A state that exhibits a behaviour that is not just ambiguous, but at times even surprising and even embarrassing for its allies is Turkey.
It is profoundly involved in the Middle East crisis, ever since the start of the “Arab Spring” (at the beginning of the year 2011). Showing a solidarity based on religious and ethnic elements, that may be considered, though, a vector of the old Ottoman orientation, which Ankara openly admits to continue, Turkey surprised its Allies (of NATO), first of all by adopting a hostile attitude towards Israel. Under the circumstances of the appearance of the Sunnite axis in the region, therefore, opposed to Iran, Turkey’s attitude towards Israel was even more incomprehensible and once the Syrian crisis started, Ankara’s attitude became even more difficult to decipher.
Does Turkey intend to establish a sphere of influence in the Middle East based on the Ottoman tradition of power? Does Turkey intend to create a sphere of influence in the Middle East, based on the Ottoman tradition of power? Or does it target, by getting actively involved in the region, to forbid the appearance of an independent Kurd state (there is already a signal in this direction in the Northern region of Iraq, where one may already find Kurd autonomy), which would be fatal to its territorial integrity? Or, in another key, does Ankara intend to adopt a coordinating role in the new Sunnite axis, so that it assumes such activism in the region, especially in Syria, but also towards Israel or the Palestinian matter?
Does it want, under the same circumstances, an export of its own version of moderate Islamic regime in the Sunnite states of the region, which would fortify its role as a leader of the Sunnite axis?
After terrorist attacks in Paris (November 13) and under the circumstances of an increased contouring of a coalition that includes the main Grand Powers of the UNO Security Council, which is actually the old formula of the Anti-Hitler coalition that fought against the hegemonic challenge promoted by the Berlin – Rome -Tokyo Axis (The Tripartite Pact) during the 30s and 40s of the last century; Turkey acted decisively for its visibility in the Syrian crisis.
The episode of crashing the Russian bomber plane on November 24–under circumstances that are difficult to explain, to justify the action they performed, as the primary data decisively led towards the hypothesis of a deliberate action –which was obvious in this matter. Turkey wanted to inform everyone involved in Syria –not just Russia, but other members of the anti-Daesh coalition –that it is not an ordinary member of this coalition, but a major player in defining the destiny of this country experiencing a severe crisis (which also explains that it is hosting about two million Syrian refugees for almost two years?)
An expert was writing, two days after the episode of the attack on the Russian SU-24, that Turkey had a different agenda in Syria. What kind of an agenda? Here is what this expert thinks: “It is clear now that Turkey has another agenda in Syria, and in the Middle East as a whole, particularly referring to the so called fight against international terrorism. Turkey considers Syria as its zone of influence. Ankara also wants to see it as part of the former Ottoman Empire and is sure that has more rights to decide the fate of the region than Russia, which came from the outside. However, Turkey does not have enough military power and logistics in order to influence directly on the situation and restructuring in Syria.” ( Alexander Rahr, Turkey has another agenda in Syria, 26.11.2015-http://valdaiclub.com/news/turkey-has-another-agenda-in-syria/).
Indeed, the moment chosen by Turkey to position itself as a major player in Syria is the very best. ISIL has just destroyed a Russian passenger flight above the Sinai Peninsula approximately three weeks ago. It was a terrorist attack that resulted in 200 victims. On November 13, it made an attack in Paris, that led to over 120 deaths. Both countries declared they intended to fight until the end to annihilate ISIL, therefore, after this objective is reached, the next thing to do will be defining Syria’s future. Or, Turkey understands that, for a long time, its role in the Middle East –either in the version of forming a sphere of influence on formerly Ottoman territories, or through a leading role in the new Sunnite axis, or both –which will be effectively established in this file of post-ISIL Syria.
