The internal and external dimensions of Russian – Turkish controversy

George X. Protopapas

Russia and Turkey seem to compose the two sides of a “communication game” in order to expose each other as culprit in international diplomacy. The shooting down of Russian Su-24 bomber from Turkish fighter jet F-16 in Syria could be interpreted as result of the different national interests which are defined from the course of Syrian civil war. The Russian – Turkish bilateral rift could be analyzed on the broader context of internal policies and Middle East geopolitics.

On the one side, Moscow focuses on the secret relations between Ankara’s government and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Russian strategy attempts to display that Turkish and ISIS have mutual geopolitical and commercial interests. Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Ankara’s government of “collusion” with ISIS, alluding to accusations that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan benefits personally from the illegal oil trade with ISIS.[1]

On the other side, Turkey claims airspace violation and accuses Russia for Soviet style propaganda. We could say that Ankara’s strategy uses the card of violation of state sovereignty in order to prove that Russian engagement in Syria is not selfless but serves its imperial ambitions for domination in the Middle East. Moscow has traditionally criticized American interventionist policies in the Middle East which took place under the pretext of non-proliferation of weapons mass destruction (WMD) and the war on terrorism.

Internal policies

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are considered from the international community as two powerful leaders. They control their state mechanisms, military, media and they are based on increased nationalism to maintain their high levels of popularity. Putin defends the rights of the Russian diaspora and Erdogan has declared himself as “protector” of all suppressed  Sunni Muslim populations in the Middle East.

Vladimir Putin has restored Russia to the status of great power after almost two decades of disdain in the international arena. Putin is continuously criticized from the West for infringement of human rights and violation of the freedom of press.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan eradicated the traditional bulwarks of the secular state in Turkey and became a “new Sultan” attempting to re-establish an “Ottoman Empire”. He adopted a pre-election tough rhetoric against the Kurdish PKK and his Islamic AKP party easily won the second snap elections on November 1st 2015. Erdogan has also jailed several journalists and has silenced others through intimidation.

However we could say that Putin and Erdogan internal policies are commented differently from the West which follows a “double standard” policy. Putin is a traditional target of the West for his human rights records – the West increased criticism and imposed economic sanctions against Russia (as a result of Ukrainian crisis). However, Erdogan avoids the Western criticism due to Turkey’s role on European migration crisis (it could reduce the influx of refugees to the European soil) and the vital role of Turkey within NATO.

Syria and gas – geopolitics

The Syrian civil war is an arena of important conflicting geopolitics interests between Russia and Turkey, which have supported Shiite and Sunni sides respectively.

The Russian military engagement is steadily changing the rules of Syria civil war in favor of Bashar al Assad regime against ISIS and Syrian Sunnis rebels.  Moscow is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Russian aim is to secure its geopolitical interests in a post-war Syria and to preserve Russian naval base in Tartus at any cost (it gives access to Mediterranean Sea).

On the contrary Turkey is a staunch opponent of Bashar Assad and has supported Sunni rebels and desperately wants to avoid the creation of an autonomous Syrian Kurdish state which will undermine its vital geopolitical – energy interests.

The natural gas is considered an essential reason for the outburst of the Syrian civil war as “the most of the foreign belligerents in the war in Syria are gas-exporting countries with interests in one of the two competing pipeline projects that seek to cross Syrian territory to deliver either Qatari or Iranian gas to Europe”.[2]

In 2009 Qatar announced a proposed gas pipeline to deliver North Field gas reserves northwest via Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria to Turkey in order to supply the European markets, but  President Assad rejected the plan. In 2011 he accepted an alternative Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline.

Turkey strongly considers that Qatari pipeline serves its geo-economic interests helping to diversify its gas supplies away from Russian gas and to become gas hub between Asia and Europe.

The Qatari pipeline’s materialization could seriously threaten the Russian energy interests in Europe and Gazprom gas monopoly. In 2014, Gazprom exports supplied 146.6 billion cubic meters of gas to European countries. Western European countries accounted for approximately 80% of the company’s exports from Russia, while Central European states took 20%.[3]

ISIS Syrian regions prevent the unification of Syria Kurdish areas along Turkey’s borders.  Ankara’s government exploits ISIS threat and pushes for the creation of a buffer zone from Aleppo to Kobani in order to set the conditions for a future construction of the Qatari gas pipeline. The establishment of a Syrian Kurdish autonomous state undermines the perspective of a Sunni proposed pipeline.[4]

Moscow could offer support to Syrian Kurdish fighters and PKK as it has maintained close ties to Kurdish tribes.[5] The Syrian Kurds have established their own government in areas of northern Syria and have proved their combat effectiveness against ISIS.

Conclusions

Russia and Turkey seem to have be engaged in a “chicken game” [6] using media outlets, and propaganda tactics in the minefield of the Syrian civil war. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan remain steady on their fierce rhetoric and avoid showing signs of weakness and concession.

Moscow can use the “energy weapon” in order to castigate Turkey as it imports about 60 percent of its natural gas from Russia. However the question is if Moscow is truly ready to risk its gas revenues when low oil prices have already hammered its economy.

The course of Russian- Turkish relations is going to be clearer in the next weeks and Putin and Erdogan will be obliged to take serious decisions for the future of their bilateral relations.

 

 

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[1] Vladimir Putin: Turkey’s Leaders Are ‘Stuffing Pockets’ With ISIS Oil Cash, NBC News, December 3 215, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/russian-president-vladimir-putin-warns-turkey-over-war-crime-n473316

[2]  M. A. Orenstein – G. Romer, “Putin’s Gas Attack: Is Russia Just in Syria for the Pipelines?”, Foreign Affairs October  14 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2015-10-14/putins-gas-attack

[3]  Gazprom Gas supplies to Europe 2014 , http://www.gazpromexport.ru/en/statistics/

[4] Christina Lin, “Syrian Buffer Zone – Turkey-Qatar Pipeline”,  ISPSW Strategy Series: Focus on Defense and International Security, No. 367 ,August 2015

[5] Keith Johnson, “Will Putin Use the Energy Weapon Against Turkey?” Foreign Policy November 24, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/11/24/jet-downing-will-threaten-but-not-derail-putins-pivot-to-turkey/

[6]  Two drivers drive towards each other on a collision course: one must swerve, or both may die in the crash, but if one driver swerves and the other does not, the one who swerved will be called a “chicken,” meaning a coward.

Posted on December 11, 2015 in KEDISA

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