It is unlikely for the duel between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan to precipitate a military confrontation between Russia and Turkey or NATO, of which Turkey is member. Both Moscow and Ankara have clearly decided to contain Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet in Syria, while reserving the right to retaliate later if needed.
These two presidents are similar in many ways. They are both authoritarian. They have both moved between the posts of prime minister and president. They both are being called Tsar or Sultan. And they both have a project: Vladimir Putin is resolved to restore Russia’s imperial standing, and judged that the Middle East is the place to start. And Recep Tayyip Erdogan is resolved to restore the glory of the Ottoman Empire, sailing cunningly between regional and international waves to the tune of his own ideological agenda.
Both men have decided that Syria is the key to their projects. But both realize that they cannot achieve what they want as long as the other is in the way. For this reason, despite the seriousness of the downing of the Su-24 jet, there is still room for accord between the two men and the two countries as part of the Vienna peace process for Syria. The economic considerations related to the bilateral relationship are not absent either, especially as natural gas is concerned.
Yet a most important issue here is the future of the Russian relationship with armed Syrian opposition groups, particularly the Free Syrian Army, in light of information that had signaled a major shift prior to the Russian jet incident. Indeed, Turkey is a key player with respect to the armed Syrian opposition, and it coordinates closely with Saudi Arabia, which will soon host both political and military opposition factions in Riyadh in support of the Vienna process.
What lies behind the escalation between Turkey and Russia is mutual suspicions over both Syria and their respective ideological and imperial ambitionsRaghida Dergham
This ring of complex issues surrounding Russian-Turkish ties is attracting a lot of international attention, in light of the global consensus on the priority of defeating ISIS in Syria, as part of a fragile transitional political and military process that ill-affords a confrontation between Russia and Turkey. For this reason, de-escalation is a top priority, but the fear remains that the two egoistic and temperamental leaders who have conflicting projects would fail to contain the situation.
President Vladimir Putin does not want an open-ended military involvement in Syria and is ready for an exit strategy if his interests are guaranteed. He found that an exit strategy was possible through the Vienna process launched by Russia and supported by the U.S., before it was expanded to include 20 countries and international bodies including Iran, after a first round that included only Turkey and Saudi Arabia in addition to the U.S. and Russia.
The top goal for Putin in Syria is fighting Sunni extremism in ISIS’s territory, so he would not have to fight it in Chechnya, Moscow, or the Islamic republics that encircle Russia. He wants a military base in Tartus near NATO bases to have the freedom to extend Russian influence to the Middle East. He wants to sustain the alliance with Iran (despite his insistence on a secular Syria, he does not seem to mind allying with Iran’s theocracy and sectarian militias against ISIS).
Putin wants to reap economic rewards from Iran having invested in it politically, which explains his eagerness to sign nuclear deals with Tehran even before sanctions were officially lifted.
The Russian president wants Bashar al-Assad to remain in power in the transitional period, while keeping the door open to the possibility of his not running in the next presidential election in Syria, yet without guarantees.
In the wake of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, the Russian president understood the importance of having cordial relations with the Gulf countries, if he wants to exit the Syrian quagmire. He understood the importance of improving tense relations with Turkey, which he accuses of backing terrorism to impose an Islamist agenda.
The Vienna process secured the means to discuss the future of Syria directly, while some contentious issues were kicked down the road and others were agreed upon. The key issues of contention include the future of Bashar al-Assad in the transitional process, the definition of terrorist groups and moderate groups, and the timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria, including Russian and Iranian troops, Hezbollah, and other militias.
What is new in the Russian positions, according to informed sources, is that Moscow is willing to engage seriously with the Free Syrian Army, as part of an initiative that complies with Saudi-Turkish-Qatari insistence the FSA is a necessary ally in the war on ISIS. The dispute is what Moscow considers a given, namely the centrality of the Syrian regime army’s role in the war even under Assad’s command, while the other three nations agree on the need to preserve the Syrian army and its role, but not under Assad’s command.
