Russia-Turkey paranoia in Levant crisis

By Shah Rukh Hashmi

Imposing Economic sanctions and putting the visa regime for Turkey to an end, are the responses by Russia in aftermath of the incident in which the Russian Su-24 jet was shot down by Turkish F-16s. The incident caught massive attention, staggered the global panorama and appeared to be an exclusive example of confrontation between Russia and members of NATO in the post-cold war era. The Russian president referred to the incident as a “stab in the back” committed by “accomplices of terrorists,” while the Turks justified their action by emphasizing the claim that the plane was engaged in communication and had neglected several warnings before it was shot down. 

Despite having centuries of antagonism and adversary engagement, Ankara and the Kremlin successfully forged cooperative bilateral relations in prevalent times. Nevertheless, the downing of the plane shifted their pragmatic engagement into a wishy-washy pattern once again. To put this into context, annually, more than three million Russian tourists will be seeking alternate destinations now, as routes to Turkey have already been closed by Russian operators. Further, mushrooming restaurants of Turkish food in Moscow are likely to be boycotted. Economic sanctions are usually considered less effective, yet it is evident that the ambitious goal of enhancing bilateral trade up to $100 billion by 2023 is out of question and the current trade volume of $30 billion (as of 2014) will also be hampered. In this memorandum, an attempt has been made to asses why Turkey risked embryonic bonhomie with the Kremlin and what Ankara’s motives are for such a maneuver against a state that is potentially capable to respond firmly.  

Back in September, after failing to reach a consensus in the annual session of the United Nations, Russia unilaterally decided to attack, hunt down and dismantle the network of DAESH terrorist groups and rebels fighting Assad’s regime. The move generated a debate in the west regarding the idea that the United States has failed to keep the promises and pledges that were made in its capacity as a global power. By the time, Russian Airforce started mission in Syria, the USS Theodore Roosevelt evacuated the Persian Gulf. Inevitably, these moves alarmed the U.S allies, as was Turkey.

At first, Russia succeeded in garnering favorable public opinion for its role as a liberator and peace guarantor in the Middle East. Furthermore, social media and the Russian Today (RT) printed and published videos and pictures of Syrian people with banners expressing gratitude to Russia. Secondly, the conflict in Syria took the crisis in Ukraine out of the global spotlight and changed the course of action towards the Middle East, and Syria in particular. The millions of refugees from Ukraine have been given little, or perhaps no, attention because the Syrian refugees have become one of the biggest global issues of contemporary times. The west seems to have adopted a neo-appeasement policy and this choice leads them to ignore the Russian territorial expansion and the annexing of the Crimean peninsula, which have both fallen by the wayside.

Earlier, when strikes were initiated by Russia to consolidate Assad’s regime and root out rebels, there were several intrusions into Turkish airspace. Ankara not only channelized the NATO council but also summoned the Russian ambassador to Ankara for these violations. The council condemned the intrusions and pointed out that such mistakes could ignite a regional war as the effects of these actions spill into neighboring countries. Additionally, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave Moscow an ultimatum, stating that if Russia prefers hostility and an adverse relationship with Ankara, the Kremlin would suffer a great loss. He added that any further violations in the future could result in engagement with NATO.

The situation was seen, primarily as either a scuffle between Assad’s regime and groups involved in the Syrian territory or between the U.S. and Russia. Meanwhile, Turkey and France, having historically larger stakes and a greater impact in the region, were ignored. The Levant – the geographical landmass of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and northwest Iraq – remained under the Ottomans’ suzerainty prior to World War I, followed by French control as mandate systems in the post-war settlement. To reiterate, it was Tsar Nicholas I of Russia who referred to the Ottoman Empire as “the sick man of Europe” in 1853 and sought territorial expansion at the cost of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, opening another front in Syria has ignited tensions and fed apprehensions in Ankara, which already felt marginalized.

Considering Turkey’s stance in the immediate vicinity, and Syria’s as well, the physical positioning of Russian ground and air presence opened concerns in Ankara. This shifted the balance against Turkey; additionally, the mayhem in Paris allowed the French to jump in. Although France and Turkey are both members of NATO, the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century have witnessed great power politics in the territories of the Levant. The actors in that game were none other than Russia, France and Turkey, yet with a different form of statehood – imperial Tsarist, French and Ottoman.

France struck DAESH in the aftermath of the Paris carnage and bombed the Syrian city of Raqqa two days after the attack on French soil. Reportedly, this was France’s most aggressive strike against DAESH. There were possibilities to initiate collaboration amongst the air forces of France, Russia and the United States to dismantle and destroy bases held by DAESH and other rebels. Such possibilities could have been ignored if French President Hollande wouldn’t have declared “universal war” against an “army of terrorists.” Alternatively, having an identical enemy in Turkey’s neighborhood, Russia and France would more likely to cooperate together, Ankara felt apprehended and shelved.

On such a landscape, Turkey responded firmly and shot down a military aircraft. Otherwise, it was inevitable that a deeper incursion in Turkish airspace would be made under the excuse of hot-pursuit against rebels and DAESH groups. Ankara needs engagement of NATO to sustain enormous pressure from Kremlin to normalize the situation. However, the newly announced installment of S-400 missiles at Khmeimim airbase in Latakia, Syria, could cause more unrest and panic in Ankara. Yet, the U.S. Air Force Central Command states its firm and determined position to continue air strikes regardless of the changing scenario. By mid-December, the Persian Gulf will host the carrier USS Truman and four of its escort ships, thus presence with a larger fleet will reposition balance.  

In any case, an extended war in the region would be lethal, and escalations could flare up in the Near East. Nevertheless, the chances of such an escalation and ignition of a larger war in the region are fairly low. Diplomacy and engagement are the best modus operandi to end with a stable and lasting solution. In mutual contestation for zone of imperial influence Russia had has enjoyed greater leverage over Turkey – this is an undeniable truth of contemporary politics in the Near East. Multi-actors and their respective interests have to be analyzed and legitimate concerns of Turkey must not be ignored, neither by Russia nor the coalition forces of the west. The apprehensions and reservations from Russia and the west towards Ankara are the same. 

Economic sanctions, restraining mutual communication and denying good offices by third party would escalate confrontation between the two. It’s a miscalculation on the part of the Kremlin to take these measures one sided in its favor, rather these would have somewhat equal impact on both Russian and Turkish economies. Instead Ankara and the Kremlin must entertain futuristic scenarios and negotiate differences on the table, as restraining from diplomatic solutions would be hazardous for both parties. The disintegration of Yugoslavia produced a matrix that was uncontrollable and had devastating effects by mushrooming conflicts within conflicts. The same is the case in the territories of the Levant – multi-actors are involved with multi-dimensional links (ethnic, racial and religious). Careful assessment of the conflict is required; otherwise, the DAESH quagmire can encircle the region in violence and conflict. 

Shah Rukh Hashmi is a PhD fellow in International Relations at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Jilin University, China. Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan. Earlier he has done Masters in International Relations from the Islamia University of Bahawalpur, Pakistan
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The Journal of Turkish Weekly

JTW is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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