Obama has uses for Turkey-Russia tensions

M.K. Bhadrakumar November 28, 2015 1:33 AM (UTC+8)
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Turkey may have succeeded in scuttling the idea of an international coalition under the United Nations auspices to fight the Islamic State (IS). The talks in Moscow on Friday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the visiting French President Francois Hollande leave a gloomy impression.

US President Barack Obama (L) expressed solidarity with Turkey over the recent Russian jet downing incident
US President Barack Obama (L) expressed solidarity with Turkey over the recent Russian jet downing incident

Of course, Hollande conveyed his condolences over the death of the Russian pilot last Tuesday. It was a significant gesture and contrasted sharply with US President Barack Obama’s studied preference to express solidarity with Turkey. Hollande openly supported Russia’s determination to disrupt the nexus between Turkey and the IS in oil trade. He vowed to do what Russia is doing, namely, bomb relentlessly the IS’ convoys heading for the Turkish border carrying oil.

Again, the talks in Moscow signal that Russia intends to launch a sustained campaign internationally to expose Turkey’s covert links with the Islamic State. Putin disclosed that the region adjacent to the Turkish border in northern Syria (which Ankara profiles as the traditional homelands of Turkmen tribes) is actually a beehive of terrorists who have flocked to Syria from many countries, including Russia, and their Turkish mentors.

Importantly, Putin and Hollande reached an understanding that Russia and France will step up joint efforts on the anti-terrorism track. Specifically, they agreed to improve the exchange of operational information regarding terrorist targets, ‘mil-to-mil’ coordination to avoid overlapping incidents, and, to quote Putin, “avoiding any strikes against territories and armed forces that are themselves fighting terrorists”.

Putin offered that Russia is willing to help Syrian opposition groups to fight the IS.

Of course, the fate of President Bashar Al-Assad remains a point where Russia and France hold divergent views. Interestingly, however, Hollande glossed over it and said en passé, “And it goes without saying that Assad does not have any role to play in the future of his country”.

Putin, on the other hand, was absolutely vehement: “We all agree that it is impossible to successfully fight terrorism in Syria without ground operations, and no other forces exist today that can conduct ground operations… In this respect, I feel that President Assad’s army and he himself are our natural allies in the fight against terrorism”.

Assad is not the priority today for France. The Paris attacks have brought France closer than ever before to the Russian stance regarding the imperative need of an international coalition to fight the IS.

However, imponderables remain. The big question is whether US President Barack Obama shares Hollande’s enthusiasm for Russia being part of the US-led coalition. The thing that matters most to Obama is Britain’s willingness to return to the killing fields of the Middle East. Obama will hope for the best when Prime Minister David Cameron takes his case to the House of Commons for a vote.

Obama’s priority is the prospect of an Anglo-American caucus emerging within the US-led coalition as its ‘steel frame’ so that things remain under control. Russia’s induction, on the other hand, might altogether change the alchemy of the coalition, make it unwieldy and shut the door on any future prospect for NATO assuming the role of a peacemaker or peacekeeper in the Middle East.

Russia’s military presence in Syria irks Washington. From the US perspective, the regime change agenda in Syria was cruising well enough with the Assad regime bleeding heavily and appearing to totter – that is, until the Russians came with their war planes and missiles and spoiled the party.

Simply put, Washington can find any number of alibi to keep the Russians outside the tent, looking in. The Turkish-Russian tensions that erupted last week present themselves as a splendid window of opportunity to somehow bury the Russian proposal on an international coalition under UN auspices to fight the IS.

Suffice it to say, there is even a conspiracy theory that Turkey felt emboldened to shoot down the Russian jet only because of its confidence that poking Moscow would suit the American agenda in Syria. Although Erdogan is not exactly a popular figure in Washington, Obama scrambled to express solidarity with him and even sought to legitimize the Turkish action last Tuesday after knowing that the Russian jet was actually shot down in Syrian airspace.

Putin pointed out at his joint press conference with Hollande that the Russian side shared with the Americans on a confidential basis the coordinates of their ill-fated flight of last Tuesday (as expected under the recent bilateral protocol with the Pentagon). Putin chose his words carefully:

“We are exchanging information with it (US), but we are very concerned by the nature of the exchanges and the results of our joint work. Just look: we warned our US partners in advance about where out pilots would be operating, when, and at what flight levels. The American side, which heads the coalition that includes Turkey, knew about the time and location of the flights. And that is precisely where and when we were hit.

“Either they (US) cannot control what their allies are doing, or they are handing out the information left and right, without understanding the consequences. Naturally, we will need to have some serious consultations with our partners in the matter”.

If Obama has no genuine interest in bonding with Russia in the war against the IS, there is precious little Moscow can do to persuade him otherwise. Putin is not going to grovel at the American feet. However, if Tuesday’s incident were to repeat, Putin forewarned, “we (Russia) do not need such cooperation, with anyone, any coalition or country”.

It is difficult to conjecture what troubled thoughts raced through Hollande’s mind when he heard those prescient words from Putin, standing beside him at the Moscow press conference. Hollande is hosting both Putin and Obama in Paris on Monday at the Climate Change Conference.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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