Russian-Turkish conflict: The end of Turkish neocolonial dreams

We have no intention of escalating this incident. I only defend our own safety and the rights of our brothers, said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, noting that Turkish policy on Syria will not change. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented that the downing of the Russian aircraft should only be understood as a planned provocation, downplaying concerns that there could be a military response. Despite the bombastic media reports, Russia will not go to war against Turkey, although the Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev confirmed that there would be economic repercussion for Turkey in terms of joint projects, and Turkish investments in Russia. As a military response, Russia will deploy S400 Triumph ground-to-air missiles in Syria.

This will most likely end the strained relations between the two countries. But the question remains: how will Turkey continue its policy which has been tainted by many adversities; from a covert support for terrorist organizations, the initiation of violence against the Kurds, to downing the Russian military jet. Turkish-Russian relations are already strained by Moscow’s military support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. These relations will radically change now. Statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Turkey had stabbed them in the back by helping the terrorists has already become legendary. But Turks have not shown any intention to justify their acts. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reacted angrily to the Russian bombardment of Turkmeni soldiers who are Turkish allies.

Western diplomats have found themselves in an extremely unenviable position. As NATO members, they want to show solidarity with Turkey, but in a way which would lead to diffusion of the crisis. No one wants to get involved in a military conflict at a time when the air offensive against DAES (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq is showing good results. Nevertheless, the Turks now deliberately emphasize that this is not only about the violation of Turkish airspace, but also of NATO’s eastern border.

Ankara continues to insist that DAES (ISIS) has no presence north of Latakia which is controlled by Turkmen fighters, and that Russia is bombing legitimate groups fighting against the Syrian regime. Indeed, there has been no proof of existence of DAES forces in this Syrian region, but there are indications that the Turkmens are associated with radical Islamist group Al-Nusra Front. It is interesting to note that this is in effect a Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, which is on the list of terrorist groups by both the US and Russia, but Ankara’s. Western diplomats say that Turkey was forced, albeit reluctantly, to declare this group a terrorist organization. Russia will take advantage of this fact to present it to the Security Council in the wake of Turkish criticism in the UN. This will bolster Russians’ position and give them more leverage in their continued bombardment of Turkmen positions.

This impasse in Russo-Turkish relations will most likely reflect negatively on their economic relations. When the United States and the EU imposed an embargo on trade relations with Russia, Moscow opened its market to Turkish companies, especially food exporters. Turkish companies were also given priority in the construction of the infrastructure for the World Cup 2018, which is currently taking place in Russia. Nevertheless, Putin’s clear support for the Syrian army and Bashar al-Assad, and an attack against DAES and opposition groups that Turkey considered moderate, was the subject of strong tensions between the two countries.

Erdogan first raised the possibility of price differences in economic policy issues. Among the potential sanctions against Russia, Turkey is considering stopping the purchase of natural gas from Russia, which accounts to about 55 percent of Turkey’s needs, and considered offering construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, worth twenty billion dollars, to non-Russian contractors. First Russian countermeasures are characterized by the cessation of the issuance of transit documents to Turkish haulage exporting Turkish products to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia.

Turkish exports to the Middle East and Persian Gulf countries have already dried due to loss of transit routes through Iraq and Syria because of the war. Now exports to Central Asia, worth two billion US dollars a year, are in danger due to Russia’s sanctions.

Proposed nuclear plant in Turkey

Proposed nuclear plant in Turkey

So, on the economic front, Turkey is losing, especially the threat that Ankara will seize to buy Russian gas cannot be seen as a realistic approach. For example, a long-term contract for stipulating import of natural gas between Turkey and Syria stipulates that Turkey is financially obliged to honor it even if the other party seizes exporting it. A bilateral agreement between Russia and Turkey to build Akkuyu nuclear power plant is signed and accepted by the Turkish parliament exclusively. Should Erdogan decide to stop the project or give it to someone else, he must first draw up a parliamentary approval. As a financier of this project, whose construction has already begun, and in case it be stopped by the Turkish side, Moscow can and will certainly seek a hefty compensation.

Russia can literally take the challenge of Erdogan’s threats without concerns that it could lose. Gazprom has already rejected Turkey’s request for an additional three billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2016. The Russian giant is preparing countermeasures which will subsequently half the flow capacity of the Turkish pipeline, and even extend the start of the project worth $16 billion for one year.

