Russia and Turkey at Loggerheads: An Expected Clash

Posted on Posted in Analyses, EU & NATO, Middle East, Strategy & Defence

Βy Dr Spyros Plakoudas, Analyst KEDISA

On 24 November, the news that a Russian warplane had been downed near the troubled Turko-Syrian border spread like wildfire. Conflicting reports circulated right after the crash on how and by whom the Russian warplane was downed. When the dust settled down, the picture became clear. Two Turkish F-16 jets had shot down a Russian SU-24 warplane for allegedly violating the Turkish air space. Of course Russia disputed the Turkish allegations and counter-claimed that the Russian warplane was shot down within Syria totally unjustifiably. Although the news rocked the financial markets around the world and triggered a diplomatic spree on behalf of Turkey, this development comes as no surprise. The signs for an impending crisis between Russia and Turkey were written on the wall weeks now.

Ever since Russia intervened military in support of the beleaguered regime of al-Assad in Syria, the relations between the two erstwhile close partners worsened day by the day. Turkey was obviously upset by this turn of events that threatened to unravel the long-term goals of Ankara in Syria. Turkey, after all, never concealed its ultimate objectives in Syria: overthrow of al-Assad and installation of a new Sunni Muslim government in Damascus. Turkey spared no treasure, time or labour to realise this objective. In co-operation with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Turkey offered sanctuary, weapons and training to the Free Syrian Army and even turned a blind eye to the activities of jihadists within Turkey. In that way, Turkey hoped to kill two birds with one stone: topple al-Assad (and break the Shia Crescent in the Middle East) and, in addition, frustrate the plans of the Kurds in northern Syria for independence. For that reason, Turkey did not fire a single shot against the Islamic State right in front of its doorstep and even benefited from the illegal activities of the jihadists (most notably, the smuggling of oil). Erdogan did not cease to implore his US allies for a no-fly zone in northern Syria that would serve the long-term goals of Turkey: thwart the unification of northern Syria under Kurdish control and pave the way for a ground military operation under NATO umbrella.

However, Russia’s intervention ruined this plan. The reinvigorated armed forces of al-Assad, closely supported by Russia’s warplanes and Hezbollah’s and Iran’s elite ground troops, scored one success after the other on multiple fronts. The Russian warplane was downed while conducting operations in northern Syria against the anti-Assad insurgents near the frontier Turkish province of Hatay, a region inhabited heavily by Sunni Turkmen. Ankara utilized the sizable Turkmen minority in Syria and Iraq to curb the rising power of the Kurds in the region. Therefore, Turkey helped the Syrian Turkmen Brigades in every way to gain a foothold in northern Syria and, quite naturally, kvetched at the attacks by Russia against its protégés in northern Syria in November. Turkey sternly warned Russia of a possible bilateral crisis but Moscow scorned these warnings and continued unabated its operations against the anti-Assad Turkmen insurgents. A few days later, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane. Why did Turkey decide to escalate now? Several border skirmishes involving the Russian and Turkish air force had occurred in the recent weeks, without ever resulting in a deadly encounter. What changed in the past few days? Another crucial question also deserves an answer: did Turkey act unilaterally or in full harmony with its NATO ally, the USA?

After his electoral triumph in early November, Erdogan reigned supreme inside Turkey. Thanks to the severe refugee crisis (which he partly stirred up) and the ongoing war in Syria, the critical voices in the EU and the USA about the iron-fist rule of Erdogan have been silenced. Due to this condescending stance towards his autocracy by his allies, Erdogan confidently thought that he could forward his own agenda in Syria. Therefore, he warned the Russians that Turkey would respond sternly to the targeting of the Syrian Turkmen Brigades. When Russia flouted his warning, he gave the green light for a military response. The promptness with which Turkey responded to the alleged violation of its national air space reveals that Ankara had been waiting for such a chance. What did Turkey aspire to achieve by this action? Ankara primarily wanted to halt the advance of Russia and al-Assad in northern Syria at the expense of the Sunni Turkmen. If Russia stroke back at Turkey, then Ankara would drag the           USA and NATO into a conflict with Moscow. Either way, this high-risk gamble seemed to result in a win-win situation for Turkey. The advancing armies of al-Assad and his external allies would be stopped at their tracks, northern Syria would remain at the hands of Turkey’s insurgent allies, the Kurds would be constrained to the east bank of the Euphrates River and the ongoing rapprochement between Russia and Iran, on the one hand, and the USA and the leading members of the EU (e.g. France), on the other hand, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris would be undermined.

