The President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Russia's Vladimir Putin (R) review the honour guard at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on April 3, 2018. ADEM ALTAN / AFP
Report 250 / Europe & Central Asia

Russia and Turkey in the Black Sea and the South Caucasus

Rivalry persists between Russia and Turkey in their shared neighbourhood of the Black Sea and the South Caucasus. But Moscow-Ankara relations have warmed overall. Building on their wider rapprochement, the two powers can work together to tamp down flare-ups of regional conflicts.

What’s new? After a rupture in 2015, when Turkish fighter jets downed a Russian warplane over Syria, Russia and Turkey have repaired relations. But a Turkish pivot east does not appear imminent. Ankara and Moscow still compete for influence, and their interests still collide, in the Black Sea and the South Caucasus.

Why does it matter? Anxious at Russia’s increased naval capability and power projection south from Crimea, Turkey has sought a greater role for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Black Sea. Russia and Turkey back opposing sides of the Armenia-Azerbaijan confrontation over the disputed territory Nagorno-Karabakh, potentially adding an extra layer of risk to that conflict.

What should be done? Moscow and Ankara are unlikely to resolve the region’s conflicts. But by taking steps to prevent accidental clashes in the Black Sea, improve the plight of Crimean Tatars and encourage Armenia-Azerbaijan dialogue, they could use their broader rapprochement to minimise risks around regional hotspots.

Russia and Turkey have repaired relations that nearly collapsed after Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian Su-24 warplane near the Syria-Turkey border in late 2015. Russia has since lifted most of the sanctions it had imposed on Turkey. The two countries coordinate in Syria, have relaunched energy projects and agreed to Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles. But Russia-Turkey rivalry is still all too evident in regions sandwiched between the two countries – the Black Sea and South Caucasus. Moscow’s military build-up in Crimea and power projection across the Black Sea has increased Ankara’s reliance on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in that region even as Turkey’s relations with Western powers tank. Russia-Turkey competition in the Caucasus adds an extra layer of risk to hostility between Armenia and Azerbaijan. That Moscow and Ankara would work to resolve regional conflicts thus appears unlikely. Nonetheless, their recent rapprochement could serve to calm flashpoints, or at least mitigate the risk of flare-ups.

Since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s June 2016 public apology for the Su-24 downing, he and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have met more than ten times. Their improved ties owe much to Erdoğan’s need for Russian backing in Syria, including in containing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a militant group that Turkey, the European Union and the United States list as a terrorist organisation, and which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

Warmer relations also owe to Erdoğan’s apparent gratitude for Putin’s support during the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey and the two countries’ economic ties, which provided strong incentives for both to seek an end to Russian sanctions. They reflect, too, the Turkish leadership’s frayed relations with the West, particularly its anger at the U.S. for supporting the YPG in Syria and refusing to extradite Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish cleric Ankara blames for the failed putsch. Russia-Turkey rapprochement has reached such peaks as to prompt Western concern about Turkey’s commitment to NATO and what some officials perceive as Ankara’s pivot east.

Warmer relations also owe to Erdoğan’s apparent gratitude for Putin’s support during the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

Such fears are not groundless. But they overlook the continued struggle for influence between Moscow and Ankara in the Black Sea and the South Caucasus. In the former, Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea has enabled it to expand its naval capability, project power south and shift the strategic balance in its favour. The annexation has also raised Ankara’s concerns about the plight of the Crimean Tatars, who enjoy historically close ties to Turkey. Turkey has responded with its own military build-up. It has encouraged NATO to deploy into the Black Sea, reversing a decades-old policy of keeping the alliance out. Ankara’s strained links with Western capitals notwithstanding, in the Black Sea at least, NATO is critical to Turkey’s strategic calculations.

In the South Caucasus, too, Russian and Turkish interests collide. Russia and Turkey back opposing sides of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh: Moscow has a defence pact with Yerevan (though in practice arms both sides); Ankara has a strategic partnership and mutual support agreement with Baku. That conflict’s flare-up, in April 2016, coincided with the fallout from the Su-24 crisis and provoked a harsh exchange of words between Moscow and Ankara, though both chose not to escalate and Moscow eventually brokered a ceasefire. Indeed, Turkey has been cautious to test Russia only so far in a region where Moscow seeks to be the preeminent power.

Yet any escalation over Nagorno-Karabakh will always carry some risk of sucking in the two regional heavyweights. Their competition adds to the region’s militarisation. At the same time, Moscow’s expanded military footprint in Syria, Armenia, Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and on the Crimean peninsula fuels Turkish fears of encirclement.

While Russia and Turkey have different, often conflicting, objectives in the region, their rapprochement might open an opportunity for the two countries to prevent flare-ups in their shared neighbourhood:

  • Ankara might use its ties to both NATO and Russia to mitigate the risk of incidents in the Black Sea, which has increased as both Russia and NATO expand their presence and conduct military exercises, with Russian jets “buzzing” or intercepting NATO planes. Dialogue at all levels is essential, and Turkey might facilitate additional channels of communication.
  • Prospects for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are slim, but Moscow and Ankara could work to prevent another outburst, emphasise to both sides the long-term benefits of peace in a region crucial for transit between Asia and Europe and the Middle East and Russia, and prompt both to offer mutual concessions.
  • Ankara should use its improved relations with Moscow to engage the Russian leadership on the status and rights of the Crimean Tatars.

Russia-Turkey rapprochement is good news for the Turkish economy and for citizens of both nations who suffered the consequences of Moscow’s sanctions after the Su-24 crisis. Overall, too, it benefits the countries of the Black Sea and the South Caucasus regions that otherwise risked getting caught in the crossfire. Yet despite improved ties, the two countries’ aims and interests still conflict across those regions’ main trigger points. While improved Russia-Turkey ties in themselves will not resolve often protracted conflicts, Moscow and Ankara could harness their imperfect partnership to reduce the danger of flare-ups.

Brussels/Ankara/Moscow/Kyiv/Baku/Tbilisi/Yerevan, 28 June 2018

Russia and Turkey in the Black Sea and the South Caucasus

Crisis Group's Europe & Central Asia Program Director Magdalena Grono talks about the relations between Russia and Turkey as they reflect on the Black Sea and the South Caucasus.

Recent Russia-Turkey relations have been full of twists and turns. A proxy conflict in Syria became a frontal clash in November 2015 when a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 ground attack aircraft. In response, Moscow slapped harsh sanctions on Turkey. Then, in June 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apologised and called for the two countries to patch things up.[fn]Andrew Roth and Erin Cunningham, “Turkish president apologizes for downing of Russian warplane last year”, The Washington Post, 27 June 2016.Hide Footnote Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for Erdoğan in the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt paved the way for rapprochement.

Since then, the two presidents have met repeatedly. After a May 2017 meeting in Sochi, the Russian resort town on the Black Sea, Putin stated, “the period of restoration in Russian-Turkish relations is now over; we are back to normal partnership”.[fn]Georgii Makarenko, Anzhelinka Basisini and Polina Khimshiashvili, “О чем довоговрились Путин и Эрдоган” [“What Putin and Erdoğan agreed on”], RBC, 10 March 2017.Hide Footnote Ankara and Moscow have cooperated in Syria and pursued multibillion-dollar energy projects, and Turkey has agreed to buy Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).[fn]See Section II.C below.Hide Footnote In August 2017, Turkish Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekçi called for a trade deal with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).[fn]“Economy minister: Turkey eyes Eurasian Customs Union”, Daily Sabah, 18 August 2017.Hide Footnote Ankara’s relations with Western allies, on the other hand, have deteriorated. Its pending purchase of Russian arms has fuelled speculation about Turkey’s commitment to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).[fn]“Turkey’s $2bn arms deal with Russia faces hurdles, and possible sanctions”, The Economist, 30 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Can Russia and Turkey harness their improved ties to enhance regional stability, without jeopardising the interests of others? In 2016, when the downing of the Su-24 and Russia-Turkey relations hitting rock bottom coincided with a flare-up of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow and Ankara avoided a broader escalation over the disputed enclave.[fn]The April 2016 escalation saw the deadliest fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces since the 1994 ceasefire. See Crisis Group Europe Reports N°239, Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening or More Peril?, 4 July 2016; and N°244, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Gathering War Clouds, 1 June 2017.Hide Footnote In other areas, too, cooperation perhaps could contribute to greater stability.

This report examines evolving Turkey-Russia relations. It looks beyond Syria, which dominates international coverage, focusing instead on the Black Sea and the Caucasus, the turf where Moscow’s and Ankara’s interests have traditionally clashed. It draws on discussions with experts and officials from Russia, Turkey, NATO, the European Union and its member states, Ukraine and the South Caucasus.

The Russia-Turkey rapprochement largely reflects the two states’ evolving strategic calculations away from the Black Sea and South Caucasus. In Syria, Ankara’s determination to contain the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish armed group with close operational ties to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey, requires it to cooperate with Moscow. Turkish frustration at Western powers – fed by U.S. backing for the YPG; the lacklustre U.S. support for Erdoğan, from his loyalists’ perspective, during the 2016 coup attempt; the U.S.’s refusal to hand over Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric based in the U.S. whom Ankara accuses of directing the failed putsch; and Western criticism of Erdoğan’s domestic policies – also nudges Ankara toward Moscow. Economic interdependence, illustrated by the heavy toll of Russian sanctions on Turkey in 2015-2016, provides further impetus for closer Moscow-Ankara ties.

The evolving engagement of Moscow and Ankara in Syria’s war has played an important part in reframing their relationship. For years, the conflict pitted them against one another. Erdoğan backed rebels aiming to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin, having long offered political support to Assad, in September 2015 deployed Russian forces into Syria to prop him up militarily. Russian air power helped regime forces reverse the course of the war and reconquer much of the country from rebels aligned with Ankara.[fn]On subsequent developments in the Syrian conflict, see Crisis Group Middle East Reports N°163, New Approach in Southern Syria, 2 September 2015; N°175, Hizbollah’s Syria Conundrum, 14 March 2017; N°182, Israel, Hizbollah and Iran: Preventing Another War in Syria, 7 February 2018; and N°187, Keeping the Calm in Southern Syria, 21 June 2018; as well as Crisis Group Middle East Briefings N°47, Russia’s Choice in Syria, 30 March 2016; N°49, Steps Toward Stabilising Syria’s Northern Border, 8 April 2016; N°53, Fighting ISIS: The Road to and Beyond Raqqa, 28 April 2017; and N°56, Averting Disaster in Syria’s Idlib Province, 9 February 2018.Hide Footnote Turkey’s downing of the Russian plane in November that year marked a low point in Turkey-Russia relations.

Meanwhile, the YPG – the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – went from strength to strength. It benefited in particular from U.S. support, motivated by the U.S.’s fight against the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS); the YPG formed the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which spearheaded U.S.-backed counter-ISIS operations in Syria. The YPG, along with its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has established de facto autonomy over swathes of northern Syria along the Turkish border, a development Ankara sees as a major threat to its national security.[fn][2] Crisis Group Middle East Report N°176, The PKKs Fateful Choice in Northern Syria, 4 May 2017.Hide Footnote Moscow also has cooperated tactically with the YPG. Russian bombing raids in February 2016, for example, allowed the YPG to capture the town of Tel Rifaat in the Aleppo governorate from Ahrar al-Sham, a militia supported by Turkey.

[Russia] has used Turkey as a bridge to the anti-Assad opposition in its quest to consolidate Assad’s military gains.

Mounting Turkish concern about the YPG’s gains – combined with Erdoğan’s gradual if grudging acceptance that the Assad regime would survive the war – led to growing cooperation between Moscow and Ankara. Ankara appears to have sought Moscow’s endorsement ahead of Operation Euphrates Shield (Fırat Kalkanı), an incursion into northern Syria by Turkish forces, in August 2016, shortly after Erdoğan’s apology for the Russian jet incident and his first meeting with Putin that marked the start of the thaw in their relations.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian political scientist with Kremlin ties, Moscow, January 2018.Hide Footnote Euphrates Shield allowed Turkey, together with allied Syrian opposition factions, to secure an enclave in northern Syria and divide Kurdish-controlled territory under the pretext of expelling ISIS from the area. Russia’s green light for the operation may have influenced Turkey’s decision not to intervene on behalf of rebels in December 2016 when regime forces, aided by Russian air power, recaptured eastern Aleppo.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing N°47, rRussia’s Choice in Syria, 30 March 2016.Hide Footnote

Erdoğan’s principal goals in Syria now are to secure a stake in the country’s future, to weaken the YPG to the extent possible and to prevent the establishment of a YPG/PYD-run Kurdish corridor to the Mediterranean along the Turkish border. For now, the best way to achieve these aims is to work with Putin. Russia, for its part, has used Turkey as a bridge to the anti-Assad opposition in its quest to consolidate Assad’s military gains through de-escalation agreements with rebels and, eventually, to pave the way for a political solution to the war that would leave the regime in place but offer some concessions to its armed opponents.

The two countries, alongside Iran, have co-sponsored de-escalation talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana, which have already gone through six rounds. Starting in October 2017, they also coordinated the deployment of Turkish monitors on the edges of the Idlib province, a designated “de-escalation zone”.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Averting Disaster in Syria’s Idlib Province, op. cit.; Sevil Erkuş, “Turkey deploys troops in northern Idlib”, Hürriyet Daily News, 13 October 2017.Hide Footnote Most recently, Ankara appears to have arrived at some form of understanding with Moscow ahead of Olive Branch, its ongoing offensive that has ousted the YPG from much of the north-western enclave of Afrin, in which Russian military monitors were stationed.[fn]Noah Bonsey, “No Winners in Turkey’s New Offensive into Syria”, Crisis Group Commentary, 26 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Political upheaval in Turkey over the past year and a half has affected Ankara’s relations with both Moscow and the West. Though Erdoğan had sought improved ties with the Kremlin well before the 15 July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, Putin’s strong backing for the Turkish president during the attempt accelerated that process. Russian and Turkish observers even believe that Erdoğan was tipped off by the Kremlin beforehand.[fn]The story originated in Arab media and with Iran’s Fars news agency. Oleg Yegorov, “Russian intelligence saved Erdogan from overthrow – Media reports”, Russia Beyond the Headlines, 21 July 2016.Hide Footnote A prominent Russian foreign affairs expert claims:

The writing was on the wall. It is still a big question mark whether the U.S. did not know, and, if it did not, why not. In any event, Putin was being a good sport and gave Erdoğan a warning. Putin has always been against regime change – and Erdoğan appreciated this.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian foreign policy expert, October 2017.Hide Footnote

U.S. sources strongly deny the allegations, but Turkish officials nevertheless regularly voice the conviction that the U.S. was aware of the coup attempt before it occurred.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former high-level U.S. official, Ankara, June 2017; U.S. officials, Washington, October 2017. Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara, summer-autumn 2017.Hide Footnote They blame Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric self-exiled in the U.S. since 1999, of directing the plot and executing it through his agents, who had infiltrated the Turkish military. They cite the U.S.’s post-coup refusal to extradite Gülen, who has been stripped of Turkish citizenship, as proof of collusion.[fn]“Turkey should be concerned about S-400 sanctions risk – analyst”, Ahval News, 15 December 2017.Hide Footnote

Russian officials, unlike their U.S. and European counterparts, have not criticised Ankara for its wide-ranging purges in the wake of the failed coup, its crackdowns on critics and the transfer of sweeping new powers to the president through an April 2017 constitutional referendum. Ankara’s grievances against the West – its anger at the U.S.’s refusal to hand over Gülen, its perception that the White House did not support Erdoğan during the coup and its annoyance at broader Western criticism at Turkey’s human rights and democracy records, combined with its fury at U.S. support for the YPG in Syria – has offered Russia an opening to deepen ties to Ankara.

