2016-02-17

Prospects of major escalation between Russia and Turkey

With the outbreak of a full-fledged crisis between Turkey and Russia and emergence of news about Turkish army units preparing to cross the border with Syria people started assessing the prospects of further escalation of the current disagreement into a conventional war between Ankara and Moscow.

Leaders of both countries are equally ambitious
in their foreign policy
While attempting to come out with a reasonable scenario some refer to historical legacy of relations between two great states of the past – Ottoman and Russian empires. May sound surprising but both Russia and Turkey are already waging a war on the Syrian soil, though in its rather unconventional form.

We should start with saying that both states are conducting information warfare with all available means to control the flow of information on what really is going on and who is to blame for the humanitarian disaster in Syria. It is worth looking at the Russian state TV channels and compare the way how they portray Turkey before and after the Russian Su24 warplane accident that was downed by the Turkish Air Forces in November 2015.

Downing of the Russian Su-24 jet by Turkey
was a shock for Moscow
By the same token, Turkish media describes Russian military campaign in Syria as an attempt to occupy the land and to further endanger Turkish national security. Before the crisis reached its peak mainstream media in every way tried to avoid direct criticism towards Russia.

More importantly, both countries, like many other countries with vast interests in Syria, keep away from being directly engaged on the battlefields. The rationale behind is that any direct involvement in fight against other states may lead to unpredictable disastrous consequences especially in times of major geopolitical instability.

Nevertheless, states, which invest so many resources and pursuing interests in Syria, nevertheless find ways to demonstrate their determination to hold the ground. In this case we should talk about proxy-war where states fight with each other via friendly non-state actors many of which are not always legal and recognized by the world community. This very feature sheds light on why states tend to wage a proxy war.

It is highly important for Turkey
to keep its physical presence in the neighboring Iraq
Among the reasons why states step into the grey zone of proxy wars are restrictions imposed on state actors by international law. For example, after Turkey deployed troops in Iraq its ForeignMinister Ibrahim al-Jaafari urged the UN Security Council to pass a resolution for withdrawal of unauthorized Turkish troops on the Iraqi soil. In the same vein Turkey would be breaching Syrian sovereignty once it decides to send troops to northern Syria.

Tighter restrictions of the international humanitarian law limit states’ actions during wartime. Deployment of unofficial non-state actors allows states to circumvent such restrictions and evade the responsibility in case of war crimes. For example, killing of Russian jet pilot by a Turkey-sponsored opposition group was a direct violation of the Geneva Convention. Since formally abovementioned group doesn’t enjoy official support of Ankara, Turkey is not responsible for the crime.

It is also interesting to examine how and why Turkey and Russia, who until recently have been enjoying solid economic cooperation, in a trice became adversaries in the region?

Firstly, Turkey and Russia have never been strategic partners. Turkey is a member of NATO alliance and has its own interesting in the region, where Russia seeks to secure and expand its influence. Progress in the bilateral relations of the past years was based on economic cooperation rather than on mutual agreement on political and security issues.

Secondly, both countries experience bad time in their relations with the West. Ankara has grievances against its western partners in broad range of issues like refugees, Kurdish separatism, ISIS and democracy in Turkey. Russia in its turn is trying to normalize its relations with the West by restoring political dialogue existing before Ukrainian revolution and lifting sanctions imposed after Crimean crisis.

Turkey is anxious about new wave of clashes
with PKK
Isolated states tend to act more erratically especially when we talk about political regimes underpinned by charismatic leaders who face almost no political opposition at home. Considering that interests of both states get into conflict with each other in Syria it becomes clear that sooner or later Ankara and Moscow had to clash.

Speaking about perspectives of further escalation of the current crisis we can see that neither Turkey nor Russia is interested in thereof. Loud statements uttered by high-ranking officials after the jet accident and personality of both leaders suggest that reconciliation seems unlikely. Both states continue testing each other in different realms.

It seems improbable that Russia with play a Kurdish card. Any military support for the separatists from the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (designated terrorist organization in Turkey, EU and USA) may push Ankara further into a corner. In despair Turkish government witnessing the rising anti-Russian sentiments will be forced to act preemptively to retain political power.

Russia may oust Turkey from Syria and end its influence there by eliminating friendly opposition groups. This is what Russia is doing right now in northern Syria. Observes point out that Russian air force targets positions of armed opposition who are connected with Turkish and Saudi interests in Syria.

According to estimations made by experts affiliated with the Russian government, Moscow is intends to further pressure Turkey through international organizations by defamation and allegations of providing support to Islamist organizations in Syria. Efforts will be channeled also through organization where Russia traditionally enjoys remarkable influence.

Turkish President Erdogan enjoys good ties
with Saudi King Salman
On the other hand Turkey is expected to provide support to the third countries which are eager to challenge Russia directly. Further support to the anti-Assad forces will be primary way to counter act to Russian efforts in Syria.

Main argument at Turkey’s disposal is solidarity of other Arab states and, in a broader perspective, countries with Sunni majorities. Ankara successfully conveys a message that Russia is allegedly helping Iran to create the Shiite Crescent, a sphere of influence stretching from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. With increasing Russian involvement into the Syrian civil war it will be easier for Turkey to discredit Russia in the framework of the ongoing sectarian conflict in the Middle East.

Article was first published in Tatar edition of Radio Svoboda

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