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Russia-Turkey Dispute and Anti-Terror Situation in the Middle East

Jan 06 , 2016
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

The sharp conflict between Turkey and Russia appeared against the backdrop of a vigorous anti-terror war in the Middle East and rather effective Russian airstrikes against ISIS. It has thus provoked deep thoughts on the anti-terror situation in the Middle East.

The direct purpose of active Russian anti-terror efforts is to crack down on terrorism and prevent it from spreading into Russia. The indirect one is to support the Bashar al-Assad regime and seek a political development in Syria and the Middle East favorable to Russia. Russia also has a long-term plan to force the US to change or at the least readjust its strategic deployment in the Middle East. Obviously these are not in harmony with Turkey’s strategy for the region.

Turkey grudgingly warned repeatedly Russian aircrafts of airspace violation. Reportedly President Putin apologized to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for one incident. After much foreshadowing in public opinions, on Nov. 24 Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 that was on an airstrike mission. The Turkish accusation that the plane ‘violated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds’ and its claim that the plane was ‘warned nearly a dozen times within five minutes’ could hardly be justified. In the end, Turkey had to express its ‘regret’ but refused to ‘apologize’.

The Russian reaction was very strong. President Putin described the incident as ‘a stab in the back by terrorist accomplices’ and an ‘act of hostility’. He warned of ‘serious consequences’ for Turkey and that Ankara would ‘regret it deeply’. Subsequently indirect military strikes and direct economic sanctions against Turkey started. On December 17, Putin said at the annual press conference that he did not see the prospect of Russia-Turkey ties getting improved. However, the Russian bottom line has been clear from the very beginning: It will not declare war on Turkey.

It is noted that Turkey has gradually softened its position. There are multiple reasons behind. First, the US and other NATO countries did not express firm support. Rather, the US said that the incident had nothing to do with the US military. UK described it as being ‘very serious’. The Czech president denounced the Turkish act as an ‘extremely radical measure’. Second, the various Russian sanctions have been intimidating. Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner, the largest source of import and the second largest destination of export. Third, Russia did not use the trump card of suspending the gas supply to Turkey.

The Russia-Turkey relationship was once rather friendly. Whether it could be restored to its normality will depend on negotiations between the two sides. On Dec. 14, Russia put forward three conditions: Turkey should apologize, prosecute the persons responsible and pay damages. Turkey seems not ready to take the bitter pill.

The two countries used to be enemies and engaged in 10 wars in a span of 200 years. But old grudges are not sufficient to explain their relationship today. As the most important land, sea and air transport hub in the world and an area of strategic significance, the Middle East is not only the most convenient and economical transport corridor, a military and strategic point of global significance but also the most important area of energy production in the world. It is therefore extremely attractive to both Russia and Turkey, with the former regarding it as an important stage for restored major-power status and the latter attempting a special role as a regional power.

The Dec. 15 analysis of Reuters makes sense. Putin indeed has many cards to play. For example, the Russian military has already deployed the most advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems at the Hmeimin airbase in Syria, only 18 miles to the Turkish border and capable of downing Turkish aircraft at any time. For another example, Putin may also use the Kurdish question against Turkey by selling more advanced weapons to Kurds or in the most serious scenario directly supporting the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party). It is reported that Turkey also has its cards to play, such as closing the Turkish Straits, which will restrain Russian vessels in the Black Sea, thus making it more difficult for Moscow to provide logistical support for Syria.

Further worsening of Russia-Turkey conflict will undoubtedly disturb the overall anti-terror situation in the Middle East. But it will still be an interlude only. Russia-Turkey relations and the anti-terror situation will largely depend on US-Russia relations. As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov described it on Dec. 9 , should the militaries of Russia and US have full cooperation, the complete collapse of ISIS could be expected soon. The current anti-terror front in the Middle East is not united, with one counteracting another, which will only offer opportunities for terrorists to exploit. On Dec. 15, US Secretary of State Kerry visited Russia. He reached agreement with President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov to shelve disputes and jointly advocate concerted international coordination for ceasefire and peace talks between the Syrian government and rebel forces. The UN Security Council convened on Dec. 17 a finance ministers’ meeting, where it was agreed to take measures to cut off sources of finance for ISIS and other terrorist organizations. There will be further opportunities for Russia-US cooperation.

It must be pointed out emphatically that today terrorism has risen from a regional hazard to a global one. Humanities are confronted with severe threats form both nature and society: the natural one comes from climate change and the social one from terrorism. The Paris Climate Conference has reached gratifying common understanding regarding climate change and now we do expect also a broad coalition against terrorism.

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