By Kerim Has
The intensification of the conflict in the Middle East, the operation by Russian Aerospace Defence Forces in the Syrian Arab Republic and the diametrically opposed positions of state leaders in relation to the current president Bashar al-Asad continue to be the main events on the agenda. Damascus has become the epicentre of a global political process and a trial for the modern system of international relations, and for the future of regional projects and bilateral relations. Turkey, like Russia, has vitally important strategic interests in the Middle East, and any action by Ankara’s partners provokes either a positive or a negative reaction in the state’s ruling circles. A very important role is also played by the tension in the country’s internal politics, which also affects the state’s conduct on the international stage. In relation to Moscow today one has to speak about the negative nature of the reaction, which should be understood as an interpretation of Russia’s presence in Syria and the plans to strengthen it further in the region. In this context one must take into account that any state aims to protect its own national interests, and Turkey is no exception here.
The act of terrorism perpetrated, according to preliminary information, by members of the IS group on 10 October 2015 in Ankara is the biggest in the history of modern Turkey in terms of the number of casualties. As a rule, events of such magnitude unite the leaders of the international community to fight the common threat; contacts are intensified, and mutual recriminations are relegated to the background. In the context of Russia–Turkey relations, however, this is not yet anticipated.
Despite the fact that the Kremlin explains its fight against IS not only as a priority for its own national security but also as a most important step in supporting the world order and preventing chaos, Ankara regards Moscow’s position from the point of view of an even greater escalation of conflict in the Middle East and in territories bordering on Turkey. The state apparatus has stepped up its negative rhetoric towards Russia, dissatisfaction with Russia’s foreign policy is being openly expressed, and a most important aspect of inter-state cooperation – energy – is being raised. This is explained by several factors:
Firstly, the statements by the Turkish leadership with regard to ceasing energy cooperation or substantially downgrading it are not to be taken literally. Both Ankara and Moscow recognise that so far there is no alternative to Russian gas, and even if imports of hydrocarbons to Turkey can be diversified through other channels, including TANAP, it won’t be in the near future. In other words, it is impossible for the energy relationship between Moscow and Ankara to be broken in either the short or the medium term. At the same time we must remember that disagreements between the countries in relation to regional crises, and most importantly resolving them, complicate the process of mutual understanding and could push Turkey towards intensifying a new round of its energy policy with countries such as Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran and with other states in the Gulf. Russia in turn understands that Turkey’s dependence on Russian hydrocarbons does not allow the latter country to take a hard line in regional crises, which also affects Ankara’s perception of Moscow’s foreign policy.
Secondly, we have to understand that the state that once laid claim to the role of leader in the Turkic and Muslim world has found itself a kind of hostage to the situation that has come about. For example, Russia is creating a coordination and information centre in Baghdad with support from Iran, Iraq and Syria; western states have realised that they will have to take account of Moscow’s opinion, despite the fact that the key issue, the figure of President Bashar al-Asad, is still on the agenda. In addition, Moscow has been able to find consensus with the USA and Israel on the question of creating a mechanism to prevent clashes in the air. Russia is planning to develop other mechanisms of a similar nature with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Ankara is finding itself outside the game, although it plays the role of one of the central regional actors, and this is understandably provoking a negative reaction in the country’s political elite. Moreover, we must not forget the July 2015 agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, in which the Group of 6 countries de facto accepted a bigger role for Tehran in the region in all aspects of its life. Understanding that following the lifting of sanctions Iran’s political and economic influence will also be directed towards Syria, and its contacts with western countries, especially in terms of energy, will multiply, Russia has made another foreign policy manoeuvre. Moscow has thus “moved into the lead” by giving Tehran a clear signal about high-priority partnership and making it part of its strategy in Syria.