Ankara also has stepped up defence cooperation with Moscow. On 29 December 2017, Turkey’s Undersecretariat for Defence Industries announced that it had signed a contract with the Russian state-owned arms conglomerate Rostec for the supply of two batteries of S-400 SAMs.[fn]“Turkey, Russia sign deal on supply of S-400 missiles”, Reuters, 29 December 2017. On 11 September 2017, Erdoğan had already declared that Turkey had made a down payment and the $2.5 billion purchase was a “done deal”. Ali Ünal, “Erdoğan: S-400 is a done deal, down payment already transferred to Moscow”, Daily Sabah, 11 September 2017. Several weeks afterward, he boasted that Turkey was interested in procuring the S-500, the next generation of anti-aircraft missile after the S-400. “Erdoğan says Turkey also interested in Russian S-500 missile system”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 13 October 2017.Hide Footnote

The S-400 transfer, scheduled for 2020, has raised eyebrows in Washington and European capitals, fuelling fears that Ankara is “pivoting” toward Moscow.[fn]“The purchase of S-400s is favoured by ‘Eurasianist’ segments within the military who favour full reorientation to Moscow”. Crisis Group interview, Turkish security expert, July 2017. See also Metin Gürcan, “The rise of the Eurasianist vision in Turkey”, Al-Monitor, 17 May 2017.Hide Footnote Top U.S. officials, such as General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, express open concern.[fn]Remarks at the Aspen Security Forum. “U.S. chief of staff: Ankara, Moscow missile deal a concern”, Daily Sabah, 25 July 2017. See also Cansu Çamlibel, “One week and 3.5 contention points with Washington”, Hürriyet Daily News, 29 July 2017.Hide Footnote The Russian-made missiles cannot be integrated into NATO’s defence infrastructure. The deal might fall under the remit of U.S. sanctions targeting parts of Russia’s economy – and thus exposes Turkey to trade penalties as well.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. officials, Washington, October 2017 and December 2017. “Turkey could face US sanctions for S400 purchase”, Hurriyet Daily News, 1 February 2018.Hide Footnote The U.S. Congress has taken steps that might eventually result in Ankara being denied deliveries of advanced F-35 jets.[fn]Bryant Harris, “Congress splits over F-35 sale to Turkey”, Al-Monitor, 12 June 2018.Hide Footnote

Turkey argues that next-door Greece (also a NATO member) already has S-300s, an earlier generation of the Russian air defence system. But the circumstances around that transfer were different. Originally acquired by Cyprus, those missiles ended up on the Greek island of Crete after Turkey threatened military action against Cyprus in 1998.[fn]Cyprus is the only EU member state that is neither a member of NATO nor a member of its Partnership for Peace program.Hide Footnote In other words, Greece took the S-300s as a concession to Turkey, whose planes would have been in range of the projectiles had they been deployed in southern Cyprus.[fn]Dimitar Bechev, Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe (New Haven, 2017), Chapter 5.Hide Footnote

Rostec chief Sergei Chemezov said in February that deliveries are scheduled to start in 2019, while there are reports of a second deal in the works.[fn]“Q&A: Sanctioned Putin ally holds out hope that Trump will boost Russia ties”, The Washington Post, 10 February 2018.Hide Footnote For a time, Ankara was pushing hard for technology transfer as part of the bargain but later backtracked on those demands.[fn]Turkey is unhappy about the rival offers submitted by the U.S. and France/Italy for Patriot PAC-3 and SAMP/T Aster-30 missiles, respectively, as they do not include technology transfer. To pressure its NATO allies, Turkey explored the option of purchasing air defence systems from China but a deal signed in 2013 fell apart.Hide Footnote Russian officials also view warily the prospect of handing over advanced know-how that might allow the purchasing state, particularly a NATO member, to “localise” production. According to Maxim Suchkov of the Valdai Club, there is unease among high-ranking officials in Moscow, though they accept the sale as “a political decision already taken”.[fn]Tweet by Maxim Suchkov, @MSuchkov_ALM, editor of Al-Monitor’s Russia-Middle East coverage, 11:42am, 16 September 2017. Suchkov is a non-resident expert at the Russian International Affairs Council and at the Valdai International Discussion Club.Hide Footnote

Economic interdependence also plays a role in the rapprochement. Russia views Turkey, its second most important natural gas market, as a conduit for gas deliveries to the European Union (EU). Turkey offers an alternative to Ukraine once the latter’s transit contract with Russian state-controlled gas company Gazprom expires in 2019. Moreover, TurkStream, a pipeline running under the Black Sea en route to Turkey and the EU, was restarted during Putin’s visit to Istanbul in September 2016.[fn]In April, the first leg of TurkStream, with a capacity of 15.75 billion cubic metres, reached Turkey’s shore. According to plans, natural gas deliveries are to start in December 2019. The construction of a second leg, bound for the EU, depends on the resolution of outstanding legal disputes between Gazprom and the European Commission. Dimitar Bechev, “The Russia-Turkey gas saga continues”, Ahval News, 1 June 2018.Hide Footnote Turkey’s first nuclear power station, at Akkuyu, will position Russia’s state corporation Rosatom, which is building the plant, as a pivotal player in the electricity market starting in the mid-2020s.[fn]The first reactor should come online in 2023, the centenary of the Turkish Republic. Putin and Erdoğan oversaw the plant’s ground-breaking ceremony on 3 April 2018.Hide Footnote The S-400 missile deal could turn the Turkish armed forces into a major customer of the Russian arms industry.[fn]See Section II.C above.Hide Footnote

The impact on Turkey of Russian sanctions imposed in 2015 after the Su-24 downing illustrate how dependent Turkey is on exports to Russia. Turkish trade with Russia plummeted by nearly a third from $23.9 billion in 2015 to $16.8 billion in 2016.[fn]Turkish exports to Russia shrank by 40 per cent while Russia saw a decrease of only 19 per cent. Data from the Turkish Statistical Institute ( Footnote The slump was even more dramatic in sectors such as tourism and construction, given that Russian gas exports, accounting for the bulk of overall commerce, continued without restrictions. Turkey lost at least $10 billion, amounting to over 1 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP). Clearly, the mutually beneficial economic ties between the two countries did not shield them from the crisis provoked by the downing of the Russian jet. But those ties did provide strong incentives – together with the evolving situation in Syria and Turkey’s worsening relationship with the West – for Russia and Turkey to reverse the downturn in their relations.

Indeed, as relations warmed, Russia lifted most sanctions in May 2o17. Some limits on Turkish agricultural exports to Russia are still in place. Visa restrictions remain a hindrance for Turkish investors.[fn]Russia’s Ministry of Agriculture removed restrictions on the import of Turkish tomatoes as late as 1 May 2018. The restrictions spurred short-lived retaliatory measures by Ankara in March-May 2017, which were repealed under direct pressure from Putin. In September 2017, Russia finally licenced some Turkish firms to send in tomatoes through May 2018. “Up to 300,000 tons of Turkish tomatoes to be granted export visa by Russia”, Daily Sabah, 11 September 2017.Hide Footnote Moreover, Moscow still sometimes twists Ankara’s arm: in August 2016, for example, it forced Turkey to grant Rosatom $3 billion in tax breaks.[fn]“JSC Akkuyu nuclear designated strategic investor in Turkey”, press release, Rosatom, 2 April 2018.Hide Footnote For its part, Turkey restricts the import of Russian wheat, leveraging its position as the second most significant market for the latter.[fn]Çağan Koç and Anatoly Medetsky, “Russia faces hurdles on food sales to key wheat customer Turkey”, Bloomberg, 9 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Çağan Koç and Anatoly Medetsky, “Russia faces hurdles on food sales to key wheat customer Turkey”, Bloomberg, 9 October 2017.

Hide Footnote Overall, however, trade between the two countries is booming. In 2017, gas deliveries to Turkey from Russia hit an all-time high, reaching 29 billion cubic metres.[fn]“Russia’s Gazprom sets annual Europe, Turkey annual gas export record at 193.9 bcm”, Platts, 3 January 2017.Hide Footnote

See Section II.C above.Hide Footnote

The Ukraine crisis has also tested Russia-Turkey relations, though not as severely as the early years of the Syrian war. The crisis has had strategic implications for both countries, given Russia’s increased military presence in Crimea and Turkey’s support of Crimea’s Tatar minority, which opposed Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014.

In early 2014, massive anti-government demonstrations, known as the Maidan revolution, and clashes between protesters and security forces in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, prompted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally, to flee the country.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Report N°231, Ukraine Running Out of Time, 14 May 2014.Hide Footnote Moscow labelled Yanukovych’s ouster a coup, and shortly afterward annexed Crimea, where a referendum on whether to join Russia was held on 16 March 2014. Boycotted by many pro-Kyiv voters, the referendum passed with overwhelming support. Only a handful of governments – Turkey was not among them – recognise that vote.

Moscow also backed separatist forces in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, its support proving critical to their military gains. After those gains, the so-called Normandy Four (Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France) reached two peace deals known as the Minsk agreements, which Western powers and conflict parties still view, at least in theory, as the only way out of the conflict. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its interference in eastern Ukraine have deepened the standoff developing since the early 2000s between Russia, on the one hand, and the EU and U.S., on the other. In 2014, the U.S. and the EU imposed sanctions and other restrictive measures on Russia in response to the Crimea annexation and its meddling in eastern Ukraine; Moscow retaliated with a set of countermeasures.

Turkey vocally opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, lending support in particular to the territory’s Tatar minority, most of whom prefer to remain part of Ukraine. Erdoğan has been cautious, however, not to allow either Crimea or the Donbas conflict – which some Turkish officials portray as the responsibility of both Russia and the West – to weigh too heavily on his ties with the Kremlin. In particular, Ankara has not supported Western sanctions against Moscow.

On 9 October 2017, at a joint press conference in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Erdoğan stated, “we neither did, nor will we, recognise the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia”.[fn]“Erdogan pledges support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity during Kyiv visit”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 10 October 2017.Hide Footnote Such declarations have been a staple of Turkish diplomacy since March 2014 and invariably include words of support for the 300,000-strong Tatar community in Crimea.[fn]Tatars are Turkic Sunni Muslims who immigrated to Crimea starting in the 13th century. The Soviets expelled them in 1944. Some Tatars returned after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Crimea was an autonomous republic within Ukraine.Hide Footnote Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu are in close contact with Tatar leaders such as Mustafa Dzhemilev (Mustafa Abdülcemil Kırımoğlu) and Refat Chubarov, chairman of the Crimean Tatars’ exiled representative body, or Mejlis.[fn]Çavuşoğlu met both men during his visit to Kyiv in February 2017. “Турция никогда не признает Крым российским – Чавушоглу” [“Turkey will never recognise Crimea as Russian – Çavuşoğlu”], Ukrinform, 10 February 2017; “Turkey rejects annexation of Crimea: Çavuşoğlu”, Daily Sabah, 10 February 2017.Hide Footnote Tatar activists, too, consider Turkey a kindred state and count on its support; in the 1990s, Turkish money helped Tatars return to the ancestral land from which they were banished in 1944.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Tatar activists, Kherson region, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Turkey has showcased its commitment to the Tatars’ cause on multiple occasions. Immediately before the March 2014 referendum, Erdoğan spoke to Putin to obtain assurances that the Tatars, 70 per cent of whom boycotted the vote, would be treated well.[fn]“Turkey’s Erdoğan tells Putin crisis must be solved by Ukrainians”, Reuters, 4 March 2014.Hide Footnote At a party rally in the town of Eskişehir, home to a substantial community of Crimean Tatar descent, Erdoğan claimed to stand up forcefully for Tatar rights during his conversations with Putin.[fn]“Turkey not to leave Crimean Tatars in the lurch”, Anadolu Agency, 7 March 2014. Putin and Erdoğan discussed the Tatars in a follow-up phone call in April 2014.Hide Footnote After the plebiscite, then Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu held a joint press conference with Dzhemilev, pledging to pursue “determined diplomacy” while rejecting the outcome of the vote.[fn]President Abdullah Gül decorated Dzhemilev with the Order of the Republic on 14 April 2014.Hide Footnote In October, TIKA, Turkey’s foreign development agency, funded the opening of a Tatar Centre in Kyiv.[fn]Starting in 1995, TIKA paid for the restoration of Tatar historic sites in Crimea. Sezai Özçelik and Soner Karagül, “Ukraine Crisis and Turkey’s Policy toward Crimea”, in Karol Kujawa and Valery Morkva (eds.), 2014 Crisis in Ukraine: Perspectives, Reflections, International Reverberations (Gliwice, 2015), pp. 43-56.Hide Footnote Such support increased during the 2015-2016 crisis over the jet downed over Syria. For instance, in February 2016, Turkey donated camouflage uniforms to a Tatar volunteer battalion in Ukraine’s Kherson oblast (administration district), just north of Crimea, which had been involved in the blockade Kyiv authorities imposed on the annexed region since November 2015.[fn]“Crimean Tatar battalion got help from Turkey”, QHA, 4 February 2016.Hide Footnote

Ankara’s reluctance to lend its support to Western measures against Moscow aggravates its squabbles with the West.

Since the referendum, Turkish Airlines has suspended flights to Simferopol (the only airport in Crimea to which it flew). But Turkey has wavered regarding sea connections to the peninsula.[fn]“Türkiye’den Kırım’a uçuşlar durdu” [“Flights from Turkey to Crimea halted”], Milliyet, 11 March 2014.Hide Footnote In April 2014, it banned from its ports any vessel declaring “Russian Crimea” as its domicile. In October 2016, in a partial reversal, Turkish authorities restored ferry services connecting Zonguldak to Sevastopol, a major port and the largest city in Crimea, and to Kerch on the peninsula’s eastern coast.[fn]The ferry line between Zonguldak and Kerch started operating in July 2014, while the line to Sevastopol was opened in August 2015. They were suspended after 24 November 2015. “Türkiye ve Kırım arasında yeni feribot hattı açıldı” [“New ferry line between Turkey and Crimea launched”], Sputnik, 22 August 2014.Hide Footnote Then, in March 2017, Turkey again closed its ports to traffic from Crimea.[fn]“Turkish sea blockade of Crimea was confirmed”, QHA, 10 March 2017.Hide Footnote Ukrainian Prime Minister Vladimir Groysman, who was in Turkey at the time, praised the decision.[fn]“Groysman welcomes Ankara’s decision to ban Turkish ships from visiting Crimea”, Kyiv Post, 14 March 2017.Hide Footnote About a quarter of the vessels blacklisted by Kyiv (as of 15 August 2016) for sailing to Crimea are owned by Turkish entities (though registered under different flags), which had long been a problem between Kyiv and Ankara: sea trade from Turkey in violation of sanctions has thrived since 2014 and did not abate during the jet crisis.[fn]Andriy Klymenko, “The effectiveness of the maritime sanctions in relation to the occupation of Crimea”, Black Sea News, 20 December 2016; Andriy Klymenko, Olha Korbut and Tatyana Guchakova, “Blacklist: 260 foreign ships that entered Crimea over period of annexation as of August 15, 2016”, Black Sea News, 12 September 2016. On smuggling, see Alya Shandra, “Ankara bans Turkish ships from entering Russian-occupied Crimea. Again”, Euromaidan Press, 18 March 2017.Hide Footnote It seems that Turkish-owned ships registered in other jurisdictions continue to break the ban.[fn]“Türkiye, Kırım’a uğrayan gemilerin kontrolünü sıkılaştıracak” [“Turkey to tighten control of ships that stop by Crimea”], Sputnik, 12 October 2017.Hide Footnote For instance, in February, a Turkish cargo vessel under Moldovan flag called in the port of Feodosia, ostensibly for repairs after an accident at sea.[fn]Viktoriya Veselova, “Крушение в «серой зоне»: как турецкое судно застряло у берегов Крыма” (“Wreck in the ‘grey zone’: How a Turkish vessel became stuck on Crimea’s shore”, Krym Realii (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), 5 February 2018.Hide Footnote

Despite Turkey’s rejection of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, its support for the Tatars and its limits on shipping, Ankara has been reluctant to let the Crimea annexation overshadow its relations with Russia. It refuses to join Western sanctions and keeps a clear distance not only from the EU’s strategy toward Moscow but also, in rhetoric if not substance, even from that of the West as a whole, notwithstanding its membership in NATO.[fn]According to Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, “[w]e have no commitment to join EU sanctions …. Every country must consider its own interests”. “Turkey refuses to join anti-Russia EU sanctions for economic reasons”, Sputnik, 2 February 2015.Hide Footnote “Turkey knows this is something between Russia and the West … and it will keep quiet and let them work it out”, said Gülnur Aybet, an international relations professor who has become a senior adviser to Erdoğan.[fn]‘Turkey waiting for Russia, West on Ukraine problem”, Hürriyet Daily News, 12 May 2014.Hide Footnote Ankara’s reluctance to lend its support to Western measures against Moscow aggravates its squabbles with the West. “Turkey’s refusal to side with the EU sanctions is one among several hurdles in the negotiations for updating the Customs Union”, according to one European diplomat in Brussels.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Brussels, August 2017.Hide Footnote

The Crimea issue also has limited domestic appeal in Turkey. With the partial exception of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has traditionally focused on Turkic communities abroad, no major actor has paid the matter much attention. The hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens with origins in Crimea have limited bearing on Ankara’s foreign policy.