Grip on the Syrian opposition
Ankara does not want anything to undermine its grip on the Syrian armed opposition. It may reluctantly welcome the new Saudi role in bringing together the political and armed opposition factions, but it will not be accommodating of direct Russian engagement with the opposition that would loosen its own grip.
Furthermore, Ankara does not trust Moscow’s methods when tackling the issue of Assad’s future in the transitional process. Turkey is averse to the “creative ambiguity” that avoids giving guarantees. When Putin and Ayatollah Khamenei vowed not to renege on promises and betray allies, Ankara saw this as clearly sticking to Assad at the end of the transition as well as at its beginning.
Erdogan’s suspicions about his Russian counterpart increased when Russia insisted on Syria’s secularism. Erdogan challenged this bid, issuing instruction to his delegation in Vienna to categorically reject this. For one thing, Erdogan sees this expression as a fatal blow to any role by the Muslim Brotherhood that he favors and does not want excluded from Syria’s future.
There is also the Kurdish factor. Erdogan believes both the West and Russia are ignoring his objection to having the Kurds as a key force that requires military support on the ground in the war against ISIS and al- Nusra Front.
The Turkish president suspects NATO capitals as much as he suspects Moscow when it comes to the Kurds. Perhaps he wanted to put NATO in the corner when he sought its help after downing the Russian jet, which Ankara says had ignored multiple warnings not to enter Turkish airspace.
Turkey’s relationship with NATO improved recently, but it was always tense and marred by disputes over policies and concepts. NATO states defended Ankara’s right to defend its borders. President Obama called on Russia to join the international alliance against ISIS, instead of operating solo in Syria. He also said it was time for Russia to concentrate its strikes on ISIS rather on the Syrian opposition.
Ankara, meanwhile, has accused Moscow of deliberately bombing Turkmen in Syria before the fighter jet was downed. Moscow afterwards accused Ankara of committing a deliberate provocation, but Russian diplomacy was keen on not turning the incident into a confrontation with NATO, focusing its wrath on Turkey.
NATO nations are not pleased with Russia establishing a base in Tartus near Turkey. It is more anxious however regarding the prospect of a confrontation with Russia that would follow military escalation between Russia and Turkey. Indeed, Article 5 of the NATO charter compels member states to collectively defend any member state that comes under attack.
The person most worried about deterioration in relations between NATO and Russia must be French President Francois Hollande. Hollande rushed to mediate towards U.S.-Russian accord in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, refocusing the priority on crushing ISIS in Syria instead of Bashar al-Assad’s departure.
Russia and Putin are angry. This was the first time a Russian plane was downed by a NATO member since 1953. Another Russian helicopter was also blown up, as it set off to search for the missing Russian pilots, at the hands of an Islamic group using U.S.-made TOW missiles. This reminded Moscow of the U.S.-made Stinger missiles used by the mujahidin in Afghanistan, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s.
Yet Moscow does not want to topple the Vienna process, which involves Turkey. The reason is that Vienna is Russia’s exit strategy from the Syrian quagmire.
U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, in a lengthy interview with Al-Hayat in New York published last week, said that Russia did not want to be involved in the war more than it should. De Mistura stressed that the Vienna group of countries will use their influence on the rival parties to reach a ceasefire in parallel with the political process. All this naturally requires de-escalation between Russia and Turkey.
However, de-escalation alone will not be enough. What lies behind the escalation between Turkey and Russia in Syria is a profound disagreement over the political process, and mutual suspicions over both Syria and their respective ideological and imperial ambitions.
It is hoped Saudi diplomacy will succeed in curbing reckless and arbitrary behavior, being on good terms with both nations. But this in turn requires a radical clarification on the part of Russia and strong commitments regarding the political transition process. If creative ambiguity will remain the title of Moscow’s approach, and if kicking major differences down the road is meant to bypass knots in a way that would perpetuate Assad in power and turn the Syrian question into one of a war on terror, then the Vienna process will not last long as a fig leaf. Moscow would lost a strategic chance to get out of its Syrian dilemma.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Nov. 27, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham
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