From Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh: Russia and Turkey's complex regional rivalry

From Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh: Russia and Turkey's complex regional rivalry
Analysis: Conflict dynamics in both Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh are part of a broad field of confrontation between Moscow and Ankara, stretching from North Africa to the Caucasus.
7 min read
04 December, 2020
A Russian armoured personnel carrier in northeastern Syria. [Getty]
On 20 October, without much media hype, Turkish forces stationed in the Syrian city of Morek began withdrawing from their base

Morek is the most important Turkish post north of the Syrian regime-held city of Hama and borders the rebel-controlled northwestern part of the country. 

The base is surrounded by Russian-backed military units and militias that are officially part of the Syrian army. They serve as a kind of buffer to avoid new clashes, like those seen at the beginning of the year. 

According to reports, Turkey had reached an agreement with Russia to withdraw its units from several posts and two military bases that are currently surrounded by Bashar al-Assad's forces. 

As Turkish forces withdrew from Morek, Ankara sent new troops to other posts in Idlib province to reinforce them. What this redeployment means and whether a new escalation is coming to Syria are among the questions being asked by Syrians and international observers alike. Some of the answers can be found not just in Syria, however, but also in the Caucasus.

The withdrawal of Turkish forces comes amid speculation about the launch of a new offensive by Russia and the Syrian regime to seize the southern parts of Idlib province. Talks between Turkish and Russian officials in Ankara in September ended without an agreement. 

Turkey's sudden and surprising withdrawal from Morek outpost in Syria may have been linked to talks on Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya

The main reason for the lack of a deal is believed to be Moscow's proposal to Turkey to abandon some of the military posts it holds around Idlib province as part of agreements between the two countries after 2018 to establish the so-called buffer zone in northwestern Syria.

On 17 September, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Turkey "failed to fulfill the March 5 agreement" on time, citing the continued presence of radical groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras ad-Din. The comments were followed by some of the heaviest airstrikes by Russian aircraft this spring, with the Syrian army using rocket and artillery fire on several villages in southern Idlib. 

Read more: Syria Insight: Idlib comes under focus after
Turkish troop movements

The latest agreement came after an attack by Assad's forces in Idlib in late February. About 60 Turkish soldiers were killed in the airstrikes, and the entire offensive forced more than two million Syrians to flee their homes. In response, the Turkish army struck at Syrian army positions. The then-popular Bayraktar TB2 drones were used, causing severe damage to Assad's forces. 

As a result, the offensive was halted, and on 5 March, a ceasefire agreement was reached with the mediation of Russia. As a result of the offensive by regime forces, the rebels lost a lot of territory near the M5 strategic highway but regained it with the support of Ankara.

The current situation in Idlib is unsustainable for all sides. Damascus' regime remains determined to take over all of the lost territory, while Ankara has made it clear it cannot accept more refugees. Turkey is already hosting 3.5 million Syrian refugees and is not interested in taking in more while experiencing serious economic problems. 

An offensive in Idlib by Assad's forces and a takeover of northwestern Syria would certainly lead to a large influx of refugees to Turkey and would create pressure on the EU's southern border.

Morek's withdrawal also stands against Turkey's current policy of not abandoning bases and observation posts in Idlib. Ankara's refusal to withdraw from the besieged bases was an obstacle during the September talks with Russia.

Neither Libya, Syria, nor Nagorno-Karabakh can be considered as separate events

Although the sudden policy change may be the result of Ankara's recognition of the reality that the bypassed bases will be an undue risk to Turkish troops there, when and if the conflict erupts again, it could also be the result of geopolitical clashes in other areas.


The Russian president was not particularly enthusiastic about his support for Armenia, with which his country has a mutual defence treaty, despite significant losses in Nagorno-Karabakh caused by Turkish ally Azerbaijan. In a statement on 7 October, Putin said the defence agreement did not cover Nagorno-Karabakh

During meetings between the defence ministers of Russia and Turkey on 12 October, the conflict in Karabakh was discussed along with the situation in Syria and Libya, and at the meeting in Moscow on 23 October the last two conflicts were the main topic.

