Turkish Casualties Rise in Syria, but Ankara Wary of Confronting Russia
By Dorian Jones February 24, 2020
Turkish forces have suffered more casualties in the latest round of fighting in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. But despite Russia backing Syrian government forces in the ongoing attacks on Turkish forces, Ankara has refrained from confronting Moscow – a sign, analysts suggest, of the considerable economic leverage Russia retains over Turkey.
Officials say a Turkish convoy in Idlib was hit Monday in an airstrike that caused several injuries. During the weekend, a Turkish soldier was killed in another attack, bringing the number of deaths to at least 18 since Turkey sent significant reinforcements to counter a Damascus government offensive against Syria's last rebel enclave.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, facing growing domestic pressure over the number of casualties in Syria, spoke Friday with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Erdogan described the talks as productive, but analysts say the latest casualties indicate little was achieved in ensuring the safety of Turkish forces.
"Putin just doesn't keep his promises, but we [Turkey] seem to be beholden to him," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of New York-based Global Source Partners.
Moscow robustly defends the Damascus government offensive against rebels and accuses Ankara of failing to fulfill a commitment to disarm radical groups in Idlib.
Despite Moscow's defense of Damascus' increasing number of deadly attacks on Turkish forces, analysts believe Erdogan is avoiding a confrontation with Putin, maintaining that Turkish-Russian relations remain intact.
Experts say Erdogan is well aware of the significant economic clout Moscow possesses.
"Russians do have a lot of leverage over Turkey," said international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University.
"Tomatoes may no longer cross the border," he added, "along with other fruits and vegetables. Russian charter flights out to Antalya [a Turkish Mediterranean resort] may become rarer or may stop."
Russia is a significant market for Turkish produce, along with Russian tourists being among the most numerous for Turkey's large tourism industry.
Following Turkey's 2015 downing of a Russian bomber operating in Syria, Moscow banned Turkish tomato imports and dramatically curtailed Russian tourists as part of significant economic sanctions, eventually forcing Erdogan into apologizing to Putin.
Five thousand tons of Turkish tomatoes are stranded on the Russian border. Officially the Russians cite regulation anomalies, but Ankara sees the delays as Moscow again flexing its economic muscle. Earlier this month, a Turkish ship carrying tomatoes was sent back from Russia.
Last year's record numbers of Russian tourists helped to contribute to a historically high number of visitors to Turkey, surging to 45 million in 2019 from 39 million in the previous year.
Tourism is a labor-intensive industry, as well as a critical source of foreign currency, vital, analysts say, to support a lira that increasingly is under pressure.
The Turkish economy is still struggling to recover from a currency crash of 2018, with sluggish growth and youth unemployment running at around 25%. Analysts suggest Erdogan will be reluctant to risk a new economic war with Moscow.
Energy, however, is where Moscow can especially inflict pain on Ankara.
"Turkey is engaged in the construction of a Russian nuclear power station due to come on stream in 2023," said Mehmet Ogutcu, chairman of the London Energy Club. "Turkey is already buying through Russia's Blue Stream [pipeline] almost 16 bcm [billion cubic meters] of gas. There are two other projects from Russia.
"Turkey wants to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, which is running at 52% because we have experienced Turkey shooting down a Russian plane; this was a cold shower. What if Russia cuts off supply during winter?" asked Ogutcu.
Ankara is taking steps to reduce its dependence on Russia's energy by seeking alternative gas supplies. Turkey is increasing its capacity to receive and store liquid natural gas. Last year saw record amounts of LNG imported by Turkey, much of it from the United States.
Rising Russian-Turkish tensions are putting the spotlight on the number and nature of energy deals Ankara agreed to with Moscow. With Turkey paying among the highest gas prices in the world, criticism is growing that the deals greatly favor Russia. At the same time, Ankara has committed to buying gas it doesn't need.
"We don't need that gas; look at Turkish gas consumption. It's been declining for three years," said Yesilada. "We just agreed to get 4 billion new cubic meters per annum plus 6 billion from Tanap [a pipeline from Azerbaijan]. We are suddenly stuck with 10 billion cubic meters of gas at the same time our gas power stations are all going bankrupt due to lack of demand and high gas prices."
In the next two years, several long-term Russian gas contracts are due for renewal. Their renewal is seen as an opportunity for Ankara to rebalance its relationship with Moscow.
"I think the Turks are quite aware of the fact that they depend heavily on Russian gas and that it has to be at a manageable level," said Ogutcu.
"There is an asymmetric relationship between Russia and Turkey, that Turkey does whatever Russia wants. But there needs to be a change, a rebalancing of the relationship. The renewing of the contracts will be one step," he added.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|