While Turkey has given quiet support to various forces opposed to Bashar al-Assad since the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, last week was the first time Turkish and Syrian troops fought each other directly—with exchanges of fire leaving soldiers on both sides dead. Jonathan Spyer considers whether the confrontation between the two will escalate, and how Russia will respond:
It is undoubtedly the case that the Syrian regime’s attack on Turkish personnel is a blow to Russian diplomacy. Since emerging as the key diplomatic arbiter in Syria following its entrance into the conflict in September 2015, Russia has sought to maintain cordial relations with a variety of warring sides: Israel and Iran, Turkey and the [Kurdish] PKK militia, Turkey and the Syrian government.
[But the recent clashes] need not mean the general collapse of Russian mediation and diplomacy. Israel has killed Iranian personnel [in Syria] on numerous occasions during its air raids over the last three years, [despite the presence of] Russian air defenses . . . on Syrian soil. [Likewise], the Syrian Kurds have been severely let down by Moscow on a number of occasions, as a result of the Russian strategic goal of inducing Turkey away from its alliance with the United States.
Yet these undoubted Russian betrayals did not result in a wholesale turning away from Moscow on the part of either the Iranians or the Syrian Kurds. On the contrary, both these forces need their relationship with Russia to provide at least a part of what they want. Without the presence of Russia, Israel’s actions against Iran in Syria would likely be far more intense. Russia, meanwhile, prevented a catastrophic [Turkish attack on Kurds] on a larger scale.
Russia, because of the U.S. decision to avoid major engagement in the Syrian war, has emerged both as the decisive military factor and consequently as the main diplomatic force in the country. Since everyone needs it to get anything done, and since there is no alternative patron available, Moscow remains the indispensable partner for all.
Read more on Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security: https://jiss.org.il/en/spyer-do-syria-turkey-clashes-presage-a-wider-confrontation/