Russian-Turkish ‘co-opetition’ from Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh
Yeghia Tashjian, The Cradle, March 17 2023 —
At a time when conflicts are increasingly interconnected, and provide tactical levers to assert pressure elsewhere, the competition between Russia-Iran and Turkiye in Syria and the South Caucasus is destined to overlap.
Despite their robust diplomatic relations, Turkiye has been in direct competition with Russia and Iran in two major Asian conflict zones, Syria and Nagarno-Karabakh, tying together the fates of the Levant and the South Caucasus in any future resolution.
While Ankara seeks to establish its authority over northern Syria and advance Turkic hegemony in key Caucasian states like Azerbaijan for geopolitical advantage, Moscow and Tehran’s goals in these two theaters are to reduce US influence and promote long-term economic interdependence between regional and local states that will stabilize and enrich the region.
Despite these differences, there has been a flurry of meetings between senior Syrian and Turkish officials, with Russia hosting direct dialogues between their respective defense ministers and intelligence agency chiefs.
The desire to garner pre-election voter favor by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the devastating earthquakes that struck the Turkish-Syrian border towns, have played a role in facilitating the recent rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus.
However, it is unlikely that there will be full diplomatic normalization anytime soon due to the status of Idlib, the militant stronghold in northern Syria currently controlled by Turkiye and its proxies. Russia currently appears to favor maintaining the status quo in Idlib until rapprochement talks advance further.
Leveraging conflicts against each other
The resolution of the Syrian crisis depends on the outcome of regional developments, international disputes, and ongoing diplomatic struggles between Ankara and Moscow as they seek to consolidate or expand their influence in different regions, including in Syria and the South Caucasus.
The two conflicts, particularly the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, share some similarities. Both regions are characterized by significant ethnic and religious diversity, are heavily influenced by regional powers Russia, Iran, and Turkiye, and are in the strategic sights of global superpowers such as China and the US. As a result, the two conflicts have become internationalized, and local actors are unable to reach a resolution without external guarantees.
The South Caucasus is composed of three states – Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan – each with a different foreign policy orientation. Georgia is committed to partnering with Euro-Atlantic and European institutions, while Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military alliance.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan and Turkiye are military allies that share similar worldviews, to the extent that Ankara’s decision to support one of the conflicting parties in Ukraine may prompt Baku to adopt a similar stance. Such is today’s increasing connection between local and international conflict – largely because major powers have inserted themselves into these regional disputes.
In addition, instability in the South Caucasus – a strategic geography for future trade routes that will empower Asia’s new hegemons – could create challenges that will impact trade and economic relations between regional states and their neighbors.
Recent developments indicate that Moscow believes its current troop deployment in Nagorno-Karabakh is sufficient to secure Russia’s long-term interests in Baku. However, this position is constantly challenged by Turkiye-backed Azerbaijan, especially following the signing of the Shushi Declaration on June 2021.
Azerbaijan: A major non-Nato ally
The declaration aimed to strengthen military, security, and diplomatic ties between the two Turkic countries and has led to Ankara’s regional ascension at Moscow’s expense. The Shushi Declaration has solidified Azerbaijan’s military and security relations with key NATO member Turkiye, with Baku reforming its army and increasing its special forces units using NATO standards.
According to Ahmad Alili from the Baku-based Caucasus Policy Analysis Center, Azerbaijan has transformed into a “major non-NATO ally” for Turkiye, similar to the role of Israel, Egypt, and Japan for the US:
“With Georgia having publicly declared NATO and EU aspirations, and Azerbaijan having closer military and diplomatic links with NATO member Turkiye, the region loses its ‘Russian backyard’ status and becomes a ‘Russian-Turkish’ playground.”
This development has prompted Moscow to increase its soft pressure over Baku and sign an “allied declaration” in February 2022 to solidify its political presence in the region. In the process, however, Armenia has found itself encircled by Turkiye and Azerbaijan without any land connection to Russia and thus, pushed into a corner.
Russian and Turkish ‘frenmity’
Though Ankara and Moscow have an understanding of each other’s red lines in Syria, Turkiye’s aspiration to play a greater role in the South Caucasus has put its relationship with Russia to the test.
The 2020 outbreak of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war provided Turkiye with a unique opportunity to expand its influence in its immediate neighborhood – which has remained, since 1828, in Moscow’s sphere of national interest. To challenge Russia, Turkiye provided full active military and diplomatic support to Azerbaijan in its war against Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
During the war, both Moscow and Ankara played tit-for-tat against each other. Observers noticed that while Russia was rather defensive in its own South Caucasus “backyard,” it was prepared to go on the offensive in Syria by bombing Turkish and Turkiye-backed rebel positions in Idlib.
By exerting pressure on Ankara in the Syrian theater, Moscow was attempting to balance its vulnerabilities and put Turkiye on notice over their other competitions. It didn’t seem to work. Turkiye made an offensive play in Russia’s own backyard, inaugurating, in November 2020, the connection of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) to the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), which enables Caspian Sea gas to reach southern Europe through Turkiye, bypassing Russia.
This project is crucial for Ankara as it transforms Turkiye from an importer to a transit route for gas. The geopolitical nature of this project aims to decrease Europe’s gas dependency on Moscow.
Not seeing eye-to-eye
On the diplomatic front, Turkiye has attempted to launch an “Astana style” deconfliction process for Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Moscow has not been keen to engage on a purely bilateral track with Ankara in its post-Soviet regions, as this runs the risk of legitimizing Turkiye’s intervention and presence in Russia’s backyard.
