21st Century Authoritarians Carve Up Syria


By Robbin Laird

Syria is being controlled by Russia and Turkey, two elements of the rise of 21st century authoritarianism.

While the EU discusses and while the United States retreats or whatever it is doing, Turkey and Russia are shaping the territory from which the migration crisis is holding Europe at risk.

And let us be clear — Erdogan is blackmailing Europe over migration with the clear support of the Russians as well.

Earlier, I have published two pieces which looked at the way ahead for both Turkey and Russia in the region, and are reposting them in this article to highlight that the nature of what 21st century authoritarianism is all about.

While the US, the European Union and the UK go deeper into their constitutional crises, the 21st century authoritarian powers are increasingly collaborating with one another, and leveraging one another’s actions to shape a better national outcome for themselves.

The Turkish Dynamic

Turkey has been a bulwark of NATO’s Southern Flank during the Cold War and a key player afterwards in terms of shaping security and defense capabilities for NATO and the European Union over the past two decades.  This has changed dramatically as President Erdogan came to power and has navigated the Turkish political system to shape a sharp break from the secular Turkey and pro-Western power that was set in motion by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Erdogan has served as the President of Turkey since 2014 and is a key part of the strategic shift affecting European defense and security in the post-2014 strategic shift. Erdogan has worked to create greater Turkish independence and to do so by leveraging more fundamentalist Islamic forces in what has been for decades a strongly secular society. And he has looked to shape a foreign and defense policy which would expand the flexibility of Turkish partnerships and allies and embracing ways to restore in some 21stcentury manner a version of what he sees as modern Ottoman state.

The Turks under Erdogan have expanded their military reach into Africa and in the Middle East, and he has pursued a policy of expanded arms industrial autonomy as well.

The Syrian crisis has been a multi-headed forcing function for Erdogan as well. On the one hand, the outpouring of refugees has provided both opportunities and challenges to his increasingly authoritarian rule. On the other hand, after leveraging NATO contributions to defend Turkey against enhanced threats posed by the Russians operating in Syria, he is now pursuing an expanded working relationship with the Russians to enhance Turkey’s arms options to defend itself.

Erdogan has operated under the umbrella neither the European Union nor NATO posing a direct threat to his expanded authoritarian rule. He has leveraged having no threat at his back to focus on the dynamics East and South of Turkey to expand his options.

A “coup attempt” against Erdogan in 2016 has been a very useful event in Erdogan’s efforts to expand his power base. Notably, he used the failed coup attempt to go after the Turkish military, notably the Air Force, and to reduce its political impact and significantly reduced its fighting competence and capabilities as well.

The Turkish leader has been involved in constant conflict with the European leaders about a range of issues, notably those involving migrations. And his shift from Turkish interest in joining the European Union to playing off the Europeans for more global influence is simply the more obvious shift in the President of Turkey’s approach to shape in effect a more Islamic state which can provide for leadership in the Middle East and work with other global powers outside of Europe to enhance his position in the region.

In a period where the global impact of the various strands of Islam are clearly providing significant global impact, the President of Turkey has focused on emphasizing the Islamic side of Turkey, not its secular tradition and its role as a leader in the Middle East shaping a more effective democratic path forward in a troubled region. In place of Ataturk’s vision, we have the Erdogan vision of a partial restoration of the Ottoman Empire with an expanded role of Turkey as a leading Islamic state operating in Africa and the Middle East.  He has also overseen the significant economic decline of Turkey, which means that the focus on the restoration of Turkish “glory” is not going to be funded by a dynamic Turkish economy closely integrated with the West.

In a critical but insightful article by Alon Ben-Meir on Erdogan , the author hihglights the psedo-Ottoaman approach being followed by the President.

“With little or no opposition at home, Erdogan moved to promote his Ottoman penchant to establish military bases in Qatar and Somalia, and military ties with Tunisia. Now he is scheming to build another military installation on the strategically located Sudanese Island of Suakin. Erdogan intends to utilize the island as a military outpost, as it had been during the Ottoman era. Egypt and Saudi Arabia believe that Erdogan’s military adventure will upset the regional balance of power, which is the recipe for instability and incessant violence.”1

Erdogan has acted if his membership in NATO is a birthright which allows him significant room for maneuver to expand South and East. The time is fast approaching when he needs to learn that he has significantly less room for maneuver if he continues to stab the West in the back.

An excellent example of how Erdogan is operating is his recent exploitation of the horrific slaying of Muslims in New Zealand. During his 2018 electoral campaign, he thought it acceptable to threaten the ANZAC community if they did not do whatever he thought was appropriate.