For its part, the Kremlin has largely ignored Turkish concerns regarding Crimea. In 2014, it banned Tatar leaders Dzhemilev and Chubarov from entering the peninsula, despite their relationship with Erdoğan.[fn]Dimiter Kenarov, “Putin’s peninsula is a lonely island”, Foreign Policy, 6 February 2015. The authorities also banned the head of Crimea’s QHA news agency, Ismet Yüksel, who holds Turkish citizenship. In October 2014, Dzhemilev was elected as member of the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) from Poroshenko’s party.Hide Footnote An unofficial monitoring mission dispatched by the Turkish government in April 2015 and allowed in by the Russians registered violations of Tatar rights to free speech, property and access to native-language education. Though Erdoğan handed the mission’s 21-page report to Putin during a June 2015 meeting in Baku, it was subsequently dismissed by the Russian foreign ministry.[fn]“Что написано в отчете по правам человека, переданном Эрдоганом Путину?” [“What is written in the report on human rights given to Erdogan and Putin?”], QHA, 30 June 2015; “Moskova: Türk heyetinin değerlendirmeleri bizi hayal kırıklığına uğrattı” [“Moscow: The assessments of the Turkish government disappointed us”], Hürriyet Daily News, 20 June 2015.Hide Footnote

After Russian authorities had initially attempted, without much success, to co-opt the Mejlis, in April 2016, Crimea’s Supreme Court outlawed the body as an “extremist organisation”, pointing to its links with Turkish ultra-nationalist groups such as the Grey Wolves as well as the pan-Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir.[fn]The Russian Federation’s Supreme Court confirmed the ruling on 29 September 2016.Hide Footnote Reports cite repression, including imprisonment and confinement in mental institutions, of Tatar activists opposed to the region’s incorporation into Russia.[fn]“Situation of Human Rights in the Temporarily Occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol (Ukraine)”, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, September 2017; “Крымские татары: год с Россией” [“Crimean Tatars: A year with Russia”], BBC (Russian), 18 March 2015; Ilya Azar, “Настоящая реабилитация: Как в России преследуют крымских татар: репортаж Ильи Азара” [“Real rehabilitation: How Crimean Tatars are persecuted in Russia: Reportage by Ilya Azar”], Meduza, 30 March 2016; Madeline Roache, “Russian authorities ‘imprisoning Crimean Tatars in psychiatric hospitals’”, The Guardian, 28 March 2017.Hide Footnote Moscow also has pursued a divide-and-rule strategy toward the Tatars. In October 2014, it formed the so-called Interregional Social Movement of the Crimean Tatar People, or Qirim, led by Remzi Ilyasov. A former member of the Mejlis, Ilyasov left to become deputy speaker of annexed Crimea’s State Council (the parliamentary body of the Republic of Crimea within the Russian Federation). He has frequently called on Turkey to recognise the peninsula’s merger with Russia.

That said, Turkish lobbying, combined with the Russian-Turkish rapprochement, has had some impact in Crimea. Ukrainian authorities credited Erdoğan for the Russian authorities’ release, on 25 October 2017, of Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, both deputy Mejlis chairmen, after three years in jail, and for Moscow’s permitting the departure of both men for Turkey.[fn]Matthew Kupfer, “Turkey: Erdoğan negotiates release of Crimean Tatar leaders imprisoned by Russia”, Eurasia Net, 26 October 2017.Hide Footnote Their release suggests Turkey’s quiet diplomacy and persistence can pay off – at least on some issues. Certainly, Crimean Tatars have no better advocate. Ankara should build on improving relations to lobby Russia for further concessions. Deals on the situation of the Crimean Tatars are advantageous to Russia, too: the domestic boost they give Erdoğan draws him closer into Moscow’s orbit, while the costs to Moscow are small.

“Что написано в отчете по правам человека, переданном Эрдоганом Путину?” [“What is written in the report on human rights given to Erdogan and Putin?”], QHA, 30 June 2015; “Moskova: Türk heyetinin değerlendirmeleri bizi hayal kırıklığına uğrattı” [“Moscow: The assessments of the Turkish government disappointed us”], Hürriyet Daily News, 20 June 2015.Hide Footnote

Turkey has largely steered clear of serious involvement in the four-year-old conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the breakaway region in Donbas. Ankara supports the Minsk agreements, and Ertuğrul Apakan, former undersecretary at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has served since April 2014 as head of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.[fn]During his visit to Kyiv in February 2015, Erdoğan deflected a journalist’s question as to whether Turkey was willing to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. Hilâl Kaplan, “Erdoğan: Turkey supports Minsk ceasefire agreement in Ukrainian crisis”, Daily Sabah, 23 March 2015.Hide Footnote Many Turkish officials regard Russia and the West as equally culpable in the conflict. “The U.S. has itself to blame”, a Turkish diplomat remarked in June 2014, adding, “it gave Russia carte blanche in Ukraine by not intervening in Syria” – an allusion to the Barack Obama administration’s decision not to strike Assad regime targets in 2013 despite the regime’s use of chemical weapons after an explicit U.S. warning against it.[fn]Comment made during a workshop on “Implications of the Ukrainian Crisis for Eastern Europe”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey, Ankara, 2 June 2014. Summary at: Footnote During the early stages of the crisis, some Turkish commentators alleged that Western powers had helped stoke the Maidan protests and were using democracy promotion to contain Russia in its neighbourhood.[fn]“İşte Ukrayna'daki ‘muhalefet’in liderleri” [“These are the leaders of Ukraine’s ‘opposition’”], Sol, 21 February 2014.Hide Footnote

At the same time, Turkish leaders have occasionally used the Ukraine conflict to score rhetorical points against Russia. When Erdoğan slammed Putin for commemorating the centennial of the Armenian genocide in late April 2015, he pointed to Russia’s invasion of Crimea and interference in Donbas.[fn]Semih Idiz, “Russia’s recognition of Armenian genocide strains ties with Turkey”, Al-Monitor, 28 April 2015.Hide Footnote Turkey also declared plans by Russian-backed Donbas separatists in July 2017 to rebrand the so-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic as “Malorossia” (“Little Russia”, a term applied to Ukraine in the Tsarist era) a violation of Ukrainian territorial integrity.[fn]“‘Little Russia’ proclamation violates Ukraine’s territorial integrity, foreign ministry says”, Daily Sabah, 20 July 2017.Hide Footnote Moreover, while Moscow uses the Donbas conflict as leverage to keep Kyiv in check, Ankara prefers a stronger Ukraine which could act as an ally in the region. Thus far, however, it has not publicly suggested that Moscow take steps to de-escalate that conflict.

Ankara’s hushed reaction to Crimea and Donbas conceals its alarm over the expanding Russian influence and military build-up in the Black Sea. In the words of a Turkish official:

The Russian military presence has increased everywhere: in Crimea, in Armenia, in the Eastern Mediterranean … Russia benefits from the continuation of problems, [of] frozen conflicts. There are conflicts everywhere that they influence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, June 2017.Hide Footnote

The seizure of Crimea tilted the balance of power between Russia and Turkey in the Black Sea toward Moscow. After March 2014, Russia’s de facto coastline grew from 475km to 1,200km or about 25 per cent of the sea’s total shorefront.[fn]That does not count the 300km of coastline belonging to Abkhazia, a region that broke away from Georgia in 1999 and declared independence. It was recognised by Russia and a handful of other states in 2008. Russia deployed S-300 batteries to this region when reinforcing its military presence in Crimea. Crisis Group interview, de facto Abkhazian official, Sukhumi, August 2017. For more about the Russian military presence in Abkhazia, see David Batashvili, “Russia troop deployments menace Georgia”,, 4 April 2017.  Hide Footnote That nearly equals the length of Turkey’s shore, which is 1,785km or about 35 per cent of the total coastline.

The Crimean port of Sevastopol, parts of which Moscow previously leased from Ukraine, has long provided Russia with a natural deep-water port centrally located in the Black Sea basin. Major littoral cities, including Istanbul, Samsun, Trabzon, Constanta (Romania) and Varna (Bulgaria), are within easy reach, less than 1,000km away. Since 2013, Sevastopol has been a springboard for Russian forays through the Bosphorus into the Mediterranean and for the so-called Syria Express, which supplies Russian forces in Syria.

After the Crimea annexation, Russia has further boosted its military presence on the peninsula – not only in Sevastopol but also at the port of Feodosia and in Soviet-era facilities scattered around the peninsula.[fn]Luke Harding, “Ukraine extends lease for Russia’s Black Sea fleet”, The Guardian, 21 April 2010.Hide Footnote Vladimir Putin claimed to have “turned Crimea into a fortress” in a documentary aired by the Russia-1 TV channel on the first anniversary of the annexation in March 2015.[fn]Kira Latoukhina, “Путин рассказал про ‘вежливых людей’ в Крыму” [“Putin talked about the polite people in Crimea”], Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 15 March 2015.Hide Footnote Having unilaterally revoked the restrictions under the 2010 Kharkiv Pact signed with Ukraine, Moscow is adding fifteen to eighteen new vessels to its Black Sea Fleet by 2020 (including multipurpose frigates and advanced submarines equipped with high-precision cruise missiles). It has advantages in the air, too, thanks to its S-300 and S-400 SAMs deployed on the peninsula. “Russia has developed a very strong anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability in the Black Sea”, commented General Philip Breedlove, then NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, in 2015. “Essentially their [anti-ship] cruise missiles range the entire Black Sea, and their air defence missiles range over about 40 to 50 per cent of the Black Sea”.[fn]“Joint statement of the NATO-Ukraine Commission”, press release, NATO, 13 May 2015.Hide Footnote

Russia’s projection over the Black Sea adds to NATO’s worry over its actions in Crimea and Donbas, particularly given the concerns of the alliance’s littoral members, which include Romania and Bulgaria as well as Turkey. At NATO summits in Wales in September 2014 and Warsaw in July 2016, the alliance pledged to those three members that it would maintain in the Black Sea a “Tailored Forward Presence”. This presence rests on, first, frequent exercises and visits by U.S. and other allies’ naval ships from outside the region; and, second, the deployment of a multinational brigade in Romania.[fn]Boris Toucas, “NATO and Russia in the Black Sea: A new confrontation?”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 6 March 2017. Since 2006, the U.S. has operated joint military facilities with Romania and Bulgaria, including Mihail Kogălniceanu near Constanta where the NATO multinational framework brigade is stationed.Hide Footnote

Prior to the Ukraine crisis, NATO focused its Black Sea strategy on non-traditional security threats, such as terrorism and illegal trafficking. After the Crimea annexation, however, its prime concern is Russian expansionism. In 2014 alone, as part of NATO’s Atlantic Resolve operation, U.S. warships spent a total of 207 days in the Black Sea, compared to two short visits in 2013. In 2017, the U.S. led eighteen exercises in the area, including the Sea Breeze multinational exercise co-led with the Ukrainian navy and Saber, a massive land-based drill involving some 25,000 soldiers from 23 allied and partner countries, including Georgia and Ukraine.[fn]Martin Egnash, “U.S. plans massive exercise in Black Sea region”, Stars and Stripes, 10 June 2017.Hide Footnote

NATO members are making a sustained push to anchor the alliance institutionally in the Black Sea, a policy Turkey supports. In February 2016, Romanian Defence Minister Mihnea Ioan Motoc proposed the establishment of a permanent naval task force by Romania, Turkey and Bulgaria, with German, Italian and U.S. logistical and direct military support. Though Bulgaria vetoed the plan before the July 2016 Warsaw summit, Turkey was in favour, illustrating its shifting posture. In any case, the alliance has taken incremental steps toward reinforced cooperation. On 16 February 2017, NATO defence ministers endorsed an enhanced presence “on land, at sea and in the air” and authorised the Standing Naval Forces, the allied immediate response unit, to deepen links with allies in the Black Sea.[fn]For example, four British Typhoon deployed for four months in 2016 at the Mihail Kogălniceanu base on Romania’s coast to conduct NATO air policing. “British Typhoon jets arrive in Romania for NATO enhanced air policing”, Allied Air Command Public Affairs Office NATO, 25 April 2017. U.S. F-15 fighter jets deployed to Bulgaria on a similar mission. “NATO’s enhanced air policing measures begin in Bulgaria”, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe Public Affairs Office, 9 September 2016.Hide Footnote

Russia’s actions and NATO’s response raise the risk of some form of confrontation, even if accidental. Instances of Russian fighter jets “buzzing” U.S. warships and intercepting NATO planes in the Black Sea have been common since 2014. Heavier naval traffic has already led to one incident. On 27 April 2017, a Russian intelligence vessel en route to Syria sank off Turkey’s Black Sea coast, not far from Istanbul, after a collision with a merchant ship coming from Constanta, Romania.[fn]“Russian intelligence ship sinks off Turkey’s Black Sea coast”, Reuters, 27 April 2017.Hide Footnote Allied exercises in the Black Sea sometimes take place alongside even larger-scale Russian drills.[fn]Ian Brzezinski and Nicholas Varangis, “The NATO-Russia exercise gap… Then, now, & 2017”, Atlantic Council, 25 October 2016.Hide Footnote Violations of NATO members’ airspace, or instances of Russian jets flying on the very edge of that airspace, are frequent.[fn]Damien Sharkov, “Bulgaria concerned by spike of Russian airspace violations”, Newsweek, 25 July 2016.Hide Footnote

Boris Toucas, “NATO and Russia in the Black Sea: A new confrontation?”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 6 March 2017. Since 2006, the U.S. has operated joint military facilities with Romania and Bulgaria, including Mihail Kogălniceanu near Constanta where the NATO multinational framework brigade is stationed.Hide Footnote

Until the annexation of Crimea, Ankara believed its interests in the Black Sea best served by keeping the U.S. at arm’s length. From 2001 onward, Ankara and Moscow promoted Black Sea Harmony and the Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group (Blackseafor), maritime security initiatives that sought to reduce risks of confrontation by excluding NATO from of the Black Sea.[fn]Suat Kınıklıoğlu and Valeriy Morkva, “An Anatomy of Turkish-Russian Relations”, Journal of Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, vol. 7, no. 4 (2007), pp. 533-553.Hide Footnote Black Sea Harmony, in particular, emerged as an alternative to NATO’s Active Endeavour mission, an operation targeting transnational terrorism and smuggling. Newer NATO members Romania and, less overtly, Bulgaria lobbied for the extension of Active Endeavour into the Black Sea. Older NATO member Turkey, by contrast, largely sought to accommodate Russia’s security concerns. During the August 2008 war in Georgia, for example, Turkey barred two U.S. hospital vessels, the USNS Comfort and Mercy, from crossing through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea.[fn]Beyond the Black Sea, it accepted – unlike others in NATO – Putin’s decision to pull Russia from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in late 2007. It also declined to react strongly to the resumption of Russian reconnaissance flights at the edges of Turkish airspace.Hide Footnote

The Crimea annexation prompted a rethink. In May 2016 – that is, before reconciling with Putin – Erdoğan claimed to have told Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, that the “Black Sea has almost become a Russian lake. If we don’t act now, history will not forgive us”.[fn]Sam Jones and Kathrin Hille, “Russia’s military ambitions make waves in the Black Sea”, Financial Times, 13 May 2016.Hide Footnote Although Ankara has deepened security ties with Moscow, these fears remain. According to a leading Turkish security expert, “the perception of threat [posed by Russia] remains high. Turkey’s strategy is aimed at balancing Russia”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, July 2017.Hide Footnote The underlying attitude is summed up by Professor Mustafa Aydın, the doyen of Black Sea studies in Turkey:

NATO’s current objective is to find a credible yet unthreatening strategy to deter Russia in its eastern and southern flanks. It is clear that further militarisation of the Black Sea will create an unstable environment that can bring Russia and NATO to the brink of a potential conflict. Though nobody benefits from such an escalation, we should remember that force projections in international relations, which are not countered properly, would eventually lead to further force projections and an eventual showdown.[fn]Mustafa Aydın, “Power struggle in the Black Sea”, Hürriyet Daily News, 30 March 2017.Hide Footnote

As a result, despite increased friction between Ankara and its Western allies and improving Ankara-Moscow ties, Russia’s expansion makes the NATO alliance more and more significant for Turkey in the Black Sea. Ankara has to reckon with hard facts. Before 2014, Turkey had the edge: its navy had a combined tonnage of 97,000 as against 63,000 tonnes for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet; the Turks had fourteen submarines to Russia’s one, and overwhelming superiority in amphibious vessels (54 to seven).[fn]“Военные расходы в Черноморском регионе” [“Military expenses in the Black Sea region”], Russian International Affairs Council, 20 June 2016. In December 1991, Ankara allowed the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to pass through the Dardanelles (in contravention of Montreux’s terms) to join Russia’s Northern Fleet, only too happy that the threat from Moscow had subsided, allowing it to focus on its rivalry with Greece in the Aegean.Hide Footnote Russia’s build-up has altered the balance. Turkey retains an edge only in amphibious warfare ships, due to France’s decision to cancel the sale to Russia of two Mistral-class vessels in 2015.[fn]Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Dmitry Medvedev oversaw the deal for the sale of two Mistral assault ships in January 2011. Following the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, in September 2014, President François Hollande “froze” the sale. In August 2015, France agreed to pay Russia back, effectively cancelling the agreement.Hide Footnote

Ankara still views preservation of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which limits the presence of outside naval powers in the Black Sea, as a core national interest (in fact, NATO ships from non-littoral states rotate in and out of the sea to comply with the 21-day limit set by that convention). But leaning on NATO – and thus allowing in more ships – is now a logical choice, irrespective of Turkey’s rift with the U.S. and Europe.