And a minor role is inconvenient. It considers itself entitled, just as Russia does, to a sphere of influence in the Mideast. It is what a Stratfor analysis dedicated to the incident notes, when it writes the following:
“As two Eurasian powers with long imperial pasts, Russia and Turkey have overlapping spheres of influence in parts of the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. This dynamic brought both empires to war multiple times over nearly five centuries. Turkey is the gatekeeper to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea through its control of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. That means if Russia wants to send container ships, oil cargoes and warships westward, they pass through Turkey. If NATO wants to threaten the Russian underbelly from the Black Sea, Turkey has to give it permission to do so.”(Russia, Turkey: Two Versions of the Same Story, Stratfor, November 25, 2015, https://www.stratfor.com/media-center).
If the moment of establishing Turkey’s status in Syria was highly appreciated in Ankara, the West fails to share this opinion, not to mention Russia. Former Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister Ana Palacio presented a perfect overview on the unenviable status of Turkey these days, at such short distance from the beginning of November, when it seemed to have all the cards in its hands: “As France shuns NATO as the centerpiece of an international response to the Islamic State, Turkey’s zero-tolerance approach to encroachments on its airspace has put NATO _ Russian relations under dangerous strain. It is in easing those tensions that the EU has an important role to play. While Turkey still has leverage vis-a-vis the EU, owing to the continued flow of refugees toward Europe, both sides are now approaching the partnership from positions of genuine need. Neither side can afford further complication of the already volatile situation.”(https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/turkey-europe-need-to-build-a-partnership-by-ana-palacio-2015-11?utm_source=Project+Syndicate+Newsletter&utm_campaign=99590276a9-Palacio_Turkey%27s_Diplomatic_Dogfight_11_29_2015&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_73bad5b7d8-99590276a9-93832317 )
An explication – even a short one – is needed about that moment, more or less distant, when Syria’s new status will be negotiated. What are the expectations of each big state involved in this file? Obviously, Russia wishes to maintain its naval base, or even to extend it, as well as the aerodromes it presently uses, which might probably turn Latakiyah into a Russian enclave / sphere of influence.
It is predictable though that Russia will fail to achieve this desired presence on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, as it would increase the risks of an eventual Alawite secession, which might determine the appearance of a future Syrian mini-state feudatory to Moscow and partly to Tehran.
Iran, a fierce supporter of the Assad regime from the very beginning, will wish that the new Syria would not be a part of the new Sunnite Axis, but, instead, to incline the balance – perhaps in partnership with Hezbollah of neighbouring Lebanon – towards the Shiite Axis.
It is quite certain that Tehran understands it is entitled to keep a strong position in both countries and there is a chance it might promote sharing the power in Damask based on the pattern in Lebanon. Western powers, allied in NATO, could take into account, precisely in order to stop Syria’s division into spheres of influence, the launch of a massive occupation similar to the one in Afghanistan, in order to assure post-conflict reconstruction, attended by dozens of states (the ones of the already established coalition, plus, eventually, Russia and Iran) and destined, throughout at least a decade, to assure the reinsertion of refugees, the rebuilding of economy and of the social fabric of the state.
The dimensions of such operation – necessary by any means, as post-ISIL Syria cannot recover without massive international support in all fields – will define a new orientation out of area of the Alliance and is the only desirable one to avoid the already obvious struggles of major actors on Syria’s territory. One circumstance which is imperatively needed in order to reach this objective is restarting the meetings of the NATO – Russia Council, interrupted at the point Moscow annexed Crimea.
Under these predictable circumstances, especially considering that France, as well as the rest of the EU, increased political efforts to establish an alliance with Russia in the Syrian file, Turkey has all chances to see that the objectives it has pursued throughout this conflict are irreparably compromised. A Russian enclave will grant the permanence of the Shiite Axis in its neighbourhood, a division of power based on the pattern of Lebanon will place Ankara’s role in the list of extras and so would a post-conflict operation conducted by NATO or by the Russia – NATO Council.
Obviously, this operation might ease the burden of Syrian refugees on Turkish territory, as well as grant increased security at its Southern border, but the danger of a Kurd state is not completely annihilated.
Therefore, Turkey may not anticipate a major role from this perspective in post-ISIL Syria and therefore, its geopolitical plans in the Middle East are destined, in the best case, to essential reconsidering.