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The strategic impact on Turkey of the crisis with Russia

December 17, 2015 at 11:23 am

Following the initial flurry of excitement at the shooting down of a Russian jet by the Turkish air force last month, the crisis between Moscow and Ankara has progressed on a number of levels. It has thus become necessary to consider the less-immediate results of the crisis between the two countries and the long-term impact it will have on Turkey. The consequences must be analysed deeply, much more than simply on the level of the bilateral relations with Moscow. Its impact on Turkey’s foreign policy and the Turkish experience under the leadership of the Justice and Development Party must also be looked at.

The confrontation with Moscow

There is no doubt that the bold Turkish move embarrassed the Russian president and was a challenge to the strength of his deterrence factor. It also demonstrated Turkey’s determination to protect its air space and status. However, later developments went in a different direction.

Moscow moved beyond what was expected of it by intensifying its discourse to please the domestic audience and save the face of the military institution. It was also expected to impose insignificant economic sanctions (without affecting the energy file), leaving the true confrontation for the long-term on Syrian soil. Russia took important measures that serve its strategic and geopolitical goals and undermine the Turkish role, such as:

  • Deploying an S-400 air defence system which covers Syria’s entire air space and parts of some neighbouring countries, including Turkey.
  • Establishing a second military base in Syria.
  • Starting negotiations with Cyprus to establish Russian military bases on the island.
  • Increase its military presence in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean qualitatively and quantitatively by bringing in warships and fighter jets.
  • Intensifying the air strikes on the Turkmen and the opposition associated with Ankara in northern Syria.
  • Mobilising its regional allies to apply political and economic pressure on Turkey. This resulted in a diplomatic crisis with the central government in Baghdad and a reduction in the amount of gas pumped by Tehran to Turkey. The significance of this sign was not wasted, despite the fact that it is temporary and short.

In this regard, it is not important whether Russia deliberately fabricated this crisis or not, as some analysts have suggested, largely due to the speed of Russia’s response as well as the quality of the responses, or if it is using a pre-planned Plan B for a confrontation scenario. What is more important is that Moscow, the only neighbour that Turkey has never defeated in its history, sent the message that Syria is the door to its restoration as a world super power and the window for its continued presence in the region.

Russia also harmed Turkey strategically in a number of aspects, including:

  • Imposing its complete control over Syrian air space and preventing Turkish and international coalition aircraft from flying over Syria since the day its own jet was shot down.
  • Turning the “safe zone” demanded by Turkey into an almost impossible idea given the current situation, after Turkey had been on the verge of starting a military operation in norther Syria with the US.
  • Targeting the Turkmen and Syrian opposition in the northern part of Syria in an unprecedented manner in an attempt to weaken and/or drive them out of the area and the equation. This would help to eliminate one of Ankara’s most important cards in the Syrian issue.
  • Threatening Turkey with new waves of refugees fleeing from Russian bombs and forcing it to bear its economic, political, and social and security burdens.
  • Internationalising the Syrian crisis, meaning that the solution will come from behind the scenes deals between Russia and America, while the Turkish role will decline noticeably.
  • Deepening Turkey’s isolation from the Syrian crisis deliberations by changing France’s position on the fate of President Bashar Al-Assad, activating the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis, mobilising Turkey’s opponents — such as the UAE, Greece, and Egypt — and trying to please and win over Israel.
  • Opening up to the Syrian Kurds, the Democratic Alliance Party and its military wing the People’s Protection Forces, coordinating with them and supporting them in their political projects on the Turkish borders.

Relationship with NATO

However, the geopolitical and geostrategic confrontation with Moscow is not the only source of potential loss for Turkey, as there are more important and more dangerous matters that have an impact on the essence of its relative inexperience, especially in terms of foreign policy.

The Justice and Development Party built its vision on Turkey’s rediscovery of its status, position and capabilities through a balance between East and West in its relationships and approaches. It has tried to build sustainable elements of strength that would allow it to adopt a foreign policy that is partially and relatively independent from its ties to the US, EU and NATO.

For many years, Turkey has strengthened its presence in “strategic depth” — according to Prime Minister Davutoglu’s theory — in the Middle East, Balkans and the Caucasus without cutting ties with its strategic allies in the West. It has had distinguished positions which differed from the West’s in regional issues, such as Syria, Egypt and Palestine.

