Turkey has voiced strong opposition to the Russian military intervention in Syria. How far will Turkey take this campaign?

Turkish President Recep Erdogan must do some profound rethink on Syria

President Recep Erdogan has criticized the Russian move on successive days before leaving on a visit to Brussels and Paris Monday. He carried with him a 3-point agenda to rev up the ‘train-equip’ program for Syrian rebels, declaration of ‘terror-free zones’ in Syria and the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’ in Syrian airspace.

Erdogan is upset that during his recent visit to Moscow, he was not taken into confidence regarding the imminent launch of Russian air strikes in Syria. Clearly, Russia outflanked Turkey. This puts Turkey in a fix.

There are three key vectors involved here. One, Moscow is frontally cornering Ankara on the latter’s clandestine support to the Islamic State [IS] and other extremist Syrian opposition groups operating inside Syria.

Two, Turkey’s plans of creating a ‘no-fly zone’ in northern Syria have gone for a six. The Russian pilots will fly in the Syrian air space wherever they need to undertake missions in coordination with the US.

Three, the US and Russia are on the same page in regarding the Syrian Kurds as allies in the fight against the IS, while Ankara brands the People’s Protection Units (armed militia of Syrian Kurds) as ‘terrorists’.

On the diplomatic plane, Turkey faces virtual isolation. First and foremost, Erdogan’s standing in the West leaves much to be desired. His abrasive behavior has alienated the West. Erdogan is making an effort belatedly to mend fences with Europe, but it is too little, too late.

Washington would have sensed that it was played when Turkey opened its airbase at Incirlik for US aircraft to attack the Islamic State targets by immediately thereafter underscoring that it is less interested in confronting the Islamic State and is primarily interested in dealing a swift blow to the Kurds (which would also help Erdogan’s strategy to whip up Turkish nationalism and affect the outcome of the parliamentary election on November 1 in favor of the ruling party.)

As for the European Union (EU), Brussels has been attempting to reset the relationship with Turkey but in the short term, there is little hope for making progress on Turkey’s accession.

Meanwhile, Erdogan’s rude rejection of the EU’s values agenda and his lack of interest in engagement with Europe, apart from his crackdown on domestic dissent and his aggressively nationalistic policy inside Turkey, have alienated European opinion.

On the whole, Europe has been strongly critical of Erdogan’s determination to remain in power at all costs and his contempt toward pluralistic governance.

Equally, from the Turkish point of view, a disconcerting development is that the Russian intervention in Syria constitutes a fait accompli for the Arab states. To quote the well-informed columnist and diplomatic observer of Al Hayat newspaper, Raghida Dergham, “Cracks have begun to appear in the Arab ranks, and some are saying that there is no choice but to accept what Russia has imposed on the United States and the US administration. Others are categorically refusing to be part of a US-Russian equation that practically entails partnership with Bashar al-Assad in crushing the armed Syrian opposition, and not just ISIS and similar groups.”

Indeed, Jordan and Egypt have shown understanding for the Russian intervention in Syria. The Jordan Times wrote Sunday, “The US and Russia seem to have finally agreed that fighting terrorism in Syria is a priority… Moscow made itself a point of coordination for the war in Syria. Russia’s presence in Syria offers at this stage the possibility of cooperation among all parties, which should help any future anti-terror coalition”.

The Saudi establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat feels embittered that Egypt defected to the Russian camp. To quote its editor-in-chief Salman Aldoary, “Egypt…has made no secret of its support for the Russian airstrikes… Cairo’s position has veered from stridently anti-Assad, to one of neutrality, to support for the regime under the pretext of safeguarding Syria’s remaining institutions. This seesawing surely counts as a black mark on Cairo’s foreign policy record, and is completely unbefitting for a country like Egypt”.

Thus, all in all, Turkey does not have the appetite for a confrontation with Russia in Syria. Nor will Erdogan be foolish enough to set up a ‘bear trap’ in Syria. He can only undertake such a risky venture within the matrix of a concerted western strategy to ‘bleed’ Russia in Syria or to get it bogged down in a quagmire. The probability of that happening is almost non-existent – from present indications, at least.

Meanwhile, while Moscow has maintained that the incident of violation of Turkish air space near the Syrian border on Saturday by a Russian SU-30 was due to “navigation error”, the fact remains that it did bring home vividly to the policymakers in Ankara that there is a new reality across its border with Syria.

At any rate, Erdogan needs to do some profound rethink on Syria. Paradoxically, Russia may succeed in reining him in from further adventurism in Syria, where Washington had failed abjectly. The chances are that Erdogan will act cautiously. The fear of Russia is embedded deep in the Turkish psyche.

Erdogan would have taken note of the remark by President Vladimir Putin last Monday in New York that Moscow intends to strengthen the capability of not only the Syrian government but also the Syrian Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State.

Putin would have weighed his words carefully. He did not mention Hezbollah or any other militia but made it a point to single out the Syrian Kurds (who happen to have close links with the militant PKK, which leads the bloody separatist struggle inside Turkey.) To be sure, Turkish intelligence would know that the Syrian Kurdish leaders have been traveling to Moscow frequently in the most recent years.

(Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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