In parallel, Turkey is modernising its armed forces and seeking to boost its indigenous defence industry. The MILGEM (National Ship) project, which had stalled for years, is again a clear priority. On 3 July 2017, Turkey inaugurated the Kınalıada, a corvette equipped to fight submarines.[fn]Turkey’s goal is to source 65 per cent of the inputs domestically. “Turkey launches fourth corvette built as part of national ship project”, Daily Sabah, 3 July 2017.Hide Footnote Having acquired two new tank-landing ships, MILGEM’s next phase involves the construction of a new class of frigates.[fn]Lale Sariibrahimoğlu, “Turkey begins construction of first Istanbul-class frigate”, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 23 January 2017.Hide Footnote Erdoğan has reiterated Turkey’s intention to build its own aircraft carrier (to be deployed in the Mediterranean, rather than in the Black Sea). Observers in Moscow watch closely; as Vladimir Komoedov, head of the Russian Duma’s defence committee and former commander of the Black Sea Fleet (1998-2002) put it, “Russia needs to take into account the strengthening of Turkey’s navy, irrespective of the constructive nature of the relationship”.[fn]Nikita Kovalanko and Yekaterina Korostichenko, “Турции рановато мечтать об авианосце” [“It is too early for Turkey to dream about an aircraft carrier”], Vzglyad, 3 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Mustafa Aydın, “Power struggle in the Black Sea”, Hürriyet Daily News, 30 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Turkey and Ukraine have enjoyed close security cooperation, which has continued despite improved Russia-Turkey ties. The relationship was again highlighted in October 2017 by Erdoğan’s visit to Kyiv for a session of the High-Level Strategic Council, an annual political dialogue format that has brought the two presidents and cabinets together since 2011.

As its frustration grew over Russia’s 2015 Syria intervention, Turkey leaned more clearly toward Ukraine, notwithstanding the cautious balance it has traditionally struck with Moscow.[fn]As an example of Turkey’s balancing with Moscow, before visiting Poroshenko in March 2015, Erdoğan called Putin to touch base. Semih Idiz, “Erdoğan’s delicate balancing act in Kiev”, Al-Monitor, 24 March 2015.Hide Footnote In February 2016, during then Prime Minister Davutoğlu’s visit to Kyiv, officials from both sides agreed to cooperate in designing and manufacturing aircraft engines, radar units, military communication and navigation systems.[fn]Burak Ege Bekdil, “Turkey and Ukraine pledge ‘strategic’ defense industry cooperation”, Defense News, 21 February 2016.Hide Footnote Advanced technology projects, such as phased space rockets, ballistic missile systems and even cruise missiles, are also under discussion. The Ukrainian navy, greatly diminished after the Russian seizure of Crimea, has been training with its Turkish counterpart, most recently in an air defence exercise at Odessa in April 2017.[fn]Metin Gürcan, “Turkey-Ukraine defense industry ties are booming”, Al-Monitor, 1 May 2017.Hide Footnote

Kyiv also shows an interest in Turkey’s defence industrial projects. In March 2017, Vladimir Groysman, Ukraine’s prime minister, signed a preliminary memorandum of understanding over the supply of engines for Turkey’s Altay battle tank.[fn]One possible contractor is the Engine Design Bureau in Kharkiv.Hide Footnote A Ukrainian security expert saw no contradiction between Ankara’s cooperation with Kyiv, on the one hand, and Moscow, on the other: “For the Turks, this is business – and if anyone will make business work, it is them”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ukrainian expert, Kyiv, September 2017.Hide Footnote

The strategic logic of tighter Turkey-Ukraine ties is straightforward: each sees the other as a counterweight to Moscow.

Ties to Ukraine also provide Turkey with backup technology transfer and know-how. As Metin Gürcan, a Turkish security analyst, puts it: “Ukraine is the nearest and most willing potential partner to help Turkey overcome the interruptions in military technology transfer from the U.S. and Europe because of frequent political disagreements”.[fn]Gürcan, “Turkey-Ukraine defense industry ties are booming”, op. cit.Hide Footnote While that might be overly ambitious, Ukrainian industries could help Turkey develop its naval force. In turn, Turkey provides a lucrative market for the Ukrainian contractors who have suffered losses after cutting ties to their traditional partners from Russia’s military-industrial complex.[fn]Turkey still relies on Western companies; the contract for the Altay tanks, for instance, will likely go to BMC, a politically connected Turkish company partnering with German military technology supplier Rheinmetall. Mehmet Cetingulec, “Turkey’s Altay tank project not ready to roll after all”, Al-Monitor, 19 June 2017. Russian experts also recognise the benefits to Turkey of Ukrainian cooperation in terms of reducing dependence on Western contractors. Crisis Group phone interview, Russian foreign policy expert, August 2017.Hide Footnote

The strategic logic of tighter Turkey-Ukraine ties is straightforward: each sees the other as a counterweight to Moscow. As a Russian journalist covering Turkish affairs argues, “Turkey is investing in pressure points to even the field with Russia”.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Russian expert on Turkey, 28 June 2017.Hide Footnote The same logic applies to commercial relations. In March 2017, Ukrainian Prime Minister Groysman and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım finalised an agreement enabling Turks and Ukrainians to travel between their countries with ID cards as opposed to passports (as is already the case between Turkey and Georgia).[fn]“Turkey, Ukraine sign passport-free travel deal to boost tourism”, Hürriyet Daily News, 14 March 2017.Hide Footnote Talks on a free trade deal reportedly also have advanced.[fn]“Turkey, Ukraine move closer to free trade deal”, Daily Sabah, 23 May 2017.Hide Footnote

The South Caucasus is another region in which Russian and Turkish interests clash. Since the early 1990s, Ankara, playing up its credentials as a NATO member and economic powerhouse closely aligned with the EU, has pursued a three-way partnership with Azerbaijan and Georgia focused on security and defence, infrastructure and energy.[fn]Fiona Hill, Kemal Kirisçi and Andrew Moffatt, “Retracing the Caucasian circle: Considerations and constraints for U.S., EU and Turkish involvement in the South Caucasus”, Policy Paper, Brookings Institution, 15 July 2015. Ankara and Tbilisi signed a free trade agreement in 2007, abolishing visas two years later and then lifting passport requirements in 2011.Hide Footnote The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, along with the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (inaugurated on 12 June 2018) and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (which is under construction), together would complete the Southern Gas Corridor intended to link the Caspian Sea gas fields to consumer countries in the EU. A recently inaugurated railroad runs from Kars, in eastern Turkey, through Georgia to Baku, and is touted as part of the new Silk Road connecting Europe and China while bypassing Russia.[fn]“Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railways officially launched”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 30 October 2017.Hide Footnote

That said, Russia remains a key power in the region and exerts enormous influence over Armenia, Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and to a lesser degree, over Azerbaijan and Georgia itself. For now, Turkey acknowledges Russia’s advantage, and avoids direct confrontation even as it deepens cooperation with Azerbaijan and Georgia.[fn]During Russia’s short war against Georgia over South Ossetia in August 2008, Ankara chose not to directly challenge Moscow, despite its close ties to Georgia. Erdoğan opted for conciliation, through the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform aimed at restarting multilateral dialogue, and sought to keep the U.S. away from the Black Sea to avoid escalation.Hide Footnote While broader Russia-Turkey rapprochement is unlikely to signal major shifts in a region in which the two countries largely compete, it might offer opportunities to reduce risks of another flare-up between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The protracted conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh poses a particular challenge to Russia-Turkey relations. Russia has close ties to Armenia, through a bilateral defence cooperation treaty and through the Russia-sponsored Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Armenia is a member.[fn]CSTO membership entails a more far-reaching security commitment than the mutual assistance treaty between Turkey and Azerbaijan. For instance, it entitles Armenia to acquire armaments at the prices Russia charges its own military. See “Russia, Armenia sign extended defense pact”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 20 August 2010.Hide Footnote Moscow, however, also sells weapons to Baku, and has been seeking closer ties with Azerbaijan, including through trilateral Russia-Azerbaijan-Iran cooperation.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening or More Peril?, op. cit.Hide Footnote Turkey’s bilateral Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support (2010) with Azerbaijan obliges the two countries to assist each other using “all possibilities” in the event of military attack on either by a third country.[fn]Article 2 of the agreement stipulates that the form and volume of such assistance shall be agreed without delay. The full version of the agreement (in Azerbaijani language) is available at Footnote

In early April 2016, Nagorno-Karabakh saw its most dangerous upsurge of violence since Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire in May 1994. An Azerbaijani offensive won minor territorial gains, inflicted heavy losses on both sides and briefly galvanised diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening or More Peril?, op. cit.Hide Footnote The escalation, facilitated by Baku’s beefed-up military capabilities, unleashed a war of words between Russia and Turkey at a time when the Su-24 downing had already soured relations.

Erdoğan chastised the Kremlin for siding with the Armenians rather than acting as an honest broker in its capacity as one of the three co-chairs of the OSCE-led Minsk Group (other co-chairs are the U.S. and France; Turkey is a permanent member along with seven other OSCE participating states, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as the OSCE Troika, comprising the current, past and incoming chairmanships in office), and lamented that group’s impotence.[fn]“Russia, not Turkey, taking sides in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, says Erdoğan”, Hürriyet Daily News, 6 April 2016.Hide Footnote Top Russian officials, including Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, accused Turkey of fanning the flames by channelling military aid to Azerbaijan, drawing parallels to Turkey’s “meddling” in Syria.[fn]“Turkey must stop meddling in other states’ affairs, end support of terrorism, Russia says”, Reuters, 4 April 2016.Hide Footnote The testy exchange between Ankara and Moscow was misinterpreted internationally as full Turkish backing for Baku’s military adventurism; in all likelihood, Turkey was reluctant to take the risk of getting too involved.[fn]That was acknowledged by Russian experts, too. Sergey Markedonov, “Russia-Turkey Relations and Security Issues in the Caucasus”, Russia in Global Affairs, 30 May 2016.Hide Footnote

The angry exchanges did not fuel a major escalation: only days after the outbreak of hostilities, Moscow summoned the Armenian and Azerbaijani military chiefs of staff, renewing a ceasefire in less than a week. Ankara, which was overstretched domestically and in the Middle East, and in any case had no intention of taking on Russia in the region, opted to keep a low profile. Nonetheless, were the conflict to escalate again, the risk that the two regional powers get inadvertently sucked in remains.

Though the last flare-up between Azerbaijan and Armenia was contained fairly quickly, Turkish and Russian relations with the two countries add an extra layer of risk in what is already a heavily militarised region. Baku has scaled up its forces in Nakhchivan, an exclave separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by a slice of southern Armenia, deploying artillery, multiple-rocket launchers and special forces there, in proximity to Yerevan. The Azerbaijani and Turkish militaries also held joint exercises in the province, which shares a short stretch of border with Turkey.[fn]Zaur Shiriyev, “Azerbaijan building up forces in Nakhchivan”, Eurasia Net, 10 August 2017.Hide Footnote

For its part, in January 2016 – weeks after the Su-24 incident – Russia upgraded its military presence in Armenia, stationing Mi-24P attack and Mi-8MT transport helicopters at the Erebuni military airfield outside Yerevan.[fn]The deployments coincided with a bombing campaign intended to cut a corridor from besieged eastern Aleppo to Turkish territory.Hide Footnote In September 2016, the Armenian army showcased a new 9K720 Iskander short-range ballistic missile system acquired from Russia.[fn]Eduard Abrahamyan, “Armenia’s new ballistic missiles will shake up the neighborhood”, The National Interest, 12 October 2016.Hide Footnote Two months later, Russia and Armenia agreed to set up a joint group of armed forces, with a mandate that includes repelling attacks against Armenian territory.[fn]Nikolai Litovkin, “Russia and Armenia to create joint defence force in Caucasus”, Russia Beyond the Headlines, 16 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Yerevan’s motivation for the arms build-up is mostly to deter another Azerbaijani offensive; the joint group of forces does not envisage deploying inside Nagorno-Karabakh or along the line of contact. But both the build-up and the joint group also appear to be a signal from Russia to Turkey in the context of their regional standoff that Ankara should stay away in the event of renewed violence in or around the enclave. Moscow’s close defence cooperation with Yerevan also means that it has expanded its military footprint along nearly all of Turkey’s borders: it has sold Iskander ballistic missiles to Armenia to Turkey’s east; installed the same system at Hmeimim air base in north-western Syria to Turkey’s south; and after 2019, may deploy it in Crimea to Turkey’s north.[fn]The Iskander-M is the variety used by the Russian army with a range of 500km; the one exported to Armenia ranges 280km.Hide Footnote

While Turkey has avoided public criticism of Russian aid to Armenia, it has deepened links with regional allies to hedge against Russia in the Caucasus as it has done in the Black Sea, and pursued close bilateral military cooperation with Azerbaijan.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, Ankara, June 2017.Hide Footnote In May 2016, the Turkish defence minister resumed meetings with his Azerbaijani and Georgia counterparts, an initiative dating back to the June 2012 Trabzon Declaration (the first such meeting took place in 2013).[fn]Nerdun Hacioğlu, “Türkiye, Azerbaycan ve Gürcistan askeri işbirliğini derinleştiriyor” [“Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia deepen military cooperation”], Hürriyet Daily News, 15 May 2012. The agreement expanded an earlier trilateral security deal from April 2002.Hide Footnote A meeting among the defence ministers in May 2017 was followed a month later by a three-nation military drill near Tbilisi.[fn]“Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey launch military drills near Tbilisi”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 5 June 2017.Hide Footnote In April 2018, the three defence ministers signed a memorandum that envisions closer trilateral defence partnership.[fn]“Azerbaijani, Georgian, Turkish defense ministers sign cooperation memorandum”,, 2 April 2018.Hide Footnote This comes on top of Turkey’s already well-established bilateral military cooperation with Azerbaijan. Turkey has long provided training to the Azerbaijani​ army and the two armies have held joint exercises of land forces. Since 2014 joint exercises​ have been expanded to include air forces and special forces, and annual joint trainings are held in Nakhchivan.​[fn]Zaur Shiriyev, “Azerbaijan’s security perceptions: Old challenges with new faces”, Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, June 2016.Hide Footnote Azerbaijan is also a major consumer of Turkish defence products.[fn]Azerbaijan’s weapons imports from Turkey include armoured vehicles, self-propelled multiple rocket launchers, guided rockets. Azerbaijan became the first foreign buyer of Turkish high-speed electromagnetic interference anti-drone systems. Azerbaijan and Turkey have developed several joint military industrial initiatives; the latest one with Turkish Roketsan entails the joint production of rockets. “SIPRI Arms Transfers Database”, SIPRI, at; “Turkey’s Roketsan supplies Azerbaijani Armed Forces with guided missiles”, APA, 28 September 2016.Hide Footnote

Whether Turkey and Russia can use their rapprochement to reduce risks of another flare-up over Nagorno-Karabakh remains to be seen. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, each with powerful regional allies, in Moscow and Ankara respectively, overlaps with tense Turkey-Armenia relations and with grievances dating back to Ottoman times. This multilayered dynamic makes any progress on Nagorno-Karabakh particularly difficult.