Russian pressure is evident in the strengthening of its inspections of Turkish foodstuffs. By refusing to buy tons of Turkish fruits and vegetables Russia has shown that it is able to seriously damage Turkish exports. Number of Russian tourists visiting Turkey has already diminished due to economic crisis in Russia, which will now exacerbate after the bombing Surucu. Russian Federal Tourism Agency has warned Russians of the growing threat of terrorist attacks in Turkey and has thus advised against traveling there.

What hurts the Turks is Putin’s statement that the Kurds are the only ones who can really fight terrorists in Syria. Salih Muslim, vice president of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most powerful armed group fighting DAES on the ground, visited Moscow in early October where he met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and special envoy of Putin for the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov to discuss the perspectives of the international anti-terrorist coalition.

Closer relations between Russia and Kurds led to a growing anger in Ankara further fueling the conflict between Russia and Turkey over Kurdish control of oil and the Turkish efforts to declared PYD a terrorist organization because of its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Russia recognizes the PYD as an ally, which led to the US recognition PYD as a legitimate fighter in Syria, which ultimately isolated the Turkish stance even further.

The Russian response to Erdogan’s economic blackmail did not stop Moscow to allow Sberbank to support financing of Istanbul’s third airport with 4.6 billion euros, which is a sign that Russia does not want to worsen relations.

Thus, Turkey has made itself a disservice. After the strengthening of national pride in the form of determination and military capabilities by shooting down a Russian military aircraft, Ankara should now show equal strength in the diplomatic field if it wants to get out from the situation for which it bears sole responsibility.

This will put even more strain its NATO’s allies. NATO has gone through various ideas and meetings about the Syrian crisis, but few expect the Alliance to intervene on behalf of Turkey. The lack of consensus is seen in Iraq, where which halted NATO’s involvement in the campaign against Saddam Hussein, it has reluctantly performed actions in Libya, while in Syria not even a glimmer of hope that consensus could be achieved.

There is a little sympathy in the West for any radical Islamist group, particularly after the recent attacks in Paris. France is inclined to join the Russians bombarding DAES in Rakki, and will probably support Russian position in teh Security Council.

This means that Turkey get little sympathy from their allies for Turkomen or any other radical Sunni group in the region that is fighting against the Syrian regime. Even the American Foreign Minister John Kerry said that the fight against Assad is not part of their military mission in Syria, but the goal is the crackdown on DAES and other groups that are allied with it.

Turkey is now the biggest potential economic partner for Iran, because this is the only Turkish neighbor that is not affected by the war and the only one that can export natural gas to Turkey. However, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the shooting of the Russian aircraft within Syrian borders is not a toy someone can just bring down for its own amusement. He has called Turkey’s action provocative and senseless in a very sensitive times, something which can worsen Russo-Turkish relations which is not in the interest of Iran or anyone else in that region.

Turkish Empire through historical stages

Turkish Empire through historical stages

Iran’s conservative media has suggested that the Turkish action is part of a wider policy of Turkey, and NATO in the region. Turkey, along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, is often singled out as a country that supports terrorism. Iranians generally believe that Erdogan made the strategic mistake of thinking that he would be backed by NATO, and that Turkey will enhance its involvement in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

There are also a bit Iranian complacency. Apparently, the Iranian lawmaker Alireza Threats said the head of the Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards personally told Russian President that there are 16 thousand Chechens fighting in Syria and Iraq who will return to the Caucasus and create security problems for Russia. Subsequently, Russia decided to immediately begin actions in Syria.

Despite different political views on Syria, Iran and Turkey maintain healthy economic relations. As the sanctions against Iran began to fade these relationships will become even more intense. However, relations between Russia and Iran are much deeper and more significant for Iran. This relationship will certainly grow in next few years, especially after a personal meeting of Putin and Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini in Tehran.

The significance of this meeting can be best summarized in the statement of the Foreign Affairs Advisors tp the Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, who mentioned that no meeting of this quality and importance has taken place in the last 37 years since the beginning of Iranian Islāmic Revolution. Velayati called this meeting as the cornerstone for both countries and stressed that Iran and Russia are entering into strategic relationships, and that the future of Iran and Russia will be inter-connected in many respects.

In all respects, Turkey is further losing its position, which means that the tension in Ankara at its highest. The quagmire of Syria and Turkey’s ill thought political actions there could signal the end of its neocolonial aspirations and the beginning of more realistic and pragmatic regional policy.

Profile photo of Vedran Obucina

Political scientist from Croatia. My interests include political symbolism, political systems, political culture, area studies of Middle East, but also political theory, interdependence of culture, religion and politics, etc.

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