For this reason, Maxim Suchkov, a Moscow-based expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), explains that Russia chose not to directly intervene in the war, taking a “watch and see approach,” which distressed its Armenian ally to no end.
Suchkov noted that if Azerbaijan had managed to occupy Stepanakert, the Nagorno-Karabakh capital, Turkiye’s gambit would have paid off, and its influence in the region would only accelerate. But this would have led to the ethnic cleansing of Armenians and to Yerevan blaming Moscow for its inaction – and by losing its only regional military ally, Russia would have potentially lost the whole region. Instead, Russia tried to satisfy Baku while not completely alienating Yerevan, which was crushed during Baku’s autumn 2020 blitzkrieg.
Consequently, the 10 November, 2020 trilateral statement brokered by Russia that ended the Nagorno-Karabakh war did not favor Turkiye’s aspirations. Despite pushing for a complete Azerbaijani victory – or at least the deployment of Turkish peacekeepers alongside Russian forces – Ankara’s requests were denied.
Regardless, Turkiye has managed to become an active player in shaping the new geopolitical landscape of the region. While Russia has expressed dissatisfaction with Turkish intervention in its traditional sphere of influence and has established some “red lines,” it has also been forced to recognize Turkiye as a junior player in the region, though parity in the post-conflict regional order still remains in Moscow’s favor.
Post-2020 regional order
However, the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine has had a significant impact on the balance of power in the South Caucasus. As hostilities between the west and Russia continue to spike, the region has become a new confrontation zone, with Azerbaijan and Armenia both seeking to secure their vital interests under cover of the Great Power competition.
While Yerevan’s immediate interest is to protect the safety of the local Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan seeks to resolve the Karabakh issue through brute force, which, if successful, could greatly reduce Moscow’s regional clout, particularly as its peacekeeper mandate is set to expire in 2025.
Despite the 2020 trilateral statement, it appears that a long-lasting peace is still far off. A prime example of the many differences that remain unresolved between Yerevan and Baku is their contrasting interpretation of the statement’s ninth article.
Azerbaijan insists that Armenia must provide a “corridor” through Syunik (southern Armenia) to connect the Azerbaijani mainland to the Nakhichevan exclave, which Baku calls the “Zangezur corridor.”
Armenia rejects this claim, arguing that the article only references the restoration of communication channels (such as highways and railways), with both sides able to access and utilize the routes. But Baku has raised the stakes by threatening to block the Lachin corridor if Armenia does not provide access to the Syunik corridor. Yerevan, in turn, maintains that the status of the Lachin corridor should not be linked to the opening of these communication channels.
Iran’s red line
This has prompted neighboring Iran to make a “comeback” to the South Caucasus, by warning that any territorial changes to the Armenian-Iranian border would constitute a red line for Tehran. Iran believes that such changes could threaten its own geopolitical interests, which include its stake in the strategic Moscow-Tehran-New Delhi-backed International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC).
With Azerbaijan’s brutal blockade of the Lachin corridor – the only land route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia – Russian troops remain the sole guarantors of the security of Karabakh Armenians. But contrary to what many analysts have predicted, the defeat of Armenia in the 2020 war has not diminished Russian influence in Armenia.
In fact, Russia has gained even more influence there, despite Yerevan’s growing frustration with Moscow’s inability to deter Azerbaijani attacks on sovereign Armenian territory. Baku officials have exacerbated matters by stating that they are not in favor of renewing the Russian peacekeeping mandate in 2025, and will instead push for the “reintegration” of the region into Azerbaijan.
If Baku succeeds in its objective and engages in demographic engineering in the region – forcing Armenians to leave Nagorno-Karabakh – there will no longer be a justification for Russian presence in the region, and Moscow will lose its leverage over the entire South Caucasus.
A Nagorno-Karabakh scenario in Syria?
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has highlighted Moscow’s success in preserving its influence in the region, despite Turkiye’s attempt to shrink Russian clout. However, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, and its uncertain outcome, is also playing out in the South Caucasus.
As the world shifts from a US-led unipolar order to multipolarity, Azerbaijan and Armenia, like many other nations in conflict, are having to make strategic decisions on whether they align their interests with Russia or the west. Neutrality – when the major power stakes are this high – is unlikely to serve the vital interests of either country.
As such, mounting pressure on Erdogan to consolidate his power in Turkiye’s upcoming elections may force him to make concessions to one axis over the other. Such a move could have a significant impact on Baku and may lead to these “brotherly” nations ending up in opposing global camps.
Furthermore, the possibility of the US withdrawing its troops from northeastern Syria, coupled with the unclear political future of Syrian Kurds, their parallel economy, and autonomous governing structures, creates a risk of a sub-regional power vacuum.
This could push Turkiye and Russia towards managing or enhancing their cooperative rivalry, though it remains to be seen whether Russia can strike a game-changing deal between the Kurds and Damascus – which could gain Moscow leverage with Ankara in the South Caucasus.
The Ukraine war could present an obstacle to Russian diplomatic initiatives. Russia’s reluctance to counter Azerbaijan’s incursions and ceasefire violations after getting mired in the Ukraine war suggests that Moscow may not be up to the task of brokering a Nagorno-Karabakh-style peacekeeping scenario for Syria’s Kurds.
Hence, the Syrian crisis may remain frozen until relations between Ankara and Damascus are normalized – or Turkiye threatens further military attacks. The outcome of the Turkish elections on 14 May 2023 will undoubtedly play a significant role in this regard, both in Syria and the South Caucasus.