Given the divergence between Russian and Turkish interests in Syria, the odds of increasing tensions between Turkey and Russia leading to a military confrontation are becoming higher.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting with Turkish ambassadors in Ankara on Jan. 12. Photo: AP

The relations between Russia and Turkey appear to be worsening, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently called Russia’s campaign in Syria an occupation, addressing this to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Such an accusation came after Turkey’s Foreign Ministry stated that a Russian SU-34 jet violated Turkey's airspace on Jan. 29 despite several warnings.

 Also read: "Downing of Russian jet: Another test for Russia-Turkey relations"

This was the second airspace incident since the crisis in bilateral relations started on Nov. 24, when Turkey shot down a Russian plane that violated its airspace near Syria. Erdoğan made a statement that Russia would face “the consequences” if its jets continue to repeat violations. In response, the Russian Defense Ministry released a statement, claiming that Turkey is preparing a military operation in Syria.

All this highlights the differences between Turkish and Russian foreign policy objectives, which diverge over a range of international issues from the Balkans to the Black Sea and from the Middle East to the Caspian. Until recently, the two have managed to hide their differences over political issues. They tried to focus on economic cooperation instead.

However, the clash over Syria between the two powers has recently reached a dangerous phase because Syria is a top priority for Turkey, just as Ukraine is of central interest to Russia. That’s why reaction from Ankara to the annexation of Crimea and especially active Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war have made the one party anxious about the intentions of the other.

Under these conditions, a possibility of direct military confrontation between the two has increased, especially after the start of the latest Russian airstrikes against the opposition forces near Aleppo. While the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is now getting more powerful thanks to the Russian support, Turkish-backed opposition groups in northwest Syria have serious difficulties. Turkey is now facing the exacerbation of the refugee crisis that could potentially further destabilize Europe as well. 

In a wider context, the latest tension should be seen as an issue not only between Turkey and Russia but also involving the dynamic geopolitical triangle of the West, Moscow and Ankara. Facing domestic economic problems stemming from declining oil prices and sanctions, Moscow has also tremendous external problems with the West due to its annexation of Crimea and ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine’s Donbas.

However, one should understand the fact that the Kremlin’s foreign policy goes against Western interests in Europe and it is not sustainable. The problem is that Moscow has been searching for the way of how to deal with the deadlock since the aggravation of the economic crisis within the country and increasing turbulence in the Middle East.

The Syrian civil war was a remedy here and Russia did not hesitate to boost its military activity in Syria. There were two main reasons behind this move. First, the Kremlin seeks to prevent the regime of its ally Assad from falling amidst the recent success by the opposition. 

Secondly, Moscow is trying to reach a rapprochement with the West by diverting attention away from Ukraine, where the interests are conflicting, to the Middle East, where the interests could be shared due to the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). Ankara interpreted open Russian involvement in Syria as a deliberate intervention against its own interests since it wanted to have bigger influence over its southern neighbor.

The schism in NATO?

What makes the issue more complicated is the fact that over Syria there is a lack of common interests among NATO allies, especially, between the U.S. and Turkey.

In an attempt to fight ISIS, Washington is supporting the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a branch of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara considers to be a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, Turkey is obsessed with regime change in Damascus. For Washington, the fall of the Assad regime is neither a priority nor a necessity. Rather, future dissolution of Syria seems inevitable, and emergence of a unified and autonomous Kurdish region in the north (along the Turkish border) is preferable.

This is a nightmare for Turkey, which takes into consideration its more than 30 years of struggles against the Kurdish insurgency. That is why two formal NATO allies have followed different policies regarding the future of Syria but they finally found a mutual understanding on July 22, 2015.

Accordingly, Turkey opened its Incirlik base for the use of U.S. airplanes and actively joined the fight against ISIS. In return, Ankara started to target the PKK and, most importantly, the two reached an agreement for not allowing the PYD to cross west of the Euphrates River and not allowing the third Kurdish canton in Afrin to merge with the others.

 Also read: "The Kurds could bring Russia and the US together in Syria"

In order not to alienate its formal NATO ally, Washington should at least criticize more rigorously the active Russian military involvement against opposition groups in Syria, which could potentially comprise the Kurds as well.

Even though the U.S. publicly condemned Moscow for interfering in the Middle East and causing casualties among the opposition, Washington might be privately relieved that the Turkey-backed opposition could not topple Assad and undermine the territorial gains of the PYD after Russian involvement. The problem is that the U.S. government sees the PYD as an ally and makes no bones about it. Moreover, it supports the project of the Kurdish corridor in in the north of Syria, which would lead all the way to the Mediterranean.

This corridor will open the access to the sea and allow the Kurdish state to keep afloat by transmitting the region’s energy sources to international markets and bypassing Turkey.

With the start of its Syrian campaign, Moscow jumped at this opportunity to cooperate with the West on the restructuring of Syria. But Ankara believes that the Kremlin only spoiled everything and even started a provocation against Turkey by violating its airspace several times since the beginning of its campaign in Syria.

Moscow seems to have underestimated the Turkish interest: It did not expect a harsh reaction from Ankara. The result was shooting down of the SU-24 near the Turkey-Syria border. Naturally, after the incident Turkish-Russian relations collapsed and Moscow has found a legitimate excuse to support the Syrian Kurds. At the end of the day, the American project of Kurdistan is emerging with the help of Russia in Syria after Iraq.

Implications of Russia-Turkey confrontation

The situation is even getting worse after the latest air strikes by Russia in Aleppo region that reinforced the Assad regime and the PYD forces. These strikes cut the logistics lines between opposition groups in Aleppo and Turkey. This means a geopolitical defeat for Turkey in Syria.

If the operations prolongs (which seems to be the case) Turkey will totally lose control in its immediate neighborhood and there will only be three actors in Syria left: the Assad regime, the PYD and ISIS. All of them are antagonistic to Turkey.

Since Turkey cannot put up with the deteriorating situation due to the Russian airstrikes, Ankara claims that a new airspace violation occurred and it will not hesitate to defend its vital interests in Syria.

In fact, only the direct intervention by Turkey could change the balance of power in Syria. Nevertheless, under such a scenario, Turkey and Russia will have to confront each other militarily, which could easily turn into a state of war. Although a direct Turkish intervention into Syria is unlikely, the type of reaction from Ankara is hard to foresee.

For now, it is only possible to predict that the tensions between Turkey and Russia will continue to escalate, but the consequences are unclear. However, what is clear is that a new Turkish-Russian hostility will not only be limited to Syria but also could easily spread to the Black Sea and the Caucasus.

Last but not least, it is important to observe that the future of bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia over Syria also depends on other external dynamics such as nature of U.S.-Russia negotiations over Ukraine as well as Turkey’s uneasy relations with the U.S. and the EU refugee crisis. The fates of the Putin regime in Russia and the Erdoğan regime in Turkey are also a very important factor.

 Also read: "The Kremlin's Syria gamble is risky, but could have a big payoff"

Nevertheless, it is obvious that Turkish-Russian relations, which were transformed from competition in the 1990s into cooperation in the 2000s, are now determined by the shift from cooperation to confrontation. It is again clear that Ankara and Moscow have profound vulnerabilities and a direct military confrontation could have grave implications and consequences for both.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.