Yet there is precedent, albeit limited, for Ankara and Moscow working together to ease regional tensions. In 2007-2009, Russia supported Turkey’s and Armenia’s “football diplomacy”, culminating in the effort to normalise ties and unblock the border that Ankara closed in 1993 in connection to the war over Nagorno-Karabakh.[fn]Technically, the border was never open; there was only one weekly train between Kars and Gyumri in Soviet times. In April 1994, Ankara decided not to sign the protocol that would have opened the border.Hide Footnote That temporary thaw between Yerevan and Ankara led to the October 2009 signing of the two Zurich protocols, which envisaged the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two countries and the opening of the Turkey-Armenia border. That thaw, which may have been partly linked to the reset at the time of Russia-U.S. relations, was quickly reversed, as Ankara, in an expression of support to Baku, maintained that progress on border opening should be linked to Armenia’s return of Azerbaijani territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh to Baku’s control.

A decade later, Moscow offered to facilitate the normalisation of relations between Armenia and Turkey. Foreign Minister Lavrov observed in a March 2017 interview with the Yerevan-based Regional Post that the Russian Federation “would most certainly welcome the opening of the Armenian-Turkish segment of the EEU’s external border for free movement of people, goods and services”, a step that would establish a territorial link between the Moscow-led EEU and the EU-Turkey Customs Union. Turkish officials also have extended olive branches. In April 2017, Turkey launched an EU-funded demining operation along the border with Armenia; the same month, the Armenian aviation authority granted Pegasus Airlines, a Turkish budget carrier, a licence to fly three times a week between Yerevan and Istanbul.[fn]Sibel Utku Bila, “Turkey faces demining delays”, Al-Monitor, 9 January 2015; Rashid Shirinov, “Turkey to demine areas bordering Azerbaijan, Iran, Armenia”, Azernews, 5 April 2017. Another Turkish company, AtlasGlobal, also flies the route five times a week. Turkish-Armenian trade takes place through Georgia, with volumes reaching $200 million. Tourists can obtain visas at the airport or at border crossings. Civil society ties are well developed. Fiona Hill, Kemal Kirisçi and Andrew Moffatt, “Armenia and Turkey: From Normalisation to Reconciliation”, Turkish Policy Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 4 (2015), pp. 127-138.Hide Footnote A few months later, Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu backed the so-called “Lavrov plan” for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, though both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis subsequently rejected the scheme.[fn]David Shahnazaryan, “A conflict of interests in Nagorno-Karabakh”, Stratfor, 28 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Today’s improved Russia-Turkey relations might at least open opportunities to head off new outbreaks of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Today’s improved Russia-Turkey relations might at least open opportunities to head off new outbreaks of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh. More fundamental progress toward the settlement of the conflict appears unlikely, however. Armenia is reluctant to link Russia-Turkey relations to either its own relations with Baku or the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process. In September 2017, President Serzh Sargsyan said he would revoke the Zurich protocols before leaving office in April 2018, the month his last presidential term ended – though he subsequently became prime minister – if Ankara did not return the Turkey-Armenia normalisation process to the bilateral track, involving neither Russia nor demands for Armenian concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh.[fn]“Statement by the President of the Republic of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan at the general debate of the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly”, Office of the President of the Republic of Armenia, 20 September 2018.Hide Footnote Armenia revoked the protocols in March 2018.[fn]“Press release regarding the claims of Mr. Edward Nalbandian, minister of foreign affairs of Armenia”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey, 14 December 2017; also “Armenia scraps agreement to normalise relations with Turkey”, Middle East Eye, 1 March 2018.Hide Footnote

The new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who was propelled to power by April 2018 mass protests that forced Sargsyan to stand down, has not wavered from this position. He is broadly seen as espousing a tough stance on Nagorno-Karabakh and unwilling to consider any return of land to Azerbaijan, Ankara’s main precondition for continuing its process of normalising relations with Yerevan and a non-negotiable requirement for any rapprochement with Baku.[fn]Eduard Abrahamyan, “Pashinyan stiffens Armenia’s posture toward Karabakh”, Eurasia Daily Monitor, 10 May 2018.Hide Footnote Visiting Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s main city, in June Pashinyan reiterated his predecessors’ offer to establish diplomatic relations with Turkey, but “without preconditions”.[fn]“PM: Armenia ready to establish diplomatic relations with Turkey”,, 9 May 2018.Hide Footnote He also mentioned his determination to press for “international recognition of Armenian genocide” – massacres that took place on the territory of present Turkey a century ago, another sticking point between Yerevan and Ankara, which denies the events amounted to genocide.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Ankara has reacted cautiously to Pashinyan. During a talk at Chatham House, a London think tank, Erdoğan appealed to the Armenian government to show “common sense” and work for the region’s stability.[fn]Ayla Jean Yackley, “Erdoğan calls for ‘common sense’ from new Armenian government”, Eurasia Net, 17 May 2018.Hide Footnote Turkey is in wait-and-see mode.

Overall, Erdoğan has little incentive at home to improve relations with Armenia. Doing so risks being counterproductive for him: it would jeopardise the support of nationalist constituencies and of the nationalist MHP, which, after the June 2018 elections, he will need to rely on for a majority in the Turkish parliament.[fn]“MHP leader Bahceli hails ‘historic’ success in Turkey’s elections”, Hürriyet Daily News, 25 June 2018.Hide Footnote Besides, he is more likely to expend political capital with nationalists over the more pressing Kurdish issue rather than opening a second front over Armenia.

If Armenians are wary about the give-and-take between Ankara and Moscow, Azerbaijan, which has strived to stay on good terms with both countries, has welcomed Russo-Turkish rapprochement. President Ilham Aliyev shared the stage with Erdoğan and Putin at the October 2016 World Energy Congress in Istanbul, which saw the restart of the TurkStream pipeline and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant. That said, Baku – like Yerevan – would not necessarily welcome a Russian-Turkish peace initiative in Nagorno-Karabakh. This would be especially true if it perceives that Moscow is calling the shots and Ankara playing along.

While convincing Armenians and Azerbaijanis to move toward a lasting settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains a tall order, Russia and Turkey could nonetheless use their combined political weight to forestall a new flare-up. According to a prominent Russian expert, “even the absence of escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh would be a big achievement”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, October 2017.Hide Footnote Deterring the sides from the use of force and even pushing behind the scenes for substantive and honest discussions of a possible peace deal might be feasible. Neither Moscow nor Ankara would be served by a fresh outbreak of violence.

Another area where Russian and Turkish interests could collide is Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia. Located on the Black Sea, the region sought to secede from Georgia in a 1992-1993 war, unilaterally declared independence in 1999, and was internationally recognised by Russia and a handful of other countries in 2008. Since then it has hosted Russian troops; Russian missile systems, including the Iskander-M and S-300, were deployed there in 2014.

Ankara, too, has a special relationship with Sukhumi, Abkhazia’s de facto capital, due largely to the well-organised Abkhaz and Circassian diasporas in Turkey. It has been careful not to let these ties interfere with its relations with Georgia and has never signalled it might recognise the breakaway region. But it has kept the option of engagement with Abkhazia open. Since the Georgian-Abkhaz war, it has maintained commercial and sea transport links to the breakaway entity and allowed Abkhazia’s representation office to operate in Istanbul. Ankara also has not prevented private Turkish investment in the region. In fact, Turkey has been Abkhazia’s second biggest trading partner after Russia, with investment in coal, tourism and agriculture.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, businessmen and de facto officials, Sukhumi, August 2017.Hide Footnote These links are prized in Abkhazia, where some de facto officials have called for diversifying the region’s foreign partnerships rather than relying solely on Russia.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Abkhaz diaspora representatives, Istanbul, June 2017.Hide Footnote

Tbilisi has traditionally been wary of Turkey’s links to Abkhazia but – especially in recent years – Ankara has managed to navigate both relationships fairly smoothly. Some Georgian politicians have even expressed a cautious interest in encouraging these links, particularly in trade, as a potential counterweight to Russia.[fn]Sergi Kapanadze, “Turkish trade with Abkhazia: An apple of discord for Georgia”, Hurriyet Daily News, 14 December 2014.Hide Footnote

The 2015 Su-24 crisis prompted Moscow to push Abkhaz leaders for the first time to openly side with Russia against Turkey.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Abkhaz, summer 2017.Hide Footnote Sukhumi imposed an embargo on some Turkish produce – although the Abkhaz claim to have taken care to target only insignificant items.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Abkhaz de facto officials, Sukhumi, 2015.Hide Footnote Members of Turkey’s Abkhaz diaspora had problems entering the region via Russia on their Turkish passports. Some Turkish investors had to take down the Turkish flags in front of their factories and offices.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Abkhaz, April 2016.Hide Footnote But these developments were quickly reversed as Ankara-Moscow relations improved, illustrating the region’s profound sensitivity to shifting geopolitical winds.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Abkhazian de facto officials, Sukhumi, August 2017.Hide Footnote

In early 2017, the EU started exploring options for extending the benefits of its free trade area with Georgia to businesses in Abkhazia.[fn]Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Report N°249, Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Time to Talk Trade, 24 May 2018.Hide Footnote It is still unclear whether modalities for this expansion can be found when neither the Georgians nor the Abkhaz will make any move that could have implications for the breakaway region’s political status, often to the detriment of practical cooperation. Nor is it clear whether Russia would tolerate that level of EU engagement. Turkey, on the other hand, has implicitly supported EU efforts by suggesting it would be in Ankara’s interests if a greater variety of outside actors engaged with the conflict region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU officials and diplomats, Brussels and Tbilisi, August and November 2017.Hide Footnote

Overall, the carefully calibrated engagement of Ankara and Turkish investors in Abkhazia has benefited the population without crossing either side’s red lines. It has not, in other words, introduced additional friction with Moscow. Ankara should continue to tread that fine line.

The North Caucasus is another sore spot. Ankara has strong historical links to the region given that Turkey has long been home to its diaspora communities. More recent exiles, many of which are Salafi Muslims known as muhajirs, now live in Turkey after having been driven out of their homes because of their faith.[fn]The exact number is hard to establish, as many reside in Turkey illegally. Many Russian Salafis resettled to Turkey from Egypt after the military coup deposing President Mohamed Morsi in June 2013.Hide Footnote These include people from various parts of the North Caucasus (mostly the republics of Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Circassia), as well as from the Volga/Urals region and elsewhere in Russia. These communities, which point to growing intolerance and state persecution in Russia that intensified in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, sought refuge in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul’s conservative districts.[fn]For more on Russian Muslims in Turkey, see Crisis Group Europe Report N°238, The North Caucasus Insurgency and Syria: An Exported Jihad, 16 March 2016.Hide Footnote

For years, Russia and Turkey had upheld an implicit bargain. Turkey would remain neutral regarding the conflict in Chechnya in return for Russia downgrading its ties to the Kurdish insurgency, the PKK. Since 1999, successive Turkish governments have denied supporting Chechen separatists. Turkish companies have done business in Chechnya despite being subjected to forms of pressure and extortion by the republican leadership.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian expert, May 2017.Hide Footnote In an apparent quid pro quo, Russia abstained from supporting the PKK; in late 1998, it refused PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan asylum, shortly before his capture by Turkish commandos in Kenya.

Russia’s intervention in Syria and occasional cooperation with the YPG upended this understanding. As Turkey and Russia found themselves on opposing sides in Syria, Ankara had less incentive to address Russian concerns over the 10,000-15,000 mostly Muslim émigrés in Istanbul carrying Russian Federation passports. Cooperation at the level of security and law enforcement has been rudimentary, both before and after the 2016 reconciliation. Turkish police have arrested suspects based on information from Russia, apprehending 99 Russian attempting to join ISIS in 2015.[fn]Olga Ivshina, “Российский след в турецких взрывах: правда и вымысел” [“Russian track in Turkish explosions: Truth and fiction”], BBC (Russian), 5 July 2016.Hide Footnote In the aftermath of the bomb attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport on 28 June 2016, police rounded up at least 50 Russian Muslims suspected of ISIS involvement.[fn]The state eventually tried 46 people for the bombing. According to a news report, “sixteen out of the 46 defendants in the trial are citizens of the Russian Federation”. “Atatürk Havalimanı'ndaki terör saldırısı davası”, Karar, 15 November 2017.Hide Footnote But Turkish authorities rarely extradite muhajirs that Moscow claims have links to militant groups in Russia, instead sending most Russian nationals to third countries.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Russian expert, spring 2017.Hide Footnote

The gulf between Moscow’s perceptions and those of Ankara is clear.

The gulf between Moscow’s perceptions and those of Ankara is clear. Moscow views the émigré community as a hotbed of Islamist radicalism, citing its alleged links to jihadists in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Exported Jihad, op. cit. About 3,000-5,000 citizens of the Russian Federation are believed to be fighting in Syria and Iraq. Many of them have passed through Turkey.Hide Footnote It points to individuals recruited in Turkey into jihadist movements, including, for example, Akhmed Chatayev, a Chechen thought to have masterminded the Istanbul airport attack, as well as the militants who carried out the strike, who were nationals of Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.[fn]“The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid”, Crisis Group Commentary, 2 July 2016; see also Ilya Koval, “Chatayev: The man suspected of the attack in Istanbul”, Deutsche Welle, 2 July 2016.Hide Footnote The main suspect in the April 2017 St. Petersburg metro bombing was an ethnic Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan who had spent time in Turkey.[fn]Akbarzhon Djalilov, “Подозреваемый в теракте в Петербурге был депортирован из Турции” [“Suspect in the terrorist attack in St. Petersburg was deported from Turkey”], Radio Svoboda, 11 April 2017.Hide Footnote

Turkish authorities, on the other hand, tend to look favourably on the muhajirs and have granted some political asylum.[fn]Typically, Russian Muslims wishing to settle in Turkey enter the country as tourists and then apply for one-year residence permit, which is extendable.Hide Footnote Russia-born Salafis typically are staunch supporters of Erdoğan and his party, in contrast to the North Caucasus diaspora that arrived during the 19th century, which leans toward the secular opposition. Moreover, Turkish authorities suspect the involvement of Russian security services in the assassinations in Turkey of prominent Chechens.[fn]Mairbek Vatchagaev, “Another Chechen emigré murdered in Turkey”, Eurasia Daily Monitor, 6 March 2015.Hide Footnote

Mairbek Vatchagaev, “Another Chechen emigré murdered in Turkey”, Eurasia Daily Monitor, 6 March 2015.

Hide Footnote Following the most recent incident in January 2015, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç explicitly blamed Russia. “We know that the hand of a well-known organisation in Russia has killed five Chechens in Istanbul”, he said. “However, we have not been able to catch the criminals, because the crimes were carried out at a highly professional level”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The vast majority of muhajirs are non-violent. Many are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which rejects ISIS’s violence.[fn]William Scates Frances, “Why ban Hizb ut-Tahrir? They’re no ISIS – they’re ISIS’s whipping boys”, The Guardian, 12 February 2015.Hide Footnote Community activists claim that Russia has often blacklisted and pressed criminal charges against Russian nationals residing in Turkey without conclusive evidence.[fn]Alieva and Ivshina, “Российские мусульмане в Турции: против Москвы, но не в ИГИЛ” [“Russian Muslims in Turkey: Are against Moscow, but not in ISIL”], op. cit.Hide Footnote Russian law enforcement agencies pressure Turkish authorities to hand over people on its list, in accordance with a December 2014 agreement to cooperate on criminal matters.[fn]“Putin-Erdogan meeting round-up”, TASS, 3 May 2017.Hide Footnote

Continued Russian efforts to pressure Turkey into cracking down on the muhajirs will likely remain a thorn in the side of bilateral ties. Ankara can be expected to make sporadic arrests and deportations but stop short of fully meeting Russian demands. While Russia might soften its position as it reclassifies Salafi militias in Syria (such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam) it previously labelled terrorists as “moderate opposition”, the muhajir question illustrates the limits of security cooperation between the two governments.

