Turkey in the Russian-American-Arabian triangle

Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Dhia-Allah

Dhu al-Hijjah 16, 1433 2012-11-01

News & Analysis

by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 9, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1433)

Turkey has become trapped in the Syrian quagmire as a result of misguided policies pushed by the US and the Arabian rulers. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cannot escape responsibility and he must take steps to rectify this by making amends with Russia and Iran, rather than spoiling them.

Why is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan so determined to spoil relations with Russia? Or, to put it differently: who is behind the recent spate of events that are clearly aimed at spoiling relations between the two countries and who would benefit from such rupture? The question of strained relations has assumed added significance in the wake of Ankara’s aggressive response to cross-border attacks from Syria. These were further spoiled when Turkey scrambled two American-supplied F-16 fighter jets to force a Syrian Airline Airbus A320 enroute from Moscow to Damascus flying over Turkish airspace to land at Ankara airport on October 10.

The plane was carrying 30 people, 17 of them Russian citizens. When the plane first approached Turkish airspace, it was advised by Turkish air traffic control to either change course or land in Ankara. The pilot agreed to land, confident that he was not doing anything illegal or carrying any unauthorized equipment. The Turkish government alleged the plane was carrying military equipment in contravention of civil aviation rules, a charge hotly denied both by Russia and Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted that the plane was carrying radar parts but that such equipment was not prohibited under law. Lavrov also stated that a proper bill of lading was prepared and it was from a legitimate Russian company to an authorized body in Syria. Russia’s request for consular access to its citizens on board the plane while detained for nine hours in Ankara was also denied, causing much displeasure in Moscow.

The airline episode resulted in Russian President Vladimir Putin postponing his visit to Turkey scheduled for October 15 but it was not cancelled completely. A spokesman for the Russian president said he is likely to visit Turkey in December. Following the forced landing of the Syrian plane, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Ankara had received intelligence that the plane was carrying weapons for the Syrian military and that Turkey would not allow its airspace to be used for such purposes. While he did not reveal the source of this intelligence, German magazine Der Spiegel reported a few days later that this had come from the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). No weapons were found on board and the plane was allowed to take off after nine hours.

While Russia has tried to play down the significance of the episode, Foreign Minister Lavrov insisted Turkey must explain its action and return the ceased cargo since it is completely legal. Syria has adopted a different approach. Damascus accused the Turks of behaving aggressively by pointing guns at the crew and passengers when they boarded the plane. Both countries have also banned overflights of the other’s airliners over their territory. Russian planes flying between Moscow and Damascus appear not to be have been affected by the ban.

With the Der Spiegel revelation that it was the CIA that tipped (or misled) the Turks, it becomes clear who is trying to muddy Russian-Turkish relations especially as they are already at odds over Syria. This comes at a time when Putin is trying to forge a more robust policy for the Muslim East and is hoping to convince regional players to look beyond the immediate crisis in Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov is expected to visit Saudi Arabia for the Strategic Dialogue with the Gulf Cooperation Council in November as part of this effort.

There are other developments as well. Russia is keen to promote a Syria-Iraq-Iran-Lebanon alliance that would work closely with Moscow. This reflects Putin’s thinking on several inter-related issues. His assessment is that the armed insurgency against Bashar al-Asad’s government is not capable of overthrowing him by force despite their brutal tactics. Further, the US no longer has the luxury of launching new wars as it is still trying to extricate itself from the mess in Afghanistan. This creates an opening for Russia to move in and play a larger role in the region than was hitherto not possible.

The armed militias in Syria, of whom there are several, and keep multiplying, as well as political opposition groups are badly fractured. A meeting of opposition groups planned in the latter part of October in Doha, Qatar, was postponed ostensibly to give them more time to invite other groups. The reality is they simply cannot get their act together. Even a desperate dash by the Saudi intelligence chief, Bandar bin Sultan to Doha to confer with the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani on October 10 failed to bridge differences between the disparate opposition groups. While Saudi Arabia finances only its own hard-line Salafi followers, the Qataris finance their own favourite groups.

Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also financing Afghans, Pakistanis and Chechens to go and fight in Syria. These mercenaries are transported via Dubai to Beirut from where they are smuggled into Syria. The Saudis and Qataris have also bought numerous apartment buildings in Beirut that are now occupied by Saudi and Qatari financed paramilitary groups from Tripoli and Saida (Sidon). These apartment complexes also serve as transit stations for mercenaries from Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. on their way to and from Syria. Aware of the danger these mercenaries pose to their fragile security, the Lebanese army has set up barriers and check-points all over Beirut and randomly checks vehicles for weapons.