Thirdly, it is Turkey, where the flow of refugees is numbered not in hundreds of thousands but in millions, that has run into the problem of the migration crisis more seriously than the other states of Europe and Russia. We should not forget that despite the cultural and religious closeness of the peoples, more than two million refugees have literally and metaphorically put a heavy burden on Turkey. The impossibility of finding a constructive solution in the near future to the problem of accommodation and employment for migrant people is causing a tense social and economic situation within the country, which once again raises the question of security. Moreover, the Turkish side assumes that Russia’s military operation could significantly increase the flow of refugees out of Syria, and the first state to which they flee will again be Turkey.
Fourthly, we must not forget that following the parliamentary elections of 7 June 2015 the situation within the country is far from stable. This is also a result of the increased activity of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), deemed a terrorist group in Turkey, which the government has been fighting for a long time. Russia, however, as we know, does not recognise it as such, and moreover has contacts with the PKK’s “daughter”, the PYD (the Democratic Union Party in Syria). Moscow adheres to a position of cooperation with the Kurdish forces fighting IS in Syria, including those with whom Ankara does not intend to have a dialogue.
In this context we must note the role of the media, which the Russian side accuses of unleashing an information war. Indeed, events are often subjected to a free interpretation in favour of the geopolitical interests of one state or another, and neither Turkey nor Russia is an exception here. We must not overlook, however, the internal processes in the country, which concern both the Kurdish question and its sensitive aspects. Thus, for example, “The Land of Aylan Kurdi”, the documentary film shown on Russia’s central television channel on 16 September 2015, which discussed the fight against IS, the hardships of Syrians and the bloody crimes of the terrorists, put a separate focus on the influence of the Kurdish militia and the women’s battalions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party on the success of the ground operation in Syria. Moreover, the journalist interviewed not a rank-and-file member of the PKK but Jamil Baik, head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s coordination council, who is persona non grata in Turkey. Jamil Baik says that despite the PKK’s substantial disagreements with the Turkish side, IS is a common threat, and after it is eliminated “we shall be fully occupied with questions of independence or autonomy”. Obviously such a stance cannot fail to irritate Ankara.
However, while Moscow has until recently diplomatically sidestepped the Kurdish question, letting it be known that it is cooperating with those whom it considers real partners “on the battlefield”, Turkey might take Vladimir Putin’s statement on 13 October 2015 at the “Russia Calling!” investment forum as a nod in its direction. The Russian president again emphasised the friendly direction of relations between the states and especially noted that now it is necessary to understand how to build relations on an anti-terrorist track. “Turkey has many concerns here linked both with the Kurdish factor and with the fight against terrorism. We understand all these concerns and are undoubtedly ready to take them into account in the course of our joint work. There are now contacts at the level of our military agencies,” said the president. This statement must undoubtedly be seen as a definite signal. All the more so, given that Russian warplanes recently violated Turkish airspace, after which the anti-Russian rhetoric within the public and in the country’s political elite rose to a new level.
In this context it must be noted that Turkey’s plans to create a no-fly zone in the north of Syria have not met with success, which is also in a certain sense, according to the Turkish leadership, down to Moscow. In addition, Ankara, like many other states, undoubtedly received a signal after the Russian Navy launched missiles from the Caspian Sea, which is located outside the conflict region. This step was seen by Turkey as nothing other than a show of force and provoked a rise in anti-Russian feeling. Moreover, as Vladimir Putin confirmed in his interview with leading Russian journalist Vladimir Solovyov on 11 October 2015, this action was also a demonstration. The head of state called the new weapons with which it is planned to equip the Russian army high-tech and highly accurate, emphasising separately that there are specialists in the country who know how to use them and, most importantly, have the will to do so.
Finally, if the cooling of Russia–Turkey relations grows from a temporary phenomenon into a trend, attempts by Moscow and Ankara to cooperate and seek solutions to regional crises may reach an impasse. It is obvious that there is a need to build a new line of relations, which are not stuck solely in the economic sector and energy. The policy of “soft power” which Turkey is actively using in its relations with other states gives a positive result when both sides in the conflict win, thereby making the concept of a “win-win strategy” a reality.
* This piece first appeared on the web site of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) on 14 October 2015.