In a scene very similar to the Soviet Union’s threat to Turkey after World War Two, which drove the government in Ankara to request protection from and then membership of NATO, the current crisis has driven Turkey back into the arms of the alliance and Washington based on its mutual defence clause. This deterred the Russian bear with Western military force.

While the political and verbal support from NATO countries led to Turkey avoiding a direct military confrontation, it dwarfed its role from an effective and partially independent regional country to a mere member of the alliance. It seems that Moscow is once again contributing to this threat, either deliberately or not, by determining the direction and future of Turkey in the region and the world.

The presence of 36 warships from 12 different countries, most of which are NATO members, in the Middle East means that the level of the conflict has risen from a regional to an international conflict and that the crucial decisions will be made by the alliance, not individual states. This also means that the political solutions that the “adults” will come up with will be imposed on the rest, by force if necessary. In this regard, Ankara will have changed, albeit temporarily, from an actor to a follower and from a policy-maker to those affected by others’ policies.

Linked to this, Ankara abandoned, or rather was forced to abandon, the Chinese S-300 missile system which it had hoped to use to diversify the sources of its qualitative and strategic weapons, after months of a tug of war with NATO.

On the other hand, the current crisis has, for an unspecified time — and possibly permanently — eliminated Turkey’s attempts to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in which it has been a dialogue partner during 2013 and requested membership in 2014. It could have been a potential replacement, or open threat, to the EU’s door which was shut in Turkey’s face. Today, after the crisis with Moscow and after the latest deal with the EU, the negotiations over Turkey’s EU membership have been reinvigorated and Turkey has stuck closer to the EU’s position.

What is most dangerous and important about the relationship with NATO is the fact that Turkey is on its way to losing its independence and its different solution for the Syrian crisis. The reasons for this include Russia’s oppressive control, the change of the issue to a global crisis, the recent addressing of the Syrian opposition by other countries, and Turkey’s need for NATO protection and to follow its guidelines.

Turkish options

It seems that Turkey is not in an enviable position regarding its relations with its enemies and allies. However, naturally, it is not completely devoid of any alternatives and options. It has a clear and promising vision for dealing with the crisis, the most important features of which are:

  • Avoiding a military confrontation with Russia due to the devastating consequences it would have on the economy, and in order not to turn the crisis into a battle between Russia and NATO. This is also due to a fear of the growth of the role of the Turkish military and its return to politics through war.
  • Absorbing the wave of Russian economic sanctions on its current level, which has still not affected its energy security and the possibility of opening it up to new markets.
  • Remaining calm in the face of Russian provocation, keeping the door to dialogue and diplomacy open, and counting on a gradual settlement that will restore the pre-24 November atmosphere.
  • Complete coordination, at least for now, with its NATO ally and fortifying its political and legal position.
  • Diversifying its energy sources by making deals with Qatar, Azerbaijan and others in order to reduce dependence on Russian natural gas.
  • Attempting to strengthen relations and coordination with regional countries (especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and developing them to the level of allies, and the formation of a regional axis that can be depended on.
  • Turkey may resort to increasing its support for the Syrian opposition, which could include qualitative weapons for the first time, in order to exhaust the Russians involved in the war.
  • Using the refugees’ and Turkey-Syrian border card to pressure Ankara’s Western allies and confirm its importance to them. This would increase its strategic weight in the current equation.

In conclusion, Turkey did indeed deliver a swift and sudden blow to Russia in the first hours of the incident, but Moscow has invested this in military and strategic measures that impose a reality that limits and reduces Turkey’s role in Syria and the region as a whole. It also strips Turkey of its relative independence through its adherence to the NATO position. This has put it between the Russian hammer and the NATO anvil.

These strategic losses sustained by Turkey and its interests may become a path of no return if the events continue to develop towards escalation, making Ankara a prisoner of the scenarios of confrontation between Russia and the West and/or their possible deals. However, Turkey can catch its breath and try to compensate for what it has lost by containing the risks of war, reversing the wheel of economic sanctions, and forcing a dialogue to resolve both the current crisis and the Syrian issue.

In all of this, Ankara still urgently needs to make regional alliances that would help it deter Moscow and its allies on one hand and contribute to its desired distinction, in the long run, from NATO and the EU. Those who are tied to a safety rope cannot afford to untie themselves until they are offered alternative handholds.

Translated from Aljazeera net, 14 December, 2015

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.