It is however the realization, albeit slowly, in Riyadh and to a lesser extent in Ankara that their favourite horses in Syria are not up to the task of delivering al-Asad’s head; thus both regimes have started to think of alternatives. Saudi King Abdullah is the more worried of the two, having realized that the longer the Syrian crisis drags on the greater its impact on his kingdom where a succession crisis is looming with several senior members already in their graves and others heading there soon. He would like to see a face-saving exit from the Syrian crisis. The idea of the Syrian military taking over from al-Asad to restore order has been mooted by the Saudis. This is wishful thinking at best.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is facing his own dilemma and mounting opposition within the country. Several commentators have said at least 80% of the Turkish public is opposed to his policy on Syria. While all opposition parties oppose Erdogan’s policy, it is the public sentiment, hitherto solidly behind him that must have the Turkish leader worried. He thinks of himself as another Putin and would like to repeat the Russian’s feat who served as president for two terms, relinquished it to Dimtri Medvedev for one term before coming back to re-occupy the top spot. Erdogan wants to amend the Turkish Constitution that would make the president all-powerful, like in France. He has announced his desire to seek the presidency in 2014. Given growing opposition to his policies, he may not get the two-thirds majority in parliament to amend the constitution thereby frustrating his dream.

There are indications that Turkey may also be seeking a way out of the Syrian mess. On October 16, when Erdogan met Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Baku during the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) meeting, he agreed to the latter’s proposal for a ceasefire to give the parties an opportunity to talk. The UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi floated the proposal and has visited various capitals including Cairo, Riyadh, Ankara, Tehran, Beirut and Damascus to secure their support for a ceasefire during the Eid al-Adha holidays. Iran is fully committed to the idea. On October 17, Turkey also formally endorsed the proposal. Soon thereafter word came that the Syrian government would consider any initiative that would end the crisis but that both sides must be involved.

In Damascus from October 19–21, Brahimi conveyed to the Syrian government that he had been assured the opposition would respond positively to any government ceasefire and urged al-Asad to take the lead. While describing the proposal as a “microscopic step,” Brahimi suggested it should start from October 26 to “allow a political process to develop.” Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdisi welcomed the proposal but said “The purpose of [a ceasefire] is not calm itself but transition to a political dialogue between Syrians themselves.” Makdisi emphasized, “If we want the initiative to succeed, it is not enough for only the Syrian [government] side to be bound by it.” But he wanted to be positive adding “at the same time, I would say that calming down the situation is in the interest of the Syrian government because we support a political solution and dialogue under this umbrella without pre-conditions.”

Brahimi also warned neighbouring countries and regional powers that are supporting the Syrian rebels of the dangers of the spread of violence. “It is not possible that this crisis will stay inside Syrian borders forever,” Brahimi said. As if foreseeing what was coming, the murder of Brigadier Wissam al-Hassan, the Lebanese Internal Security chief, on October 19 in a car bombing in the heart of Beirut proved him right. Hitherto, Lebanon had escaped largely unscathed from the violence in Syria. The Lebanese security chief’s murder has created deep uncertainty.

What further plans Brahimi has in mind, if any, is unknown at present. His hope is that the Eid al-Adha ceasefire will provide him a window of opportunity to turn it into a longer cessation of hostilities, so that he can work toward creating some space for political dialogue. This will depend on how the various parties respond. While the Syrians may have an interest in stopping hostilities during Eid al-Adha, this may not mean much for the foreign mainly Saudi- and Qatari-sponsored mercenaries that constitute, according to some observers about 80% of the rebel force. Their aim is to create chaos. They have no families in Syria to go back to; their overriding mission is endless chaos inspired by a misguided ideology.

On the first day of Eid al-Adha (October 26) a car bomb exploded in Damascus killing eight people. Car bombings are a signature mark of al-Qaeda. There was also fighting in Aleppo although its scale was considerably reduced. There appears little likelihood of the ceasefire holding for too long or leading to any permanent cessation of hostilities to allow the political process to begin. For now, there appears to be a stalemate in fighting despite Russian General Nikolai Makarov telling the Russian Interfax News Agency on October 24 “We have information that the rebels fighting the Syrian army have shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles… including Stingers made in the United States.” He went on, “We need to still find out who has delivered them,” avoiding pointing a finger directly at the Americans.

In addition to Turkey, two other countries are crucial to the future of Syria and indeed the broader Muslim East: Islamic Iran and Russia. Both enjoy considerable influence in Syria. Russia is working hard to expand its area of influence. In addition to their approach to Saudi Arabia the Russians are also cultivating relations with Iraq, which was in their domain of influence prior to the US invasion and occupation of the country in 2003. The American intrusion cost Russian companies $8 billion in lost contracts in the oil sector alone. Things may be on the verge of changing.

The first inkling of this came in the $4.2 billion arms deal the visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed in Moscow on October 9. The following day Maliki met Putin and invited Russian companies to join in Iraqi oil exploration. Putin would love to resume the close relations with Iraq that were so rudely interrupted by the American invasion of the country in 2003.

Aware that the US is in no position to embark on more military adventures especially in a place like Syria from which it will be impossible to extricate itself, Putin is moving adroitly to fill the political and strategic vacuum. As former top Russian spy, Putin has his finger on the pulse of events in the Muslim East. Unlike the Americans and the Europeans, Putin is not likely to insult Turkey; instead he is more likely to play on Erdogan’s ego and coax him into a more cozy relationship with Moscow. The two men have good personal chemistry. It will be interesting to see whether this can be translated into tangible policies that will lead to stability in this crucial part of the world.

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