The 19-month-long Syrian crisis has finally started to eat away at the unprecedented rapprochement in Turkish-Russian relations, prompting justified concerns over a possible rollback of the improvements the two countries have made in the last decade or so. The Syrian crisis has accomplished what NATO member Turkey’s decision to host a U.S. radar system in its territory as part of the missile defense project for the alliance, and the ensuing Russian response, failed to do: deeply rupture ties.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lingering fears over a Western plot, led by Americans, to oust him from power with Western-backed reform movements dating back to pre-election rallies have now begun to play tricks on him, pushing his relatively newfound friend away because of differences over Syria.
Putin may very well be right in engaging in the fight with the West in Syria rather than in his own backyard -- the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Russian Federation. But he seems to be forgetting that Turkey, a regional powerhouse, is slowly but surely turning against Russia simply because of the unwavering support Putin throws behind the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent harsh criticism of Russia, following the forced landing of a Syrian plane in the Turkish capital and Ankara’s exposure of its non-civilian cargo destined for the Syrian defense ministry, must be an unambiguous indication to Moscow that friendly feelings in Ankara towards Russia should not be taken for granted. It appears there has been a serious miscalculation on the part of Russian policymakers that Turkey would keep compartmentalizing Russia and the Syrian crisis in separate baskets forever. They were wrong.
Facing the bitter fact that the Syrian crisis has become an insupportable national security risk for Turkey due to the surge in terror and the mounting refugee crisis, coupled with the lack of an international will to intervene, at least on humanitarian grounds, by establishing sanctuaries for civilians in Syria, Turkey had no choice but to implement a policy to speed up Assad’s departure from power. For that it needed to target Russia, the main backer of the Syrian regime.
Erdoğan signaled this new policy on Oct. 9 when he told lawmakers in Parliament, “Assad ... is only able to stand up with crutches,” stressing that everybody knew the identity of these crutches. “He will be finished when the crutches fall away,” he vowed. Erdoğan’s remarks came after a series of incidents in which shells fired from Syrian soil landed in Turkish territory, causing loss of life. The government obtained war powers from Parliament, and Erdoğan warned that Ankara would not shrink from war if forced to act.
The urgency of the fundamental shift in policy on Syria was triggered by the sense that the surge in terror and swelling refugee crisis may have become a rather serious national security risk for Turkey, as Assad hangs onto power longer than was originally contemplated. De facto formations like affiliates of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) operating in a power vacuum in Syria may gain strength by suppressing other Kurdish groups. The Syrian crisis may disturb the fragile social balance of Turkey in provinces where Turkey’s small community of Arab Nusayris, or even its large population of Turkish Alevis, live in peace with others.
How did we get here? When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a call at a July 6 meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People in Paris for Moscow and Beijing to “pay a price” for backing Assad, Turkey did not join in the call. “I do not believe that Russia and China are paying any price at all -- nothing at all -- for standing up for the Assad regime. The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price,” Clinton warned.
The Turkish government was then careful not to put Russia into the mix, and the Turkish prime minister even put pressure on hyperactive Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to issue a corrective statement to rectify a possible rift with Russia. The written statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Davutoğlu was not targeting Russia or China when he called for greater pressure on and isolation of the Syrian regime and its supporters during the July 6 meeting. Maybe he did not mention Russia by name, but it was obvious that he meant Russia and China by calling “backers of the regime” to account.
I guess at the time Turkey was still hopeful of swaying Russia on Syria, and Erdoğan was likely thinking that he could convince his buddy Putin during the planned trip to Moscow on July 18. His hopes have been dashed by Putin’s unwavering stance on Syria in the three months since that visit.
Now Ankara has more closely aligned itself with the West and signaled that it is ready to cut its losses on the Syrian crisis, at the risk of further rupture in Russian-Turkish ties. When the cost of the Syrian crisis clearly outweighs the benefits of the Turkish-Russian rapprochement, Turkey has no choice but to drop Russia from its considerations as cards are reshuffled in the Middle East. Moscow is partly at fault for pushing Turkey away, while considerable blame goes to policymakers in Ankara for involving Turkey too deeply and prematurely in the Syrian crisis.
But what is done is done. The critical question now is what comes next, and, more importantly, who will blink first in this new Turkish-Russian game of roulette. What should we read into Putin’s cancellation of a visit to Turkey that was supposed to take place on Oct. 14-15? Will Moscow move to contain the damage the Syrian crisis has started to wreak on Turkish-Russian ties? Or will the rift escalate to a new level of rupture, with further covert operations, the intelligence agencies of the two countries pitted against each other? Are we going to see provocations in the territories of the Russian Federation or of Turkey, possibly organized by third countries, to further drive a wedge between Moscow and Ankara? We do not know yet.
Turkey and Russia have managed ties very well in recent history. For example, Russia was not overly concerned by Turkey’s decision to host the NATO radar system, as it did not come as a surprise. Nor was Turkey puzzled when Moscow deployed missiles to target the U.S. defense system in Europe, including in Turkey. Both nations are defensive in nature, in line with the traditional role play taught to both Turkey and Russia by the decades-long Cold War. But the Syrian crisis is a new testing ground that puts a heavy strain on ties which the two countries are not really accustomed to and are unsure how to handle.
It is obvious that the Syrian crisis does not serve the interests of either country. For the sake of both nations, I hope we can find a way out. Otherwise Turkey and Russia will bleed each other out while the rest of the world enjoys the show.
Abdullah Bozkurt is a writer for Today’s Zaman where this article was published Oct. 18