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     Oct 16, 2012

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Syria: Waiting for someone named Obama
By M K Bhadrakumar

Even as German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who was on a visit to China, diverted himself to Istanbul in a mission on Saturday aimed at tamping down Turkish-Syrian tensions, Der Spiegel calmly reported that the information about the "non-civilian cargo", which led to the interception of a Syrian aircraft by the Turkish Air Force the previous Wednesday night, was actually passed on to Ankara by US intelligence.

Furthermore, Der Spiegel disclosed authoritatively, "Ankara only forced the plane to land after close contact with its Western allies."

The question naturally arises: Was it an incident that had been


choreographed by Washington with a view to change the dynamics of the Syrian situation? Stranger ways have been found to kick-start wars in history. Or did the United States have another motive?

The pattern of the rhetoric may give some clues. Russia, of course, vehemently and promptly denied that it had violated international law. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in fact, gave a detailed explanation as if he were pleading with the Turks not to be taken in by whatever they might have heard:
In the wake of all sorts of insinuations spread in connection with the Syrian jet's landing, I'd like to stress we don't have secrets in this respect. We've cleared out the situation and the truth is that, quite naturally, the jet was not carrying any weapons and certainly couldn't be carrying them.

The cargo was supplied by a legal Russian supplier in a legitimate way to a legal customer. It's electric engineering equipment for a radar station, a dual-purpose equipment that isn't forbidden by any international conventions. Airway bills for it were filled out in strict compliance with international requirements. Transportation of these cargoes by civil-aviation jets is normal practice, and this is confirmed by the fact the Turkish authorities offered the crew either to change the route or to land in Ankara before it entered Turkey's airspace.The captain decided to land because he knew the crew wasn't doing anything illegal.
Interestingly, the Turkish side has pointedly refused to take issue with Moscow's narrative. The Turkish statement was actually evasive and loquacious - to the effect that Ankara had acted on the basis of "information that the plane was carrying cargo of a nature that could not possibly be in compliance with the rules of civil aviation".

Meanwhile, Ankara and Moscow lost no time to transfer the topic to the diplomatic channel away from the limelight. Russia's Gazprom has since announced that it will step up the supply of gas to Turkey to offset the shortfall in the supplies from Iran through the winter season.

Ankara has also since disclosed, almost eight weeks in advance, that Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Turkey on December 3. This is the first point.

Went to town
Now, the intriguing part is that it was left to a third party to resort to shrill rhetoric - the United States. The State Department spokeswoman in Washington used harsh language to allege that Moscow was pursuing a "morally bankrupt" policy on Syria.

Victoria Nuland said: "No responsible country ought to be aiding and abetting the war machine of the Assad regime, and particularly those with responsibilities for global peace and security - as UN Security Council members have."

The spokeswoman added: "We [US] have no doubt that this was serious military equipment." Evidently Nuland was under instruction to go to town on the Syrian plane issue. Why would the US be so overtly keen to introduce high-class polemics? This is the second point.

The geopolitics is not difficult to understand. The US has probably been hoping all along that Syria would be the wedge that forces apart the partnership between Russia and Turkey, which has witnessed a remarkable upswing through the past decade, helped largely by the understanding and personal rapport at the leadership level between Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan.

Russia has significantly expanded its energy cooperation with Turkey, meeting two-thirds of the latter's gas needs. Russia is set up to build Turkey's first nuclear plant; the US$25 billion project could be a game changer in the overall relationship. The 63-billion-cubic-meter South Stream gas pipeline is slated to pass through Turkish waters to feed the European markets.

Evidently, a high level of interdependency is developing between the two countries, which would be nothing short of historic given their troubled relationship through the centuries, and holding the potential to impact profoundly the geopolitics of a vast region comprising the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Caspian, "Turkic" Central Asia and the eastern Mediterranean.

Suffice to say, Moscow and Ankara have done well so far to decouple the Russian-Turkish bilateral relationship from the Syrian question. However, whether this is achievable in the coming period remains to be seen, as the "end game" is commencing in Syria.

The US rhetoric underscores the early warning of booby traps ahead. This is the third point.

Three interlocking vectors
The first booby trap was laid by unknown hands when Erdogan was in Moscow in late July as he was proceeding for his meeting with Putin in the Kremlin. The report of the high-profile terrorist strike in Damascus killing the Syrian defense minister and other top security officials had just come in, which all but sabotaged Erdogan's mission aimed at bridging the Turkish-Russian differences over Syria and exploring an acceptable formula to work together to find a solution to the crisis.

Curiously, the incident of the Syrian plane being interdicted also coincided with a visit Putin had planned to Ankara to meet with Erdogan for a follow-up conversation on the substance of the latter's proposal. Earlier reports had mentioned that Putin was due to visit Turkey on October 14 and 15.

Putin held a meeting with the advisory Security Council regarding the Syrian situation on Friday. Obviously, Moscow realizes that a new criticality is arising in the Turkish-Syrian standoff, which is also amply evident from the growing belligerence in Ankara's rhetoric toward Damascus as well as its military deployments on the border regions in an operational mode.

There are three or four interlocking vectors here and their interplay is going to be crucial in the coming weeks. First, much depends on how the situation develops on the ground. The Guardian newspaper reported that Turkey's eastern Mediterranean city of Antakya has become a meeting point for arms dealers from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon and it is the centre for equipping and arming the rebels in Syria.

As things stand, Syrian government forces have begun challenging the rebels all over the country. They have had success in Damascus, but face resistance in Aleppo and the northern provinces. Thus the fate of the covert war depends heavily on Turkey. And there are growing indications that hardliners in Ankara are prevailing.

Continued 1 2 

Turkey's 'zero-problem' policy at crossroads
(Oct 13, '12)

Russia bridges Middle Eastern divides (Oct 11, '12)

US digs in for cyber warfare

2. The horizon collapses in the Middle East

3. Romney sings Da Doo War War

4. Don't ask and don't tell

5. Turkey's 'zero-problem' policy at crossroads

6. West blinks at Wahhabism's dark side

7. Russia bridges Middle Eastern divides

8. Overwrought empire

9. China's shake-up to shape foreign policy

10. Agent Orange is Okinawa's smoking gun

(Oct 12-14, 2012)


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