Improved Turkey-Russia ties are good news for the Turkish economy and for citizens of both nations who suffered the consequences of Moscow’s sanctions after the Su-24 crisis. It is better, too, for the countries of the Black Sea and the South Caucasus regions that Russia and Turkey are no longer locked in confrontation.

Yet notwithstanding the recent rapprochement, the two countries diverge in their aims with regard to those regions’ main pressure points. They disagree in Ukraine, particularly over the status of Crimea and the Crimean Tatars. Russia’s force projection across the Black Sea has upset Ankara enough to prompt it to enable NATO’s entry into those waters, reversing a decades-old policy of keeping the alliance out. While both Moscow and Ankara were careful not to fuel the latest flare-up over Nagorno-Karabakh, their interests in the South Caucasus nonetheless conflict and their weapons supply and deployment intensify a build-up in an already heavily militarised region. Nor have they found common ground on the question of the Russian Muslim diaspora in Turkey.

Optimally, improvements in overall relations would lay the groundwork for Russian-Turkish cooperation that could bring greater stability to the Black Sea region, help repair relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and improve the plight of Crimean Tatars. Among potential measures, the two sides could establish military-to-military contacts to avoid accidents involving the two naval forces in the Black Sea. Turkey could provide further aid to the Crimean Tatars; Russia could allow it to do so. The two countries could coordinate efforts to persuade Armenians and Azerbaijanis to avoid any military escalation, take confidence-building steps or even ​entertain compromise. While there are important obstacles to having Russia and Turkey seize the opportunity to create such a virtuous cycle, they should at a minimum prevent regional conflicts from derailing bilateral cooperation.

Brussels/Ankara/Moscow/Kyiv/Baku/Tbilisi/Yerevan, 28 June 2018

Map of the Black Sea and South Caucasus Regions International Crisis Group / KO / 2018
Map of Ukraine International Crisis Group / KO / 2018
Map of Georgia with Breakaway Regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia International Crisis Group / KO / 2018
Map of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Zone in a Regional Context International Crisis Group / KO / 2018

A2/AD                 Area Access/Access Denial

CSTO                 Collective Security Treaty Organization

EEU                    Eurasian Economic Union

ISIS                     Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

MHP                   Nationalist Movement Party

NATO                 North Atlantic Treaty Organization

OSCE                 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe

PKK                    Kurdistan Workers’ Party

PYD                    Democratic Union Party

SAMs                  Surface-to-air missiles

YPG                    Peoples’ Protection Units

President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani and President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold a joint press conference following their meeting, at Presidential Complex, in Ankara, Turkey on 16 April, 2016. AFP / Rasit Aydoga
President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani and President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold a joint press conference following their meeting, at Presidential Complex, in Ankara, Turkey on 16 April, 2016. AFP/Rasit Aydoga

Turkey and Iran: Bitter Friends, Bosom Rivals

New frictions in Iraq and Syria threaten Ankara and Tehran’s usually peaceful management of their Middle East rivalries. To rebuild trust and avert open conflict, they should coordinate de-escalation, exchange intelligence and designate representatives to open a new channel between their leaders.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

For nearly two centuries and despite their fierce geopolitical competition from the Levant to Iraq and the Caucasus, Turkey and Iran have kept the peace between themselves, compartmentalised growing energy and commercial relations and even cooperated regionally when their interests converged. Yet today, while their economies are increasingly intertwined, a profound disagreement over core interests in Iraq and Syria is putting these two former empires on a collision course. It is not too late for a critically needed reset, but only if both recognise their fundamental interest in reversing course and taking steps that allow them to manage their differences peacefully, as they have done for almost 200 years.

Overlapping ethnicities and cultures can at times make the two countries seem like two sides of the same coin, but Iran is a leading regional proponent of both Shiite Islam and theocratic governance, while Turkey’s secular constitution is built on a bedrock of Sunni Islamic practice. As their officials and diplomats attest, Turkey and Iran generally concur on the strength of the relationship they have carefully nurtured during a long history of cohabitation. Since the upheavals that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa from 2011, however, frictions have increased over what each sees as the other’s hostile manoeuvring in two countries of critical importance to both: Iraq and Syria. Their inability to accommodate each other has the potential to undermine or even undo their strong ties.

Both have empowered local partners and proxies on the battlefields of Mosul, Tel Afar, Aleppo and Raqqa that are forcefully positioning themselves to control whatever emerges from the debris of today’s wars. Though both have attempted to build on shared interests – defeating or at least marginalising Islamic State (IS) and curbing the rise of autonomy-minded Syrian Kurds – deep suspicions about the other’s ambitions to benefit from the chaos have stopped them from reaching an arrangement that could lower the flames. The dynamics instead point toward deepening sectarian tensions, greater bloodshed, growing instability across the region and greater risks of direct – even if inadvertent – military confrontation between them where their spheres of influence collide. The possibility that an Iranian-made drone killed four Turkish soldiers in northern Syria on 24 November 2016, as Ankara alleges, points toward perilous escalation.

To reverse course and avoid worse, they need to overcome mutual mistrust. To this end, and as a pressing priority, they should establish a channel for continuous high-level negotiations over their regional postures. The pace of such meetings as have been held has been problematic: periodic senior encounters lasting one or two days, followed by relatively long periods of diplomatic vacuum that tend to be filled with escalation of proxy wars and one-upmanship. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran should designate personal representatives with the authority to manage the diplomatic channel.

If they do this, and to demonstrate seriousness and goodwill, the governments should also take confidence-building steps, from more intelligence cooperation to coordinated de-escalation where conflict is most acute. In northern Iraq, Iran might thus offer as a first step to rein in Shiite militias deployed in Ninewa governorate, even as units nominally accountable to the Iraqi prime minister in his capacity as commander-in-chief, in return for Turkey agreeing to withdraw its tanks and other heavy weapons from the area. Confidence-building measures, if well executed, could pave the way for agreed principles of good neighbourliness, mutual recognition of each other’s core interests and legitimate security concerns in the region and an articulation of clear red lines with respect to actions each deems hostile.

The U.S. and Russia, which have strong military ties with Turkey and Iran respectively, as well as in each case disagreements and conflicting interests, should support such steps. For now, Turkey and Iran remain caught in the web of Russia-U.S. relations, manoeuvring to create space for autonomous decisions; they will be able to succeed only to the extent they find a way to work together.

Only by finding common ground can Turkey and Iran contribute to a more stable and secure region.

De-escalation and increased Ankara-Tehran cooperation are necessary but insufficient to resolve the metastasising, intersecting crises involving many actors and heightened sectarian passions. Even getting to that point would be hard. Electoral calendars in both countries and the imperatives of domestic politics and balancing ties with regional partners wary of a rapprochement could hinder progress. But the effort would be important and should be pursued; it could at least help reduce the sectarian tensions fanned by unhelpful rhetoric from both leaderships.

Only by finding common ground can Turkey and Iran contribute to a more stable and secure region. The alternative – crystallised in the zero-sum dynamic that marks Iran’s relations with the region’s other major Sunni power, Saudi Arabia – is even greater disorder and suffering.

Turkey and Iran have long competed for hegemony in their shared neighbourhood, particularly the Levant and Iraq (this briefing’s focus), but since the last full-scale Ottoman-Persian war (1821-1823), they have maintained largely peaceful relations.[fn]The Persian Sassanid (224-651) and Roman Byzantine (330-1453) empires and their eventual inheritors, the Safavids (1501-1736) and Ottomans (1299-1923), fought repeatedly for control of Mesopotamia, which today is mainly Iraq and Syria. See Walter Emil Kaegi, Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium (Cambridge, 2003); Stephen Dale, The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (Cambridge, 2009).The 532-km border between Iran and Turkey emerged from a 1932 treaty that reflected, with minor adjustments, the frontier delineated in 1869.Hide Footnote  The competition outlived their transformation from empires to nation-states, escalating at times of tectonic geostrategic shifts, such as the Soviet Union’s collapse, which opened new space for rivalry in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the break-up of Yugoslavia and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Most recently, the 2011 Arab uprisings gave both countries, posing as champions of the popular movements, an opportunity to remake the region according to their own interests.[fn]Bayram Sinkaya, “Rationalization of Turkey-Iran Relations: Prospects and Limits”, Insight Turkey, vol. 14, no. 2 (2012), pp. 137-156. “Khamenei hails ‘Islamic’ uprisings”, Al-Jazeera, 4 February 2011; “Erdoğan pitches Turkey’s democratic model on ‘Arab Spring’ tour”, Christian Science Monitor, 16 September 2011.Hide Footnote

As two of the region’s strongest non-Arab states, with similar geographic and demographic sizes and tradition of statehood, Turkey and Iran have not perceived one another as an existential threat. Yet, their myriad social, political, religious and ethnic differences have often pitted them against each other, as has geostrategic orientation, particularly Turkey’s ties with the U.S. and Israel and Iran’s hostility toward both.[fn]Turkey has spent most of the past century writing European laws into its statute books in support of explicitly republican, secular constitutions, while Iran has experienced first absolute monarchy and then theocratic rule. Nearly a quarter of Iran’s population are ethnic Azeris, who speak a Turkic mother tongue. “Iran: NATO radar in Turkey serves to protect Israel”, Associated Press, 5 October 2011; “Leader’s advisor: Iran should reconsider relations with Turkey”, Mehr News, 28 April 2016.Hide Footnote  However, they also share deep historic, cultural and economic ties. Over the past two decades, their economies have become increasingly intertwined. Iran supplies nearly a fifth of Turkey’s oil and natural gas; Turkey is its neighbour’s gateway to Europe, with more than a fifth of Iran’s land trade transiting its territory. This link became a lifeline for Iran during its most vulnerable recent periods, the 1980-1988 war with Iraq and the peak of nuclear sanctions in 2011-2013.[fn]According to Turkey’s Petroleum Pipeline Corporation (BOTAŞ), Iran is Turkey’s main gas provider after Russia, some ten billion cubic metres annually, while after Iraq, Iran is Turkey’s largest oil supplier. “Sector Report”, 2015. Between March 2014 and March 2015, more than 110,000 trucks carried goods through the Bazargan border post, compared to nearly 45,000 crossing Iran’s border with Afghanistan during that period. “2014-2015 Annual Report”, Iran Road Maintenance and Transportation Organisation. A senior Turkish diplomat said, “the phrase we hear the most when visiting Tehran in the aftermath of the nuclear deal is, ‘we never forget the friends who stood by us during tough times’”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, 5 April 2016.

With Iran’s economy unburdened from nuclear-related sanctions due to the 2015 nuclear accord, both countries appear committed to boosting their nearly $10 billion bilateral trade, while fencing off their geostrategic differences.[fn]Data from Turkish Statistical Institute. “Iran and Turkey aim to triple trade to $30 billion”, Agence France-Presse, 5 March 2016. “Turkey’s Unit International says agrees $4.2 billion deal to build Iran power plants”, Reuters, 4 June 2016; “Turkey says it wants to buy more gas from Iran”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 12 August 2016; “Turkey to establish exclusive industrial park in Iran”, Tehran Times, 26 October 2016. Bilateral trade peaked at $21.9 billion in 2012, mostly from a twelve-fold increase in Turkish gold exports. Onur Ant, “Iran, secret gold and the mystery trade boosting Turkish exports”, Bloomberg, 13 April 2015. Crisis Group interviews, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, Iran’s ambassador to Turkey; Mesut Özcan, director, Diplomatic Academy, Turkish foreign ministry, both Ankara, 4 April 2016.Hide Footnote  But ability to do so is likely a function of two other factors: common concerns over Kurdish separatism and conflicting interests in shaping the political order in Iraq and Syria. The former might draw them closer, the latter could drive them further apart – while uncertainty over the fate of the nuclear deal under the incoming U.S. administration, which appears keen on curbing Tehran’s regional influence, underlines their economic link’s vital importance and casts a shadow over their overall relationship.

Turkey and Iran – home to, respectively, the region’s largest and second-largest Kurdish populations – fear Kurdish separatist sentiments.[fn]An estimated eighteen and ten million Kurds reside in Turkey and Iran respectively.Hide Footnote  The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has fought an insurgency in Turkey since 1984 that has cost nearly 40,000 lives. The conflict’s latest stretch, since the collapse of peace talks in July 2015, has been particularly bloody, devastating large parts of south-eastern Turkey.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Briefing N°80, The Human Cost of the PKK Conflict in Turkey: The Case of Sur, 17 March 2016. According to Crisis Group’s open-source database on the Turkey-PKK conflict,, between 20 July 2015 and 2 December 2016 some 816 state security force members, 986 PKK militants and 372 civilians were killed, predominantly in Turkey’s south-eastern provinces.Hide Footnote  Iran, too, has long faced off with Kurdish insurgent movements, but their rebellions have been scattered and transient.[fn]The only independent Kurdish state to date was established in Iran in 1946, the “Mahabad Republic”, with the Soviet Union’s support. It collapsed in less than a year. William Eagleton, Jr, The Kurdish Republic of 1946 (London, 1963).Hide Footnote  The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) mounted an armed uprising in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution that was suppressed in 1982. The KDPI and another group, Komalah, continued low-level insurgency until 1996, when they put down their arms. In 2004, a new group, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), that followed the PKK’s leadership and ideology emerged, but in 2011 it, too, opted for a ceasefire which, despite occasional clashes, still holds.

In mid-2016, Iran experienced an apparent, perhaps short-lived, revival of the largely dormant insurgency in its Kurdish region.[fn]Declaring a new armed uprising after nearly two decades, the KDPI clashed on at least nine occasions with Iranian Revolutionary Guards in 2016. PJAK and another leftist Iranian Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), each clashed six times. Iran often responded by shelling border areas within Iraq’s Kurdistan region. “Iran shelling Kurdistan Region’s northeastern border”, Rudaw, 17 September 2016.Hide Footnote  It is possible that some of the attacks were instigated by regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia as retaliation against perceived Iranian meddling in their backyards.[fn]Iranian national security officials and PKK leaders say they believe Saudi Arabia has resuscitated the KDPI as part of its intensifying proxy war with Iran. Crisis Group interviews, Tehran, May 2016; Qandil, June 2016.Hide Footnote  It is also unclear whether the groups involved have enough support in Iran or among their hosts in northern Iraq, where they have been based, to sustain the fight.[fn]Data on the participation rate in Iran’s 2016 parliamentary elections can be used as a barometer of separatist movements’ lack of support. The rate in Kermanshah and Kurdistan, Kurdish-majority provinces, was 60 and 53 per cent respectively, both higher than Tehran’s. Occasionally, local grievances spark protests in Iran’s Kurdish regions, but these tend to peter out quickly. “Violent protest hits Kurdish city in northwest Iran”, Al Jazeera, 8 May 2015. Jhilwan Qazzaz, a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) spokesman said, “we do not want KRG territories to be used by any group to threaten the security of our neighbouring countries. This is a very clear stance of KRG, and all, with KDPI included, are informed of this”. “Kurds step up attacks as cold war with Iran threatens to spark”, Middle East Eye, 16 September 2016.Hide Footnote  Meanwhile, the government has taken corrective measures in response to the Kurdish region’s longstanding demands for investment, economic development and mother-tongue education.[fn]The Rouhani administration inaugurated one of Iran’s largest petrochemical complexes in Mahabad and authorised mother-tongue education in the region’s schools and universities. “Rouhani unveils ‘largest industrial complex’ in western Iran”, Mehr News, 31 May 2016; “آموزش زبان‌های محلی کردی و ترکی در مدارس” [“Education in Kurdish and Turkish at local schools”], Iran, 1 June 2016.Hide Footnote

In dealing with pan-Kurdish nationalist sentiment, Iran and Turkey have often cooperated, but they have been at loggerheads for the past five years.[fn]Between 1991 and 2003, the two, along with Syria, consulted closely to prevent emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. For more background, see Elliot Hentov, Asymmetry of Interest: Turkish-Iranian Relations since 1979 (Saarbrucken, 2012). In 1998, Iran mediated between Turkey and Syria, which were on the verge of military confrontation over the latter’s sheltering of PKK leader Abdallah Öcalan and his fighters. Mahmut Bali Aykan, “The Turkish-Syrian Crisis of October 1998: A Turkish View”, Middle East Policy, vol. 6, no. 4 (June 1999), p. 178.Hide Footnote  In Iraq, Ankara has supported Masoud Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) president and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), despite his push for a statehood referendum. Tehran backs Barzani’s rival, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Movement for Change (Gorran) and the PKK, which has expanded its presence in northern Iraq, including Sinjar and south of Kirkuk.

