Syria and the Turkish Stream

Written 25 September 2015

Russia has built up its presence in Syria not only to support an ailing ally, Bashar al-Assad. While many commentators have pointed out that Vladimir Putin is seeking to gain leverage against the United States in the Middle East, this may not be his main concern either. If we look at the greater geostrategic picture, we see two major issues which precipitated Russia’s direct involvement: Turkey intervened in the country to fight ISIL; the Turkish Stream was forestalled.

Turkey’s intervention in Syria was done to bomb ISIL targets, although Erdogan and his government still urge their allies that the main problem in Syria is Assad. In the meantime, Turkish military forces have also been attacking Kurdish forces within the country. Turkey is thus faced with a triple threat: ISIL, Assad, and the Kurds. Although Turkey has in the past been accused of implicitly supporting ISIL because they fought against the Kurds and against Assad, the country’s recent involvement has changed perceptions. However, Turkey’s goal of defeating Assad and weakening the Kurds remains. Putin likely saw through this.

In the meantime, the Turkish Stream was still a matter of dispute, with the Turks objecting over pricing issues and the Russians wishing to get the project through. Indeed, the energy minister of Turkey proclaimed that a deal was approaching, while his deputies said that it had been further forestalled. In a previous post, I talked about how important the Turkish Stream is to Russia and how I foresaw that there would be a tussle over this issue and I believe that this is part of Russia’s recent involvement in Syria.

Turkey is no doubt very concerned about Russian actions in Syria as it would pose a serious threat to its desire to see Assad gone and its image as the promoter of Arab Islamic democracy would be damaged. Putin understands this, and considering how important the Turkish Stream is to him, making a move towards Syria would seem like a logical step to pressuring Turkey towards an agreement on the pipeline. Indeed, Erdogan and the Kremlin agreed that the project would continue, whereas the issue was not even being discussed in August.

In the Balkans, issues still persist for Russia: the Bulgarians have denied the Russians airspace to transport cargo to Russian troops in Syria — in line with previous Bulgarian motions towards diversifying its energy away from Russia. The other major issue in the Balkans is with Greece. Alexis Tsipras — formerly accused of being pro-Russian — has won the most recent reelection, and his government has allowed the Russians airspace. In line with my forecast, a tussle in the Balkans has resulted with the Americans urging the Greeks to deny airspace. The Greeks want to be a part of the Turkish Stream as well, so convincing the Greeks to make such a move may anger the Russians and threaten Greece’s participation in the Turkish Stream.