Cold peace with Turkey but no Cold War with the West

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The sudden and drastic deterioration in relations between Moscow and Ankara following the downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish air force on Nov. 24 has raised questions about the future of any potential broad coalition against Islamic State (ISIS), as well as about Turkey’s intentions in the region. What lies behind the Turkish attack and what awaits Syria?

The shooting down of a Russian aircraft by Turkish F-16 fighter jets on Nov. 24 raised the specter of a full-fledged Cold War, since the unprovoked attack was undertaken by a NATO member state. Fortunately, this potential setback in the overall relations between Russia and the West, and the ramping up of hostilities between the U.S.-led and Russia-forged alliances fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq did not occur, leaving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Prime Minister Davutoğlu without unequivocal support, even within the Transatlantic community.

Essentially, the West has appealed to both sides to show restraint. The NATO statement contained a routine assurance of solidarity but stopped short of concrete steps. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Erdoğan to urge restraint. UK Foreign Minister Philip Hammond said that no one is interested in a new “mini Cold War.”

U.S. President Barack Obama urged both sides to settle the dispute among themselves. Some Republicans went even further. Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, issued this statement: “If being in NATO means protecting Erdoğan in this situation, either he shouldn’t be in NATO or we shouldn’t.”

Israeli minister of defense Moshe Yaalon noted that such incidents can be handled in civilized way, just like it happened when a Russian aircraft violated Israel’s airspace this week: “Russian planes don’t intend to attack us and therefore there is no need to automatically, even if there is some kind of mistake, shoot them down.”

Notably, the Gulf monarchies, which support the anti-Assad forces in Syria, failed to applaud Turkey for the move.

This raises the question: What might President Erdoğan have had in mind when he gave the order to shoot down the Russian aircraft? Viktor Nadein-Rayevsky, a senior research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences, offered his explanation to Troika Report.

“I’m afraid that one of his aims was to ruin the coalition in the making. He knew that Hollande was scheduled to visit Moscow, so the timing of the provocation was determined by this fact.”

“Why did he do it? The business of his son has been hit quiet severely by the Russian bombardment of oil-loaded trucks filled by ISIS and heading toward Turkey. That was the main reason.”

There is no consolidated opinion among Russian political observers on whether the Turkish attack was premeditated by the political and military leadership in Ankara alone, or whether it was a coordinated move with the blessing of other international actors.

The almost inevitable recurrence of “conspiracy theories” prompted Troika Report to approach renowned scholar Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, for a detailed comment on the dramatic developments.

“We cannot say for sure whether this was a plan masterminded by NATO and/or the United States. I personally doubt it very much. What we know is that there are differences between Turkey and certain NATO nations over the specific issues. The Western allies believe that Turkey is not doing enough to prevent the infiltration of terrorists passing through its borders. Not only Putin but some Western politicians also claim that Turkey is involved in smuggling operations with oil it receives from ISIS. In short, the picture is more complicated than perceived by many. Although the United States and its allies are not happy with Russia doing what it is doing in Syria, on many counts they are not happy with Turkey either.”

– The conspicuously restrained reaction by the Western powers and even NATO to Turkey’s actions leaves the terrain free of stumbling blocks and barriers for a broad coalition to battle ISIS, as proposed by French President Francois Hollande. Is this correct?

“I do not see any consensus on the Western side regarding ‘engagement’ with Russia. Francois Hollande is more inclined to do this than Barack Obama. However, there is greater appreciation of the fact that without Russia it would be more difficult, if at all possible, to deal with the problem of ISIS and Syria. This realization is at the root of the Vienna consultations. So there is hope that these negotiations will generate positive results.”

– Since you mentioned the international cooperation in Vienna, an opinion has been floated that the process took off due to the belated admittance that in the Syrian quagmire Russia is not part of the problem but part of the solution. What do you say to that?

“Attitudes started to change. And it is not only about Russia but also about other non-Western players, including Iran. It is a slow and painful correction but it reflects changes on the ground.”

– Suppose the settlement process gains momentum, will it not isolate Turkey in its tacit support for ISIS?

“Some experts maintain that there was a fear in Ankara that the new emerging alliance would marginalize Turkey and ostracize the Turkish leader. Whether the fear was justified or not, I do not know. However, today Turkey will have to adjust its policies. Otherwise it will become part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

Moscow seems to have found its true mission in battling Islamist radicals in the Middle East. Otherwise Vladimir Putin would not have cautioned French President Francois Hollande that in case of a similar attack against Russian forces in Syria, all cooperation and coordination with Western powers would be canceled and the Russia-led coalition would do what it deemed right.

The crisis between Turkey and Russia is far from being over, and for now at least, damage control efforts are not on the agenda. Moscow has drawn a red line in its policy of battling the Islamists and resolving the civil war in Syria. This could be violated at any time. Yet for the time being, the “grand coalition” suggested by the French president remains on the table.

Read more from Troika Report>>>

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