All this confirms the warnings of analysts and international observers that neither Libya, nor Syria, nor Nagorno-Karabakh can be considered as separate events. On the contrary, at the present time they can be traced as part of a broad field of confrontation between Moscow and Ankara, stretching from North Africa to the Caucasus. 

Turkey's sudden and surprising withdrawal from Morek may be linked to ongoing talks on Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya. It should be recalled that after 10 November, when the agreement on the cessation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh was signed, the Russian army began sending forces to what will be the future buffer zone between the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the disputed region. 

Read more: Russia and Turkey's delicate balancing act in Nagorno-Karabakh

It is known that there will be a presence of Turkish units to carry out patrols with the Russians, like the model in Syria (and in Libya), and the Turkish parliament approved it. Publicly, Moscow has said that Turkey will not participate by force, but whether it wants to or not, Putin does not have much choice now.

Given the fragile peace between Baku and Yerevan, the political turmoil of the humiliating agreement that erupted in Armenia, and the many uncertainties about when Armenian forces will leave the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the talks between Moscow and Ankara will still be significant and will surely affect territories far from the Caucasus.

Turkey is now vacating unprotected observation posts in territory held by Assad's forces and relocating those forces while reinforcing Idlib rebel holdings with additional materials and strengthening its positions in the province. 

There are currently about 15,000 Turkish troops there, a message to Moscow and Damascus that Ankara has a real interest in maintaining the buffer zone to prevent further refugees and the entry of extremists, which for Turkey means not only the Islamic State but also members of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), which has complicated relations with Russia.

Russia and its Syrian allies may still be tempted to seize strategic areas such as Jisr al-Shughur or Jabal al-Zawiya to step up their grip on the M4 strategic highway and areas south of it. It is there that Russian aircraft have increasingly carried out strikes on positions of Turkish-backed rebel groups since October - again as a message that includes Ankara's involvement in the Caucasus conflict. 

There is a broad field of confrontation between Moscow and Ankara, stretching from North Africa to the Caucasus

However, there are reports that Turkish troops who left the base in Morek were sent to reinforce Jabal al-Zawiya. This demonstrates the significant risk to Russian and Syrian regime forces in the event of an attempt to attack the area.

It seems that neither in Syria nor the Caucasus will the guns go silent. The escalation continues in Nagorno-Karabakh, even with the arrival of Russian peacekeepers, who have faced several problems related to the administration of the buffer zone there. 

The first problems arose as a Russian peacekeeper was wounded in a mine explosion in Nagorno-Karabakh. Meanwhile, tensions are rising in Syria over the geopolitical clash between Russia and Turkey, the Syrian regime's desire to occupy northwestern Syria, and the stalemate in Idlib.

Read more: A gateway to Africa: Russia's new naval
base in Sudan

Although these events directly affect the interests of the EU and the US, their military and diplomatic absence, as well as their non-participation in the talks, is a clear signal to Turkey and Russia that they will decide the future of conflicts from Libya to Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. 

A resumption of hostilities in northern Syria will affect the region. In southern Syria, the Syrian army is conducting operations against former rebels, political killings in Damascus have increased, and the economic situation in Assad-held areas is dire and marked by many deprivations.

In eastern Syria, Washington-backed Kurdish forces are also waiting for a convenient time to establish their administration. A revival of the Islamic State is also taking place as a result of the current geopolitical clashes. 

Finally, let us not forget Iran, a country linked to events in Syria, as well as Nagorno-Karabakh, where Tehran feels neglected by Ankara and Moscow, who have redrawn the zones of influence in Syria during the Astana talks. The rivalry has the potential to become more visible - and with greater consequences.

Ruslan Trad is the author of 'The Murder of a Revolution' and co-author of 'The Russian Invisible Armies'. His journalistic work is focused on PMCs, Syria, and conflict zones. Follow him on Twitter: @ruslantrad