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September 18, 2020

Russia vs. Turkey in the Mideast (II)

As I was saying, Russia’s reaction to the downing of its fighter-bomber by the Turkish Air Force (24 November 2015) was lightning fast and extremely harsh. Labelling the action “a stab in the back,” Russian authorities adopted a series of economic sanctions that ranged from suspending Turkish imports to abandoning plans for the construction of the South Stream pipeline, and from the drastic curtailment of Russian tourism in Turkey to enhancing the support offered to the Assad regime in order for it to regain control of areas in northern Syria, namely on the Turkish border (the offensive launched on January 29 toward opposition-controlled Aleppo). In the last ten days a spike in Russian air forces’ actions in support of Syrian government forces was noticed in this area, resulting in the takeover of cities there, including the almost complete severing of supply routes from Turkey (with the exception of a single border crossing point). In fact, in this context, Assad’s opponents left the Geneva talks between the representatives of the forces involved in the Syrian civil war, talks taking place under UN aegis.

Turkey’s fears that its goals in the Syrian file will not be attained grew with the shaping up of an agreement between Russia and the US, as well as other Western powers (see the ‘Signals of US-Russia reset’ editorials on the rapprochement between Washington and Moscow, published in the February 4 and February 5 issues of ‘Nine O’Clock’). From this perspective, France joining the war against Daesh after the Paris terrorist attacks of 13 November 2015, as well as the continuity of this so far trenchant position, has catalyzed the West’s rapprochement with Russia. The West has become determined to put an end to the ambiguity of the situation in Syria, which was concisely expressed, as previously cited, albeit subsequently edulcorated by American Vice President John Biden in October 2014.

For Ankara, the situation has become increasingly precarious, once the tension with Russia grew, and the chances of remaining a far-reaching player in Syria through control over her northern area have diminished. The attempts of Turkish leader Erdogan to schedule a personal meeting with Russian President Putin in order to re-warm mutual relations were rejected by the latter (first in Davos, in the third week of January 2016, as well as recently). This must have been understood in Ankara as being much more than just simple diplomatic impoliteness. Namely a signal of marked hostility if not underestimation of Turkey’s geopolitical weight in Syria, based in Kremlin on possible agreements with other major actors, most likely the US. Subsequent to the Turkish leader’s recent request for a meeting with Putin on February 2 – which coincided with an offensive launched by Assad’s forces in northern Syria, backed by Russian air forces, at the border with Turkey and the cutting off of Turkey’s links with anti-government forces in Syria – Moscow answered trenchantly through silence.

As ‘The Moscow Times’ wrote two days after this episode: “It was the second time Erdogan has been rebuffed by Putin following Turkey’s downing of a Russian military jet in November. Instead of talking, Putin has accused Turkey of stabbing Russia in the back and supporting terrorists in Syria.”

In fact, Russia had attained one of its goals in Syria, namely installing a “no-fly” zone in northern Syria, and thus the support coming from Turkey for anti-government forces in Syria was seriously jeopardized. Surely, if the Erdogan-Putin meeting were to take place, one of the topics brought up and one on which Ankara would have looked for sympathy from Russia should have been an agreement on this issue. Likewise, it has to be pointed out that significant Kurdish forces are operating in this area, and ethnographically this region is mostly Kurdish.

A powerful faction in Washington – maybe fearing the dimension of Russia’s possible agreements with the US – deemed that it is the moment to act and to ask the Obama Administration to install a “no-fly” zone in Syria’s northern areas so that Turkey’s possible elimination as a player in the Syrian file would be avoided. On February 4 this year, “Washington Post” published an article signed by Nicholas Burns, former high-level official at the US State Department, and James Jeffrey, “Washington Institute” expert, in which the two asked the Obama Administration for strong measures to fortify the opposition against the Assad government backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, including for a “no-fly” zone in northern Syria, up to a depth of 20-30 miles within Syrian territory, having secured links with the areas controlled by the Kurds in the region (who are fighting against the Daesh forces there). Moreover, the Obama Administration was called upon to deploy ground troops “inside Syria along the Turkish border in order to recruit the majority of the zone’s soldiers from Turkey and other NATO allies, as well as the Sunni Arab states. Those countries could also contribute air power and missiles, to be organized by NATO from Turkish territory, to police the no-fly zone.”

The negative reactions to this proposal were not late in coming, its implementation entailing the deployment of American ground troops, approval at UN level, where undoubtedly things are extremely difficult given the predictable opposition of several veto-wielding members. It is worth mentioning that the Sunni Arab states, members of the Sunni alliance in the Middle East, foremost Saudi Arabia, have signalled that they would in turn deploy ground troops if the US does so. As a “The Washington Post” reader commented on the proposal launched by the American newspaper, “Saudi Arabia and Turkey would be happy to put American soldiers and lives on the line creating this “no fly zone” and “safe haven.” But they have their own agenda and Islamist groups that they are promoting to take over Syria. The US would be mad to get involved.”

Events precipitate, Assad regime forces backed by Russian air power managing to hold ground firmly around Aleppo, a city still occupied by anti-government rebels. In order to prevent their advance, and the advance of Kurdish forces that fight Daesh troops alike, Turkey launches a veritable ultimatum. On February 7, Ankara issued a statement made by President Erdogan, who points out that Washington – according to the AP broadcast – “should choose between Turkey and the Kurdish Democratic Party, or PYD, as its partner.” PYD is on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations because of its links with the PKK (the Kurdish Workers’ Party, outlawed in Turkey). The Turkish leader made a remark about the city of Kobani, liberated last year from Daesh control by Kurdish PYD forces backed by US airstrikes and recently visited by an American official (Barack Obama’s special envoy).

Erdogan added: “How can we trust you? Is it me that is your partner or is it the terrorists in Kobani?” In reply, a US State Department spokesperson pointed out that PYD is on the list of terrorist organizations, that PKK has to stop its violent campaign in Turkey and “a resumed political process offers the best hope for greater civil rights, security, and prosperity for all the citizens of Turkey,” a clear reference to the tense situation in the majority-Kurdish areas of Turkey, where government forces are taking measures against the PKK.
Obviously, for Turkey the problem of the emergence of a Kurdish state has become one that calls for an urgent solution. Moscow’s lack of response to the meeting request and the possible failure of an agreement with Russia, prompted Erdogan once again to play the NATO ally card. The aforementioned reproach addressed to the US refers precisely to Ankara’s new strategy directed toward affirming solidarity between allies. Will this strategy be successful?

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