In northern Syria, too, they have backed different Kurdish groups. Though an empowered PKK and its affiliates theoretically pose a threat to both, the extensive territorial gains made by the PKK-affiliated Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), that run directly counter to Turkish interest have occurred with Iran’s implicit consent in support of the Syrian regime.[fn]Beše Hozat, co-chair of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (Koma Civakên Kurdistan, KCK), an umbrella organisation with PKK affiliates in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, said, “when ten to twenty million Kurds in Turkey and Iran see that four million in Syria rule themselves with dignity, they would want the same privilege”. Crisis Group interview, Qandil, 26 June 2016.Hide Footnote  Officials in Ankara say these gains embolden the PKK by giving it logistical and operational support for attacks in Turkey, cutting off Turkey from the Arab world and paving the way for creation of an autonomous statelet in northern Syria, which the PKK and its local affiliates call “Rojava” (Western Kurdistan).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish diplomats and security officials, Ankara, April-August 2016.Hide Footnote

Turkey has backed the Kurdistan National Council (KNC), a coalition of twelve small Syrian Kurdish parties with close ties to Iraqi Kurdish parties, as a counterweight to the PYD; encouraged the KDP to control the border between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan, the PYD’s lifeline to the outside world; and intervened militarily in northern Syria in August 2016: Operation Euphrates Shield aimed to prevent the YPG from connecting its two eastern cantons, Jazeera and Kobani, with Afrin, its third, non-contiguous canton north west of Aleppo, drive IS from the border and create a zone sufficiently safe to absorb part of Syria’s displaced population.[fn]Selcan Hacaoglu, “Erdoğan plans Syrian ‘safe zone’ as military campaign widens”, Bloomberg, 19 September 2016.Hide Footnote

In support of the Syrian government’s position prioritising the fight against anti-regime rebels and seeking to deter Turkey from supporting them, Iran over the past five years has engaged the PYD’s leadership and even encouraged the group’s territorial expansion to deny those areas to the armed opposition.[fn]Salih Muslim, the PYD’s co-chair, has visited Iran several times in the past few years. Crisis Group interviews, Iranian officials, Tehran, March-May 2016. A former Revolutionary Guard member with recent Syria experience said, “we don’t need to provide material support to the PYD-YPG, but we facilitate dialogue and cooperation between Damascus and Syrian Kurds in the fight against common foes [IS and the Turkish-backed armed opposition]”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, September 2016. In July 2012, the PYD-YPG quickly took over Kurdish areas in northern Syria without a regime effort to recapture them. Since then, it has largely engaged Damascus in a conciliatory, non-confrontational manner, while steadily expanding its territorial control at the expense of rebel and jihadist groups. For more on PYD-Syrian regime dynamics, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°151, Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria, 8 May 2014.Hide Footnote  But the PYD’s ties with the U.S. and Russia and its declaration of a federal system in the territory under its control in March 2016 appear to have transformed Tehran’s perception of the group from a tactical ally to a potential strategic threat.[fn]“Kurds declare ‘federal region’ in Syria, says official”, Wall Street Journal, 24 March 2016.Hide Footnote  An Iranian national security official commented: “Self-rule is contagious. An autonomous Kurdish region [in Syria] will trigger the fragmentation of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, replacing major regional states with an archipelago of weak statelets”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tehran, April 2016. Many in Tehran see a U.S. conspiracy, though the U.S. has tried to keep Iraq a unitary state and prevented the PYD from connecting the Syrian territories it controls. A senior Iranian diplomat described the prevalent perception in the leadership: “The pattern in Syria has an air of déjà vu. Following the Iraqi Kurdistan model, the U.S. is first supporting [Syrian] Kurds’ territorial gains, then ensuring their access to energy resources that would fuel their arms purchases from the U.S., followed by fostering close military and intelligence links between them and the Israelis, and eventually supporting their bid for independence”. This, he said, “must be nipped in the bud”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, May 2016.Hide Footnote  Another Iranian official added a crucial nuance:

Iran is concerned about the possibility of a Kurdish state, but it isn’t threatened by the Kurdish issue, given the deeper integration of Iranian Kurds in our society. As such, Iran agrees with Turkey in opposing a Kurdish state, but fundamentally disagrees with Turkey’s approach towards its Kurds.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Berlin, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Turkey is alarmed by what it perceives as collusion between Iran and the PKK, of which Tehran’s tolerance of PYD-YPG activities is only a part.[fn]For more than two decades, Turkey has accused Iran of using the PKK to pressure it. Officials trace the new phase of Iran’s entente with the PKK to 2011, when they allege the latter agreed to restrain PJAK in return for more manoeuvring space in northern Iraq and Syria. Crisis Group interviews, Turkish security official, Ankara, April 2016; senior Turkish diplomat, Ankara, June 2016. “İran, Kandil’e bayrak dikti” [“Iran planted a flag in Qandil”], Milliyet, 25 August 2015. PJAK’s 2011 ceasefire exacerbated Turkish-Iranian mistrust. After Turkey shared intelligence on the location of PKK leader Murat Karayılan’s sanctuary, his escape and withdrawal of PJAK fighters from Iran’s border along the Qandil mountain range deepened Turkish suspicions of Iran’s ties with the PKK. “Karayılan’ı İran Kurtardı” [“Iran saved Karayılan”], Sabah, 20 August 2011.  Both Iranian and PKK officials deny direct cooperation. “It is impossible for the PKK to cooperate with a country that does not respect Kurdish rights”, Cemil Bayık, a senior PKK leader, said. “But neither Iran nor the PKK wants to open a new front now”, he added, “as this would divert attention from more important priorities in Iraq and Syria and entail serious domestic implications: reactivation of PJAK in Iran and KRG pressure on the PKK presence in Iraq”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qandil, 26 June 2016. Bayık’s official title is co-chair of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (Koma Civakên Kurdistan, KCK). Echoing the same view, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard strategist said, “we consider the PKK a terrorist organisation and a threat, but both Iran and the PKK have bigger fish to fry at the moment”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, May 2016.Hide Footnote

Even if Iran and the PKK share a short-term tactical interest in defeating IS while consolidating ties with partners and affiliates in Iraq and Syria, their long-term interests do not align. The former seeks to preserve the existing order; the latter strives to overturn it to carve out a Kurdish state. Territorial gains, U.S. and Russian support and the weakness of their traditional Syrian and Iraqi antagonists have given the PKK and its affiliates confidence that any Turco-Iranian collusion against them could be neutralised.[fn]Referring to August 2016 clashes between Syrian government forces and the YPG in northern Syria, Ilham Ahmed, a PYD official, noted emergence of a “new concept” agreed by Turkey, Iran and Syria, though “it isn’t fully clear whether this is strategic or tactical”. Quoted by ANF News, 23 August 2016. Cemil Bayık said, “the days of the [1975] Algiers’ accord [that settled an Iran-Iraq border dispute and resulted in Tehran ending support for Iraqi Kurds, allowing their suppression by the Saddam regime] are over. The West needs the Kurds … against IS and understands that both Iran and Turkey have played an unconstructive role”. Crisis Group interview, Qandil, 26 June 2016. Zohra Ramishti, a female fighter in Iraq with the Iranian-Kurdish leftist Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), said, “when we finish here [in Iraq], we will continue our fight for Rojhelat [the Kurdish term for eastern Kurdistan]”. Quoted in Kim Deen, “First IS, then Iran: Kurdish-Iranian leader has eyes on ultimate goal”, Middle East Eye, 1 October 2016; Ali Hashem, “Iranian Kurds fighting IS in Iraq put Tehran on alert”, Al-Monitor, 28 November 2016.Hide Footnote  That confidence may well be inflated, and their pursuit of further territorial objectives could put them on a collision course with Turkey and Iran if and when IS is dislodged from the places it currently holds.

Despite their long relationship, Turkey and Iran harbour deep mutual mistrust. Suspicions are evident even in the bilateral economic realm.[fn]In the mid-2000s, Iranian authorities annulled major contracts with Turkey’s TAV Airports Holding and TurkCell communications that threatened vested interests of powerful stakeholders in Iran. The two also bitterly disputed the price of Iran’s natural gas exports. “Turkey wins gas price row against Iran in court”, Hürriyet, 2 February 2016. A preferential trade deal, ten years in negotiation, was widely criticised in Iran as undermining domestic industries in 2015. “بررسي توافقنامه تجارت ترجيحي ميان ايران و تركيه” [“Assessing Preferential Trade Agreement between Turkey and Iran”], Iranian Parliament’s Research Centre, March 2015. A senior Turkish official said, “when Iranians complain Turkey is not as eager as Europeans to reengage after the nuclear deal, I tell them: ‘We’ve been there, done that, and good luck!’” Crisis Group interview, Ankara, April 2016.Hide Footnote  They are particularly acute, however, regarding regional manoeuvring: each views the other as seeking hegemony, if not to recapture lost glory, through violent proxies. Iran decries Turkey’s active support of the opposition in its attempt to bring down the Syrian regime, thus endangering Iran’s strategic link with Hizbollah in Lebanon, and accuses it of supporting Sunni jihadist groups in Syria and allowing IS recruits to transit its territory on their way to Syria and Iraq. Turkey is alarmed by what it sees as Iranian support for the PKK and its affiliates in carving out an autonomous zone on its border with Syria, and by the actions of these same groups and Iraqi Shiite militias in northern Iraq, once the Ottoman province of Mosul (Mosul Vilayet) and still viewed by Ankara as its “turf”. It deems these developments a direct threat to the stability of its borders with Syria and Iraq and the area’s Sunni inhabitants.

Tehran interprets Turkey’s Syria policy as primarily a product of a neo-Ottoman ambition to regain clout and empower pro-Turkey Sunnis in territories ruled by its progenitor. “What changed in Syria [after 2011] was neither the government’s nature nor Iran’s ties with it”, an Iranian national security official said, “but Turkish ambitions”. Moreover, Iran blames Ankara for not stemming the flow of Salafi jihadists through Turkish territory into Syria and for giving them logistical and financial support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iranian officials, Tehran, Istanbul, March-August 2016. A senior Iranian diplomat said, “Erdoğan thought that instability in the region was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to mould the region in Turkey’s image, empower the Muslim Brotherhood and rebuild the Ottoman Empire – without realising that empire building is not as easy as building hotels and shopping malls across the region”. An Iranian diplomat said, “Just take Ahrar al-Sham, Turkey’s favourite jihadist group. They work with al-Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda, and want to establish a Taliban-like system in Syria; but Turkey still maintains they are mainstream and reasonable alternatives for Syria’s future”. “Turkey, Jordan aid Syria-bound ‘terrorists’: Iran”, Agence France-Presse, 13 July 2012. “رضایی:ایران اسناد فروش نفت داعش به ترکیه را در اختیار دارد” [“Rezaei: Iran possesses documents on IS oil sales to Turkey],, 4 December 2015.Hide Footnote

In the same vein, officials in Ankara contend that Iran seeks to resuscitate the Persian Empire – this time with a Shiite streak – and to do so in formerly Ottoman territories. In March 2015, President Erdoğan accused Iran of fighting IS in Iraq “only to take its place”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara and Istanbul, March-August 2016. “Turkey’s Erdoğan says can’t tolerate Iran bid to dominate Middle East”, Reuters, 26 March 2015.Hide Footnote  Turkey also says that Iran’s mobilisation of Shiite militias from across the region to protect the rule of a minority sect, the Alawites, over a majority-Sunni population in Syria has deepened sectarian tensions, providing Sunni jihadists with a potent recruitment tool.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish diplomats and security officials, Ankara, April, June 2016. Crisis Group has written: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, Syria’s is not an Alawite (an offshoot of Shiism) regime, and that community hardly lives in opulence. But it is a regime thanks to which the Alawites overcame their second-class status and escaped a history of harassment and massacres”. Middle East Report N°128, Syria’s Mutating Conflict, 1 August 2012.Hide Footnote

In trading accusations, each decries the other’s refusal to acknowledge its view of reality, while neglecting that each has acted in ways for which it faults the other: use of hard power and support for non-state actors. Attempts to build on common ground have failed because of suspicions, misperceptions and miscalculations. In September 2013, the new government of President Hassan Rouhani floated an initiative to resolve the Syrian crisis. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif presented what he said was a plan developed with the commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, to his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoğlu.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, Vienna, 19 November 2014; Revolutionary Guard Corps strategist, Tehran, May 2016. The plan outlined four steps: 1) ceasefire; 2) national unity government; 3) constitutional reform aimed particularly at constraining presidential powers; and 4) presidential and legislative elections under UN supervision. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, “Iran’s four-part plan for a political solution in Syria”, Al-Monitor, 5 March 2014.Hide Footnote  Several months of shuttle diplomacy yielded no results, Zarif said:

We agreed on every detail, except a clause in the final phase of the plan which called for UN-monitored elections. Turkish leaders wanted Assad barred …. I noted that this should not be a concern in an internationally monitored election, particularly if, as Turkey holds, Assad has a dreadful record and a minority constituency. But Davutoğlu refused …, and our efforts came to naught.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Vienna, 19 November 2014.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group Analysts, Nigar Göksel and Ali Vaez meet with former Turkish President Abdullah Gül, May 2016. CRISIS GROUP
Crisis Group on the Ground Crisis Group Senior Analysts Nigar Göksel and Ali Vaez meet with former Turkish President Abdullah Gül, May 2016. CRISIS GROUP

Turkish officials could not fathom Assad agreeing to lead a transition that would result in his ouster.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former and current Turkish officials, Istanbul and Ankara, March-August 2016. Yusuf Burak Rende, foreign ministry deputy director for the Middle East, said moreover, “Turkey is not budging on Assad, because even if we did, the opposition will never accept Assad remaining in power”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, 7 April 2016.Hide Footnote  More importantly, they calculated that military dynamics and time were in their favour. Abdullah Gül, the then president, later said, “our government did not pursue an agreement with Iran because it thought Assad would be toppled in a few months”. From Ankara’s perspective, Assad’s battlefield losses would remove the need to compromise or at least improve a deal’s terms.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former President Gül, 10 May 2016; former Turkish official, Istanbul, March 2016; senior Turkish official, Ankara, April 2016.Hide Footnote

After nearly three years of mutual escalation in Syria, a second chance for Turco-Iranian dialogue appeared following the July 2016 failed coup in Turkey. Iran’s swift support for Erdoğan led to a warming of ties and resumption of talks on Syria.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iranian official, Ankara, August 2016; senior Iranian diplomat, New York, September 2016. An Iranian diplomat said it took the Iranian Supreme National Security Council’s crisis cell less than a half hour to conclude that “any alternatives to the status quo in Turkey would be worse for us”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, August 2016. Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said: “During the coup night, I did not sleep until morning; nor did my friend Javad Zarif. He was the foreign minister I talked to most, calling me five times during the night”. Quoted in “Iran’s foreign minister boosts ties during Ankara visit”, Voice of America, 12 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Turkish-Russian reconciliation, fuelled in part by YPG advances in northern Syria, probably also contributed to Ankara’s rethinking of its Syria policy.