Ataturk was a brilliant Turkish military leader who defeated the allies in World War I when the attack was made on Turkey; he was respected because of his combat brilliance and because he went on to make Turkey a great nation. Erdogan who has no such pedigree seems to think that standing on the dead bodies of World War I soldiers and threatening their descendants will have no consequences.

In the summer of 2019 a key flashpoint was reached with the U.S. and NATO whereby the Trump Administration decided to terminate the Turkish involvement in the coalition-based global F-35 program.

The Turks are part of the F-16 European community and as such joined F-35. The issue which triggered this U.S. decision was the pursuit of the S-400 air defense system with the Russians.

This would mean that in an era where the U.S. and its allies are looking to shape greater integration of defensive and offensive systems and to enhance their ability to work together, the Turks proceeded down the path of not only not participating in such an approach, but are bringing the Russians directly into the air defense effort within Turkey and thereby NATO itself.

This is a key turning point and raises fundamental questions about the future of Turkey not only in NATO but more generally to how it will operate to defend itself and if whether in pursuing its independent course will leave the Southern Tier of Europe and the Southern Flank of NATO open to increasing conventional and hybrid war threats.

In other words, rather than Turkey being part of a comprehensive solution to sorting through the way ahead with regard to Southern Tier security and Southern Flank defense, Turkey is putting in motion the dynamics of change which could well change for a generation how Europe and the United States approach Mediterranean defense and security, and how to deter a growing range of authoritarian powers, of which clearly Erdogan is on the path to join the global trend.

Whether in NATO or not or whether allied with the European Union or not, Turkey is geographical located as it has always been at the critical juncture between the Middle East and Europe. This means that the European Union has worked and will continue to work with Turkey on the question of migrants as part of a broader security challenge.2

With more than three million Syrian refugees in Turkey, these expats have become important potential supporters of the new authoritarianism and also useful currency to negotiate with European nations and the European Union about as well.

Erdogan has openly embraced an agenda based on the greatness of the Ottoman Empire, a mix of religious and nationalist elements. His agenda has met with less than open enthusiasm by players in the region. As Zvi Mazel put it in an op-ed published in the JerusalemPost on August 1, 2019:

Dubbed neo-Ottomanism, a mix of religious and nationalist elements, this agenda led the president to embark on an aggressive foreign policy to assert Turkish domination in the Middle East on the basis of Islam, the common denominator of the region. It failed dismally. Only Qatar, which supports the Brotherhood, is still on friendly terms with him. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, as well as Iraq, mistrust him, and Syria sees him as an enemy. Relations with Egypt were cut following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi.3

The response of Erdogan to his strategic shift has not been to go back to the previous Turkish strategy of siding with the West, but rather seeking new ways to enhance his flexibility and to leverage that flexibility to tighten his grip on Turkey itself. Combining his policy of leveraging the migrant crisis with deepening his military relationships with 21stcentury authoritarian powers has been his next round of policy innovation.

This approach puts the alliance structures in play in a very significant manner, not just the European Union and NATO but the Gulf Cooperation Council as well. Erdogan is unhinging Turkey to give himself greater strategic flexibility and to find ways to enhance his own control within his own society.

The Russians clearly see an opportunity here. 4

And this Russian challenge is the latest one to operate within NATO Europe itself, but also builds off the gains made by militarily engaging in Syria and building out a permanent military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In his significant book on Erdogan, fittingly entitled The New Sultan, Soner Cagaptay provided an overview of the rise of Erdogan and the significance of that rise to power and his shaping of power in driving a fundamental shift within Turkey itself. And because of fundamental shifts in Turkey, clearly the alliances with which Turkey has historically been part and have been important to the domestic evolution of Turkey itself are in the process of significant change as well.

Unlike previous Turkish leaders, such as Ozal, who saw himself as a conservative Muslim and a Westerner, Erdogan views himself as a conservative Muslim but not a Westerner. Accordingly, he no longer regards NATO as central, seeing it not as a club of nations with shared values, but rather as an outlet where he can purchase security through transactional deals. Whether or not the Turkish leader is the partner that the United States and the EU want, he is the ally they have been dealt at a critical juncture.5

In blunt terms, this means that alliance relationships are in flux in the most vulnerable region within Europe and which poses the most significant challenges to shaping an effective defense and security approach as the challenges of direct defense return to Europe. And unlike during the Soviet period, Turkey is not a stalwart barrier to Russian advances into the region; but at best an interlocutor with the Russians with regard to what and how effective those advances might be in the coming years.

