Russia-Turkey: Making nice sans trust comes easy
A prejudice against Turks as being self-serving and untrustworthy – although exotic – is deeply embedded in the European psyche. In William Shakespeare’s play, Othello used the word “Turk” in that sense.
A recent poll found that only 9% of Germans consider that Turkey can be a “trustworthy partner” for Europe. Pride and prejudice die hard.
But Russia and Turkey have a different “take”: Does mutual trust really matter in inter-state relations so much as common interests? After all, they fought wars, but waged no crusades against each other.
The famous Russian sociologist, philosopher and political scientist Alexander Dugin recently applied the litmus test of pragmatism to Russia’s strained ties with Turkey. Dugin said:
- There is pro-Russian sentiment in Turkey, and it is very serious. Turkey depends on Russia from the point of view of tourism, economics, energy, and in many issues from the point of view of geopolitics. Therefore, Turkey will never drastically exacerbate relations with Russia, although occasionally they are not so good.
Dugin, an influential voice in Moscow, pointed out that Russia has positions which Turkey partly agrees with and partly doesn’t. But importantly, Russia has no plans in Turkey, although it has geopolitical plans in Syria to turn that country into something of a base:
- Our goal is the liberation of Turkey from American influence and Qatar-Saudi-Arabian ISIS, while we simply manifest ourselves as a pole of global politics … But this does not mean an act against Turkey. Turkey is playing its own game and therefore this real ‘defense’ (on Russia’s part) is in fact directed against NATO. To the extent that Turkey is a NATO member, this “defense” is directed against it, but not against Turkey as a nation-state, only against NATO as a hostile bloc which wants to regain global hegemony.
Where is the need of “trust” in a complicated geopolitical game? Arguably, Turkey understands it, too.
Turkey as ‘good neighbor’
Thus, on Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Ildirim declared that Turkey intends to mend ties with all neighbors, including Syria, and that Turkey has “no reason” to fight with Syria.
Equally, he said, Russian and Turkish peoples were unhappy about strained relations, and, therefore, his government, taking into account the people’s “discontent,” took steps to normalize ties with Moscow.
By Tuesday, however, Ildirim already switched tack, urging NATO to back Turkey to the hilt. He warned the Western powers:
- The security of Damascus is the security of Paris, of London and of Istanbul. The security of Aleppo is as important as Berlin and Washington. The security of Baghdad is equally important as the security of New York, Rome.
Three things could explain this change that had come over Ildirim overnight. One, word slipped out by late Monday evening that US Secretary of State John Kerry was heading for Moscow on July 14-15 to discuss in detail the possibility of the first US-Russia agreement to share intelligence and targeting data for airstrikes in Syria.
Of course, American media reports suggest that national security officials in Washington are speaking in different voices. The CNN says “the biggest loser may be the man who isn’t there (in Moscow): Defense Secretary Ash Carter” – who is apparently skeptical whether Russians can be “trusted”.
But, Ildirim must be wondering, on the contrary: What if a Russian-American deal on Syria is indeed struck (which cannot be ruled out)? There is bound to be angst in the Turkish mind.
Two, Moscow signaled on Monday its determination to see through the military operations in Syria. Six TU-22M3 bombers based in southern Russia carried out massive strikes near Palmyra. (The long-range bombers could have had a combined load of 150 tonnes of bombs.)
Russia’s bomber option
The return of the heavy bombers to the Syrian skies is a warning that the reopening of Russian bombing offensive always remains an option for Moscow. Meanwhile, as Washington Post reported:
- After observing the early weeks of the cease-fire, Russian planes joined the Syrian forces, including in an offensive last weekend that took over the only remaining supply route for both rebels and civilians hunkered down in the northern city of Aleppo.
- After days of air bombardment riddled an area only a few miles wide, Syrian forces and allied militiamen from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group took up positions above what is known as the Castello Road leading to Turkey.
The point is, Syrian government forces have now virtually surrounded Aleppo city and the only remaining route for Turkey to supply the rebels has been choked. In politico-military terms, for Turkey it’s Game. Set. Match.
Ildirim’s sense of urgency is understandable. But the good thing is that Moscow is not playing a zero sum game in Syria. Crucial to Turkey’s vital interests, Russia is neutral toward Syrian Kurds.
Now, that is extremely important for Turkey for stalling the Kurds’s “Rojava” project to link the north-eastern cantons of Kobane and Jazira with the north-western canton of Afrin and create a contiguous autonomous enclave in northern Syria straddling Turkey’s border.
Turkey should ideally seize control of the western part of the Azaz-Jarabulus corridor, but then, sending troops into northern Syria is a non-option so long as Russia doesn’t approve of it.
According to reports, Turkey has opened a back channel to the Syrian regime via Algeria regarding Syrian Kurds.
In sum, Turkey may be reaching a point, finally, where a narrowing of its goals in Syria becomes unavoidable – to the twin goals of subduing the rising tide of Kurdish sub-nationalism and the weakening of ISIS.
Interestingly, Turkish intelligence arranged a secret meeting last month between Syrian opposition leaders and Russian representatives. Also, Turkey subsequently may have replaced the official responsible in its spy agency responsible for Syria, a ‘hardliner’ who disfavored dealings with the Syrian regime.
Nonetheless, sensing that the shift in Turkish policies on Syria will be slow in coming, Moscow is doing the right thing by adopting a pragmatic approach.
On the one hand, Russia and its allies are creating a fait accompli on the ground, snapping the cross-border supply routes for the rebels in Syria, while on the other hand Moscow is giving ballast to the budding détente with Ankara by attending to Turkey’s economic interests (in which influential elites are stakeholders, too.)
The first group of 189 Russian tourists landed in the “Turkish Riviera” of Antalya in the weekend – and was met with flowers and cocktails. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has asked for tourist traffic to Turkey to be put on fast track.
In the remaining months leading to autumn, Turkey hopes to receive 1 million Russian tourists who would make 10% of the occupancy rates of its Mediterranean resorts.
Gas pipeline incentive
Again, a series of ministerial level meetings are being planned in the fields of economic cooperation. The Russian energy minister Alexander Novak disclosed on Thursday that a likely meeting of the inter-governmental commission will discuss the stalled $15 billion Turkish Stream gas pipeline project.
The agreement on the construction of this gas pipeline was reached in December 2014 for transporting 63 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia annually, out of which 16 bcm will be delivered to Turkey and the rest to a gas hub on the Turkish-Greek border.
Clearly, neither Russia nor Turkey is wasting time wringing hands, agonizing whether the other side is “trustworthy” or not. Liberated from obsessive concerns over platinum grade “trust,” their comfort level has begun rising.
A big push for normalization can be expected when the two presidents meet shortly. And its fallout can only be positive for the endgame in Syria.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.