Did the USA formally give the green light to Turkey for such an response? Only speculations can be made at the moment. Given the troubled record of the bilateral relations in recent weeks, one can safely assume that the USA would certainly not approve of such a high-risk gamble, especially by an unreliable ally as Erdogan that could escalate the tensions with Russia uncontrollably. The profound geopolitical weight of Turkey forced the US officials to hold their tongue back many times about the authoritarian rule and the sectarian policies of Erdogan; looking the other way doesn’t mean backing. Erdogan probably wanted to use the time-tested tactic of provocation. As the Pulitzer-prize winner Seymour Hersh reasoned in 2014, the chemical gas attacks in Syria in August 2013 may have been orchestrated by Turkey’s secret services as a false flag operation in order to provoke a US military intervention against al-Assad. In other words, Turkey probably wanted to present Obama with a fait accompli, knowing that Obama could react little but fully support Turkey as a NATO member-state in the face of Russian aggression. As Erdogan predicted, the USA and NATO openly stood on the side of Turkey when the latter requested diplomatic support from its allies in the wake of this incident. The – surprisingly – balanced statements of the US officials, however, reveal a very interesting detail: the USA consider the crisis as an issue between Russia and Turkey, not between NATO and Russia. Surprisingly enough, Gabriel – the German vice chancellor –imputed the blame for the crisis to Turkey, not Russia.

Though openly supportive of Turkey, NATO and the USA urged for calm and a de-escalation of the crisis. How did Russia react? As a strategist and geopolitical thinker par excellence, Putin knows when and how to make his next move. Although the public opinion in Russia cried out for immediate military retaliation, Putin merely condemned the Turkish provocation in a harsh tone. He realizes that military escalation will inescapably trigger the intervention of the USA (and probably NATO) on Turkey’s side. Russia cannot rival the military might of NATO at the moment. Instead, Putin will probably choose to strangle Turkey economically. Turkey depends on plenteous tourist revenue and cheap natural gas from Russia to support an economy with weak growth rates. After all, Russia ranks as the top market for the Turkish construction firms and the second top destination for Turkish exports and, last but not least, Russia and Turkey have signed crucial deals in the fields of energy and nuclear co-operation. In such an asymmetrical economic relationship, Turkey will suffer far more than Russia in the event of economic sanctions by Putin. In addition, Russia can hit Turkey where it most hurts: the Kurdish Issue. Moscow could reciprocate the close co-operation between Turkey and the anti-Assad opposition by intensifying its co-operation with the PYD, by far the most important Kurdish organization in Syria, and even the PKK. Last but not least, Russia could approach other regional countries that oppose Turkey’s sectarian policies such as Israel and Cyprus. The prospect of Russia assuming initiatives as a permanent member of the UN Security Council on the Cyprus Issue should not be discounted. Nor should the possibility of further co-operation between Russia and Iran, another traditional rival of Turkey, be underrated.

For the time being, Moscow has flexed its military muscle in Syria. Russian continued undeterred its air operations against the Turkmen insurgents and intensified its campaign against the al-Assad insurgents all over northern Syria. Indicatively of the renewed vigor, Russia intercepted a convoy chartered by the IHH, a non-governmental organization with close ties to the AKP in Turkey, at a devastating cost. In effect, Russia signaled its resolve to seal the porous frontier between Turkey and Syria even at a cost of a new military crisis with Turkey. Moscow will deploy as soon as possible a few batteries of the S-400 anti-ballistic missile system as well as squadrons of the S-34 warplanes in Syria that will decisively conduce to the success of the aforementioned mission. Russia additionally ordered warplanes to escort its air bombers in an effort to avoid another tragedy. Whether an incident between the Turkish and Russian air forces will occur in the near future no one can predict. One thing can be, nonetheless, deduced with a fair measure of certainty: the gloves are off between Turkey and Russia in this boxing match.