As Cagaptay adds:

In any case, Erdogan’s transactional view of the NATO alliance will limit US ties with Turkey. Erdogan’s dim view of the EU and its liberal-democratic values will endow the EU with even less influence in Turkey. At best, Turkey’s Western allies can hope that the security they provide to Turkey against ISIS, Russia, and the Assad regime will be enough to keep Erdogan on their side. They can also dream that, in Erdogan’s wake, liberals will run Turkey one day, pivoting the country toward its traditional allies in the West—a long-term vision and hope.6

 The Russian Dynamic

With the Western reactions to the seizure of Crimea, Putin was blocked from further incorporation of the “near abroad” directly in the Russian republic.

He certainly has generated continued pressure on the “near abroad” states and is leveraging the turn to the right in new member states in the European Union, like Hungary to position himself for ways to enhance his ability to pressure the European Union states, more generally.

But the major moves after Ukraine in 2014, clearly has been the intervention in the Syrian Civil War. 

Here he has backed a long time Soviet ally, the Syrian government, and used various military means to punish the opponents of Syria having painted the intervention as Russia’s contribution to the war on terrorism.

Given that the Russian intervention in Chechnya was characterized the same way, the Syrian intervention fitted into a long-standing Putin narrative about Russia and its legitimate role in the world.

As part of the payment for the Russian intervention, Russia now has a permanent air and naval base in the Eastern Mediterranean which provides an important access point into the region, and as European dynamics unfold in the Western Mediterranean,

Putin is looking to establish more Russian presence there, with the possibility of Russia becoming a major player in the fate of the Mediterranean region.

We argued at the time of the initial intervention that this was a significant strategic turning point for Putin’s approach to global engagement.

The Russian intervention in Syria crosses a strategic threshold. Russia has used a small but decisive air and naval force to side with Assad to protect his regime and specifically Damascus.

So far the introduction of a relatively small number of combat aircraft in comparison to U.S. and Allied airpower has operationally secured a new air base –Hemeimeem — and equally important bolstered their ability to expand the Syrian naval port of Tartus in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In doing so, they have used airpower decisively in a way the U.S. has not, and have expanded their ability to influence outcomes in the region. While the Russians are delivering a relatively high tempo of air sorties from a small force and delivered weapons against targets, the U.S. tempo of sorties and weapons delivered against targets has been reduced to a trickle.

The Russians are backing a sovereign government, with that government’s approval.

This means that U.S. actions prior to the Russian engagement, whereby aiding “rebels” and inserting special forces was part of the effort takes on a new meaning. U.S. actions now face the threat of Syrian government or Russian attacks protected by international law, custom and practice. In other words, the Russians are in a military partnership with Syria their joint forces have every legal right to direct combat action against all enemies including the U.S. military…..

Significantly under-appreciated Russian diplomatic and political initiative is a new agreement with Israel.  Putin invited the Obama-shunned Israeli leader Prime Minister Netanyahu to Moscow in September to forge a deconfliction agreement between Israel and the Russians. The Israeli diplomatic mission to Moscow included senior Israeli military officials. Consequently, both political and military issues were on the table from the start and the agreement has provided the basis for Israel expanding its capability to defend its interests in Lebanon.

Since then Jordan, America’s closest ally behind Israel has also signed such an agreement.

And during this Russian Israel strategic and military process President Obama pulled Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Power out of the UN Speech being given by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

It appears that the legacy of President Kennedy is long gone “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

In other words, decisive Russian military actions is more in line with 21st century insertion forces then the ever evolving Counter-Insurgency (COIN) nation building military mantra.  Since the Powell characterization of the “if you break it you fix it doctrine,” the U.S. military has been on the path of operations on the ground to reshape political and economic systems, regardless of the inability of an outside power to do so.

In contrast, regardless of the size it is the intangible of combat decisiveness that forms the basis for the Russians expanding their diplomatic role in the region. Russia is being recognized by the key players in the region as a force to contend with….

Putin clearly has looked at the limited air campaign in Libya, the no-reaction to the Benghazi strikes, and our slow motion air campaign against ISIS and has concluded that a much shorter, decisive and brutal air campaign will get the kind of political diplomatic results he wants.

Put in other terms, while the Obama Administration and the neo-cons remain wedded to the COIN and slow-motion air campaign approaches of the past, the Russians are breaking out a new approach to achieve diplomatic power to reassert Russia’s role in the region.7

Of course, the Syrian conflict has led to an outpouring of refugees into the Mediterranean region and into the European Union.

