Russia wants to restore its Cold War clients. This view was confirmed by Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine.
Lukyanov said the West’s intervention in Libya became a turning point for Russia and shaped its approach on how local conflict should be settled in the 21st century. “According to Russia, Western choice of regime change to settle problems is wrong. The only way is to support existing regimes — even bad regimes,” said Lukyanov.
Let’s recall that at a time when Russia was consolidating its view on opposing regime changes in the Middle East, the mastermind behind Turkey’s new outlook to the region, the then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was talking about Turkey becoming the leader, the supporter of regime changes.
So, the two countries approach was diametrically opposed from the beginning.
“Russia’s aim is to recover as much of Syria before the war as possible,” said Lukyanov, adding that the idea of having spheres of influence in Syria won’t fly in Russia.”
While Turkey says it is in favor of Syria’s territorial integrity, it gives contradictory messages. On the one hand, it objects to an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northeast Syria but looks as if it wants an autonomous enclave around Idlib in the northwest.
Lukyanov said Russian president Vladimir Putin was sensitive to Turkey’s security concerns. Indeed, Turkey’s military operation to northeast Syria was possible thanks to Russia’s blessing. Turkey wanted to push back from the border YPG forces, which it sees as the Syrian wing of the illegal PKK. Russia’s consent was less about supporting Turkey’s fight against a terror organization but more about gaining an upper hand on its fight against terror groups in Idlib.
Turkey can justify relatively easier its presence in northeast Syria both to domestic and international audience, as the PKK is accepted as a terror organization by many Western capitals and there is a general conviction among the Turkish public that the PKK poses an existential threat.
It will have more difficulty to justify its military presence around Idlib. Explaining it as “positioning Turkey correctly in the changing power balances” will be seen as an open defiance against Russia’s presence in Syria. Russia has become Turkey’s southern neighbor, and this is irreversible in the short to mid-term.
Having said all this, while the cost-benefit analysis might appear in favor of Russia, there is no doubt that as one of the best tacticians, Russian President Vladimir Putin will definitely find a way that Turkey will present as a compromise to its own public.
Why would he antagonize its best NATO member friend and push it deeper into the arms of the West, when the asymmetrical dependence always works to his advantage.