Risks and opportunities for the West

Friday 16/10/2015
Sphere of influence. The Russian Navy’s landing ship Novocherkassk sails in the Bosphorus, with the Ottoman-era Topkapi Palace in the background, on October 8, 2015.

Istanbul - Russia’s dramatic entrance into Syria has clearly made the region uneasy and nowhere has this un­ease been more directly felt than in Turkey.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared that Rus­sia’s violation of Turkey’s air space was no accident, despite Moscow’s claims to the contrary. Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan warned Russian President Vladimir Putin of the cost of losing Turkey as a friend.

The sudden chill in Russian- Turkish relations is surprising given the previously warm ties between Putin and Erdogan, which led to comparisons of the two as heirs to the former Tsarist and Ottoman empires. Russia provides more than half of Turkey’s natural gas needs and is financing its nuclear energy programme. Rather than keeping their disagreements over Syria pri­vate, as Ankara and Moscow had been doing for the last four years, Putin’s military actions flagrantly insulted Erdogan.

The removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad has been a personal mission of Erdogan’s, even though prior to the Syrian civil war the two leaders had a good relationship. However, there is realistically lit­tle that Turkey can do in response to Russia’s military intervention in support of Assad other than to com­plain. Russian-Turkish tensions further complicate a tense regional situation and makes it a potentially global crisis given the possibility of Russian conflict with a NATO mem­ber.

Russia’s initial entry into the Syr­ian civil war in many ways began similarly to Turkey’s military in­volvement over the summer: Both countries claim they are combat­ing the Islamic State (ISIS) but in fact Ankara has attacked its mortal enemies of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and Moscow has tar­geted moderate Sunni rebels that the United States and Turkey have been supporting.

Unlike Erdogan, who must an­swer to domestic political forces that will determine the future of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in November 1st elections, Putin is free to meddle in Syria. Propping up Assad with direct air strikes and an army of Russian “volunteers,” Putin can distract at­tention from Ukraine and the fail­ing Russian economy in a way that Erdogan could only dream of. Simi­lar to Iran’s strategy in Syria, Russia is not counting on Assad winning, just ensuring he doesn’t lose.

US President Barack Obama’s un­willingness to be dragged into Syria creates the impression that Putin’s decisive actions are part of a longer-term strategy. This may be wishful thinking. Rather, Moscow’s inter­vention simply signals a new phase of attrition in the Syrian civil war that has already lasted more than four years without a clear winner.

In the absence of a unified Arab or European response to the Syria crisis, the imperial legacies of the Persians, Russians and Turks loom large over the conflict — with the notable shadow of the United States present. Turkey appears to have the most to lose, having absorbed more than 2 million Syrian refugees. In the absence of no-fly or safe zones in Syria, more refugees are likely to be on the way.

Turkey’s Kurdish problems have been exacerbated by tensions with the United States over how to best utilise Kurdish ground forces in Syria. The extent to which Turkey’s four-decade long struggle with the PKK has overshadowed the pro­gress made for Kurds in Turkey and is creating a cycle of violence within the country has been under-appreciated by Washington. While the Pentagon bemoans the loss of power of its Turkish military coun­terparts, who have been effectively neutered by Erdogan, the US State Department has tried to balance competing interests and areas of mutual cooperation with Ankara.

Prior to the “Arab spring”, Turkey was seen as a rare Muslim-majority democracy that could potentially serve as a model. But, today, the state of affairs has made a state visit to Washington by Erdogan seem unlikely.

Rather than finding a unified re­gional response, Ankara’s serious problems with Baghdad, Cairo and Jerusalem have left its former goal of finding “regional solutions to re­gional problems” seem far-fetched and naïve. The historic Iran nuclear agreement, which may lead to Teh­ran being welcomed back into the international community, also has undermined Turkey’s regional am­bitions.

The extent to which Turkey’s problems are blamed singularly on Erdogan have made Western leaders more hesitant to embrace their traditional NATO ally. While it would be a mistake to not force­fully defend Turkey’s democracy, freedom of the press and individual rights, which have suffered in re­cent years, it would be equally mis­guided to not seize the opportunity to defend Ankara against a newly emboldened Moscow.

The West should fully embrace Turkey, not just through security guarantees but through a more ac­tive commercial diplomacy and economic agenda ahead of upcom­ing Group of 20 summit in Turkey.

The revival of Russia’s “sphere of influence” in Syria — a narrative that dominated the Middle East during the Cold War — is the first ripple caused by Putin and should deeply concern US officials.

Can Washington turn the dispute between Ankara and Moscow into an opportunity to develop a coher­ent Syria strategy? The odds are slim but now more than ever the United States must be aware of these cross purposes and factor them into its broader regional calculations.