And there is little doubt that the migratory pressures from North Africa and Middle East have been accelerated by the results of Russian action sin Syria, something which provides an indirect contribution to ramping up the direct defense challenge to Europe as well.

In a 2018 published book by the Russian analyst, and head of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, Dmitri Trenin, the author provides an insightful assessment of what Putin is up to in the Middle East with the Syrian intervention.

Trenin underscored the core significance of the Russian military intervention in Syria in terms of what it meant for the Russian military as a tool of Russian foreign and security policy.

“The Russian military operation in Syria is not only the biggest combat employment of Russia’s armed forces abroad since the Afghan war; it represents a very different kind of warfare in comparison to anything Russia had practiced before.

“First, this is an expeditionary war: Russia is fighting in a country with which it has no common border.

“Second, this is predominantly an air war: Russian ground forces are not fighting, though the navy is occasionally engaged.

“Third, this is a coalition war: in order to achieve the war’s aims, Russian airstrikes have to be exploited by the non-Russian forces operating on the ground.

“Fourth, this is a limited war very closely tied to the diplomatic process.”8

Put in other words, the intervention places Russia into the diplomatic game in a volatile region where Russian interests are clearly involved, not the least of which in terms of Russia’s energy business.

But it also provides a learning event for sorting through how to interactively use new and older Russian military capabilities to support Russia’s version of crisis management, which is a key element of what direct defense for Europe entails as well.

The political objective of the Russian intervention was clear from the outset. According to Trenin:

“Although the Russian military operation in Syria was billed from the start as “anti-terrorist,” it was mostly directed against Assad’s various armed opponents rather than the Islamic State group. This was fully consistent with the immediate objective of the Russian military operation in Syria: to stabilize the Assad regime, which was besieged by the forces of the opposition, not those of IS.9

The intervention has cleaerly placed Putin in a more central position within the region, which has reach outside of the Middle East as well. 

According to Trenin:

“Moscow also emerged from its military engagement in Syria as the player with the most connections in the region. During the war, President Putin stayed in close touch with virtually all regional leaders, including those of Turkey, Iran, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, and Lebanon.

“Russia managed to avoid the risk of falling into the cracks of Middle Eastern divides: Shia versus Sunni; Saudi versus Iran; Iran versus Israel; Turkey versus the Kurds, and so on.

“It is this ability to promote one’s interest in a conflict-infested environment that is particularly useful for a country aiming to be a global player. It is negotiating those divides that would test Russia’s ability not only to promote its own interests, but also to deliver public goods—a mark of a true great power in the twenty-first century.”10

Trenin’s interpretation of Putin’s engagement in Syria is in part that the crisis allowed him a chance to breakout from European stalemate to reassert Russian flexibility in political-miiltirary-diploamtic activity through the venue of the Syrian crisis.

As Trenin put it:

“It is not just a return to an important region, but a comeback to the global scene after a twenty-five-year absence. This breakthrough for Russia’s foreign policy has contributed to the ongoing change of the global order—away from U.S. dominance and back to some sort of a balance of power among several major players, including Russia.

“Moscow has demonstrated that a combination of a clear sense of objective, strong political will, area expertise and experience, resourceful diplomacy, a capable military, plus an ability to coordinate one’s actions with partners and situational allies in a very diverse and highly complex region can go a long way to help project power onto the top level. This was exactly what Putin was aiming for.

“His main foreign policy objective has been to bring Russia back to the top level of global politics, and he chose the Middle East as the area for that breakthrough.”11

The featured photo shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosting in Ankara his Iranian and Russian counterparts Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin, April 4, 2018. (Photo: Anadolu Agency)



  1. https://consortiumnews.com/2018/02/01/turkeys-erdogan-in-the-shadows-of-the-ottoman-empire/
  2. http://mediterraneanaffairs.com/eu-turkey-refugee-agreement-scenarios/;  https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-turkey-refugee-agreement-a-review/a-43028295
  3. https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Turkey-and-NATO-the-end-597430 https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Turkey-and-NATO-the-end-597430
  4. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/07/31/trump-is-letting-putin-poach-u-s-allies-s400-turkey-russia-trump-nato-allies/
  5. Cagaptay, Soner. The New Sultan . Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  6. Ibid.
  7. https://sldinfo.com/2015/11/the-russian-re-set-how-the-syrian-intervention-alters-the-conflict/
  8. Trenin, Dmitri. What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East? (p. 54). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  9. lTrenin, Dmitri. What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East? (p. 69). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  10. Trenin, Dmitri. What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East? (pp. 84-85). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  11. lTrenin, Dmitri. What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East? (pp. 134-135). Wiley. Kindle Edition.