This time, the parties put aside the most divisive, seemingly irreconcilable issue: Assad’s fate.[fn]Describing the motivation behind Turkey’s deployment of forces in Syria, Erdoğan said, “we do not have an eye on Syrian soil. The issue is to provide lands to their real owners. That is to say we are there for the establishment of justice. We entered there to end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad who terrorises with state terror”. Quoted in “Turkey entered Syria to end al-Assad’s rule: President Erdoğan”, Hürriyet, 29 November 2016.Hide Footnote  Tehran continued to insist that a swift transition away from Assad before stabilising the country would lead to state collapse and chaos that could only benefit Sunni jihadists. For Turkey, his departure remained, Ibrahim Kalın, chief adviser to Erdoğan, said, “the key symbolic and practical component of any acceptable transitional process”. They agreed to focus, however, on what political system (presidential or parliamentary) and power-sharing mechanism could work in a post-conflict Syria.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iranian national security officials and diplomats, Tehran, April-August 2016; Ankara, 16 June 2016; senior Iranian diplomat, New York, September 2016.Hide Footnote  But after two high-level rounds, Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield, disrupted the talks and exacerbated mistrust. Iranian officials expressed surprise Turkey had not notified them of the operation despite the presence of a senior Iranian official in Ankara the day before.[fn]An Iranian official said: “Iran’s deputy foreign minister was in Ankara one day before Euphrates Shield to discuss the situation in Syria. But his Turkish counterparts did not mention a word about the imminent offensive”. Crisis Group interview, New York, September 2016. “Iran foreign ministry calls on Turkey to quickly end Syria intervention”,, 30 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Turkey may have feared that Iran would tip off the YPG.

With each failure to find an accommodation, the context of Turkey’s and Iran’s rivalry has become more complex and disagreements more intractable. What they have in common in Syria is that neither can tolerate a divided country or complete disorder. What is critically important for Iran, however, is that whatever order there is preserves Syria’s geostrategic orientation as part of the “axis of resistance”: to project power into the Levant, generally, and to keep its strategic depth vis-à-vis Israel via its link with Hizbollah, in particular. While Turkey would like to see Assad gone and a more inclusive Sunni-led order emerge in Damascus that would be friendlier, its absolute priority is to have a stable border and a curb on PKK-led Kurdish aspirations. Both seek to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity as well, but ensuring Shiite-majority rule is as critical for Iran as a more inclusive role for Sunnis in governance is for Turkey.

These objectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and interests in Syria at least are probably more closely aligned today than for five years. Both have increasingly focused on fighting IS and pushing back against the PYD’s announcement of a federal system in the north that they fear could intensify centrifugal forces rending the country. They need dialogue, however, to accommodate differences in their priorities: containing the PYD-YPG for Turkey, saving Assad for Iran.[fn]Ibrahim Kalın, Erdoğan’s chief adviser, said, “the national security threat … from Kurdish separatism is more acute for Turkey than for Iran”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, 16 June 2016. A senior U.S. official said, “two years ago, Erdoğan had three priorities, in this order: Assad, Kurds, IS. Today it is Kurds, IS, Assad”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, 29 June 2016.Hide Footnote

For now, there are more reasons to believe the two will persist on their current path than change course.

For now, there are more reasons to believe the two will persist on their current path than change course. That Turkey sees Iran as increasingly encroaching on its historic sphere of influence, especially in and around the Aleppo and Mosul battlefields, exacerbates tensions. Having pushed IS out of the towns of Jarablous, al-Rai and Dabiq near the Turkish border between August and October, Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish army began to advance southwards to fulfil Erdoğan’s pledge to clear a 5,000-sq. km zone in northern Syria. If they reach strategically important al-Bab east of Aleppo, held by IS but coveted by the YPG as a land bridge between its Kobani and Afrin cantons, they would come dangerously close to the Syrian army and Iranian-allied forces, as well, on the other side, to U.S.-backed, YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) north of Aleppo.[fn]“Turkey ‘obliged’ to press on to Syria’s al-Bab, Erdogan says”, Reuters, 22 October 2016. Controlling al-Bab is critically important for Turkey as a means of blocking the YPG from connecting its cantons; its value to the Syrian regime is due to its proximity to the Aleppo theatre. A reported Syrian strike on Turkish forces near al-Bab on 24 November 2016 was presumably a warning shot, preceded by verbal warnings in Syrian government media. “Turkey blames Syrian government for deadly attack on Turkish soldiers”, Middle East Eye, 24 November 2016.Hide Footnote  Turkey claiming that an Iranian-made drone killed four of its soldiers near al-Bab on 24 November is an ominous sign.[fn]Rudaw, 7 December 2016. “Iran might have hit Turkish soldiers, Pentagon says”, Hürriyet, 9 December 2016. An Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps strategist said, “Turkey’s understanding with Russia is that Turkish intervention in Syria will not extend beyond a depth of 12 km. Al-Bab is 30 km from the Turkish border. The deeper they go, the costlier it will become for them”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, December 2016.Hide Footnote

Similar dynamics exist in Iraq. Turkey’s insistence on a role for the proxy militia it has trained on its Bashiqa military base east of Mosul, the Sunni Arab al-Hashd al-Watani (also known as “Mosul Knights”), beside the Peshmerga of Barzani’s pro-Turkish KDP in the operation to retake Mosul from IS triggered an Ankara-Baghdad war of words. Turkish officials contend that Baghdad’s opposition to a Turkish role and presence in the north derives from its alliance with Tehran.[fn]Tim Arango and Michael Gordon, “Turkey’s push to join battle for Mosul inflames tension with Iraq”, New York Times, 23 October 2016. Crisis Group interview, senior Turkish diplomat, Ankara, April 2016. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) deputy chairman, Yasin Aktay, said, “it is Iran that does not want Turkish participation in the Mosul battle. But it does not say it openly. Instead it pushes the Iraqi government to say it”. Asharq al-Awsat, 2 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, Iran-backed Shiite militias (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) have indicated intent to push toward Tel Afar, an old Ottoman garrison town west of Mosul with a majority Turkmen population, ostensibly to prevent IS fighters from escaping toward the Syrian border. The prospect of Shiite militias entering Tel Afar alarmed Ankara, which deployed tanks and artillery in Silopi close to its border with Iraq to warn of intervention in case of reprisals against the city’s Sunnis.[fn]“Tal Afar will be the cemetery of Turkish soldiers should Turkey attempt to take part in the battle”, Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr Organisation and a Hashd al-Shaabi leader said. Quoted in Mustafa Saadoun, “Iran, Turkey fight over Tal Afar”, Al-Monitor, 18 November 2016. Erdoğan warned: “Tal Afar is a totally Turkmen city, with half Shia and half Sunni Muslims … if Hashd al-Shaabi terrorizes the region, our response would be different”. Quoted in “Erdoğan warns of Shia militia entering Iraq’s Tal Afar”, Anadolu Agency, 29 October 2016. Historically, Tel Afar has had a Turkoman population, divided fairly evenly between Sunnis and Shiites. It has not been free of Iraq’s post-2003 sectarian violence, which saw Shiite Islamist parties come to power and Sunnis resort to insurgency. IS conquered it in 2014, driving out its Shiite population. Several IS commanders are, or were (until killed by U.S. strikes), Sunni Turkmen from Tel Afar.Hide Footnote  That provoked a harsh response from the Iraqi prime minister, who warned: “We do not want war with Turkey … but if a confrontation happens, we are ready for it … and will deal with [Turkey] as an enemy”.[fn]“Iraq-Turkey tension rises amid battle for Mosul”, Al-Jazeera, 2 November 2016. An Iranian official tried to put distance between his and Iraq’s leadership, saying that “though the Iraqi government asked Iran to side with Baghdad against Ankara …, we decided not to interfere”. Crisis Group interview, Berlin, November 2016.Hide Footnote  Ankara also sees Tehran’s hand in the presence of PKK and YPG fighters in Sinjar, west of Mosul close to the Syrian border.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish diplomat, Ankara, June 2016; Turkish analyst, Washington, October 2016.Hide Footnote  The view in Tehran is the opposite: Turkey is seen as seeking to create a Sunni-dominated federal region in northern Iraq with greater autonomy, as suggested by some Iraqi Sunni politicians close to Ankara, ostensibly to protect minority communities, in reality to counterbalance Iran’s influence elsewhere in Iraq.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, member, Iranian parliament foreign affairs committee; ex-member, Quds Force, both Tehran, October 2016. Two brothers close to Turkey, Osama al-Nujayfi, ex-Iraqi parliament speaker, and Atheel, ex-Ninewa governor, favour more Ninewa autonomy once IS is defeated. “Sunnis demand autonomous region for Nineveh post-IS”, Rudaw, 29 July 2016.Hide Footnote

That each side perceives the other in a zero-sum light provides further impetus for proceeding on the current course. Each appears determined to spoil the other’s prospects. Ankara, a Turkish security official said, “fears Iran’s triumph in Syria or Iraq will embolden it to step further into our turf”. An Iranian national security official expressed concern over Turkish muscle-flexing, saying, without apparent irony considering Iran’s role in Iraq and Syria: “Once you change regimes or the demographic compositions of other countries by sending your tanks across the border, you empty the notion of state sovereignty of any meaning”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Istanbul, June 2016, Tehran, October 2016.Hide Footnote

The looming U.S. transition is another incentive for Turkey and Iran to create as many facts on the ground as possible before a new administration sets its Iraq and Syria policies. This may explain the Russian-Iranian-Syrian push to subdue east Aleppo and Turkey’s attempt to establish a de facto safe zone in northern Syria. Equally important may be the domestic appeal of bold nationalistic rhetoric in the run-up to the constitutional referendum on whether to grant Erdoğan more executive powers, anticipated in mid-2017, and Iran’s May presidential election.

There is an alternative. Ankara and Tehran could de-escalate and re-energise cooperation.

Even if dynamics deliver short-term gains to either, they entail serious risk. More escalation could turn proxy conflicts into direct, even if inadvertent, military confrontation in northern Syria or Iraq. Even without that, cross-regional alliances involving ever more aggressive actors are exacerbating mistrust and deepening sectarian rifts that prolong the standoff. There is an alternative. Ankara and Tehran could de-escalate and re-energise cooperation. Officials express interest but scepticism the other would show goodwill and, more importantly, flexibility.[fn]A Turkish security official said, “Turkey and Iran could be France and Germany … working to stabilise the region but that requires partnership based on equality and trust”. Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, June 2016. An Iranian diplomat said, “we have reached out to Turkey on regional issues more than to any other government … but have almost nothing to show … to sceptics who believe compromise with Erdoğan is impossible”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, September 2016.Hide Footnote  Iranian officials deem Turkey’s approach to differences erratic or, as an Iranian diplomat put it, “a function of Erdoğan’s mood and megalomania”. Turks say the Iranians neither recognise Turkey’s legitimate interests nor demonstrate any flexibility on key issues, such as post-Assad transition or equitable power sharing in Iraq and Syria.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tehran, July 2016. For an example of Turkish turnabouts, see “Syrian rebels stunned as Turkey signals normalisation of Damascus relations”, Guardian, 13 July 2016; “Turkey: Assad can be part of transition in Syria”, Associated Press, 20 August 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Turkish diplomat, Ankara, June 2016; Turkish foreign policy experts, Ankara, August 2016. A senior Turkish diplomat complained: “The Iranians use the same tired arguments and maximalist goals they did five years ago. They invite us to focus on fighting terrorism as a way of utilising Turkish influence to restore the status quo ante, with Assad in full control of Syria. I understand what they want, but where is their give?” Crisis Group interview, Ankara, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Yet, both have exhibited an ability to moderate escalating tensions.[fn]A Turkish academic called Turkey’s handling of the April 2016 Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit in Istanbul a case in point: “Turkey sided with Saudi Arabia in condemning Iran’s meddling … but then went out of its way in welcoming President Rouhani in Ankara the next day”. Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, 11 May 2016. Scott Peterson, “Despite deep divides over Syria, Turkey rolls out the welcome mat for Iran”, Christian Science Monitor, 14 April 2016. Each has offered to mediate the other’s regional conflicts. “Turkey says ready to help calm Saudi Arabia-Iran tensions”, Agence France-Presse, 5 January 2016; “Leader’s top aide: Iran ready to mediate between Turkey, Iraq”, Fars News, 30 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Rivalry has exposed the limits of Turkey’s and Iran’s power projection instead of expanding their clout. In northern Syria, Turkey has seen the most serious threat to its national security in decades emerge: growing PYD-YPG strength, cross-border infiltration by jihadists who conduct attacks inside Turkey and arrival of nearly three million Syrian refugees.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Report N°241, Turkey’s Refugee Crisis: The Politics of Permanence, 30 November 2016.Hide Footnote  Iran has shouldered the burden of military protection and financial support of a pivotal ally at risk, at the price of incurring the Sunni world’s enmity. Inability to work together has diminished their ability to influence extra-regional partners (Russia for Iran, the U.S. for Turkey) that instead of taking their interests into account have tried to contain their aspirations.

Ultimately Turkey and Iran, as neighbours, will have to live with the outcome of the conflicts now burning around them. Any sustainable solution will require a regional power balance tolerable for both. This can only be achieved if they cooperate, rein in their proxies and recognise one another’s core strategic and security interests in Syria and Iraq.

Today’s geostrategic competition between Turkey and Iran is the latest iteration of an old power game, but with an increasingly ominous twist as they warily eye each other’s moves in Iraq and Syria, prime their proxies and, in Turkey’s case, prepare to escalate direct military involvement. How the two choose to deploy their power, with whom they align and whether they can manage or overcome their differences is vitally important not only to them, but also to their neighbours and other states with a stake in the Middle East. Among the actors involved in the region’s wars, however, no two are more suited to identify ways toward renewed mutual accommodation than Turkey and Iran. They have extensive communication channels and long experience in striking geostrategic deals, engage in intensive trade and importantly share a core interest in preserving their neighbours’ territorial integrity.

As the region’s conflicts worsen, the future becomes more unpredictable, with no actor insulated from potential harm. Today’s seductive opportunities may become tomorrow’s smothering traps. It should be an interest of those that have the ability, maturity and long history of peaceful relations not to allow themselves to be sucked further into an uncertain future but to agree to a critical course correction that, while not settling all conflicts, could at least help lessen overall tensions.

As the region’s conflicts worsen, the future becomes more unpredictable, with no actor insulated from potential harm.

To do so, as a pressing priority, they should establish a channel for continuous high-level negotiations over their regional postures. The pace of such meetings as have been held has been problematic: periodic senior encounters lasting one or two days, followed by relatively long periods of diplomatic vacuum that tend to be filled with escalation of proxy wars and one-upmanship. President Erdoğan and Supreme Leader Khamenei should designate personal representatives with the authority to manage the diplomatic channel.[fn]Diplomats on both sides expressed scepticism about whether their counterparts have the authority to negotiate on behalf of their governments. They seem to believe that only officials in the two leaders’ inner circles can deliver. Crisis Group interviews, Iranian and Turkish officials, Ankara, April-June 2016.Hide Footnote  This could allow Ankara and Tehran to go beyond merely managing differences – with the risks of accidents, miscalculations and miscommunications this entails – and frankly acknowledge one another’s interests and security concerns in their shared neighbourhood. Without such a strategic understanding, piecemeal transactional arrangements will not yield the desired results, as progress on one issue could be neutralised by setbacks elsewhere.[fn]For instance, in 2015, Turkey facilitated talks between Iran and the Turkish-backed rebel group Ahrar al-Sham in Syria, which led to a rare population swap agreement between the rebel-controlled village of Zabadani, besieged by the government, and Fuaa and Kefraya, pro-regime villages surrounded by rebels. The exchange did little to help de-escalate the wider conflict. Nour Samaha, “Besieged Syria rebels evacuated in rare deal”, Al Jazeera, 28 December 2015.Hide Footnote

The U.S. and Russia should adopt a coherent, supportive approach toward the two regional powers and their conflicting aspirations for primacy, pressing their respective allies to take steps that can help avoid an escalation that would be in neither Russian nor U.S. interests.

In sum, Turkey and Iran need to set in motion a virtuous dynamic that, by enabling negotiation of a sustainable modus vivendi, could stabilise their relationship and start reducing the flames burning in the region. This requires difficult reciprocal concessions and confidence-building steps but would protect their interests far better than continuation of a highly unstable and unpredictable status quo or, worse still, escalation and direct military confrontation.

Istanbul/Tehran/Brussels, 13 December 2016

Map of Iran and Turkey in the region CRISIS GROUP

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.