Syria a Poisoned Gift for Putin and Erdogan

15 December 2015

By Amir Taheri

As might have been expected, the crisis in relations between Moscow and Ankara has dominated regional politics since the Turks downed a Russian warplane close to the Syrian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly believes that the Turks shot his plane as part of a plot by NATO to warn Moscow against throwing is weight around. For his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems persuaded that the Russians arranged the ''incident'' to puncture his ego.

Thus, the first element in this imbroglio is the clash of two Everest-size egos Putin and Erdogan. Both see themselves as ''great leaders in the classical style'' of ''providential saviors'' of their respective nations. Both have empire-building ambitions. Putin wants to revive as much of the Soviet Empire as possible, at least by turning the so-called ''near-abroad'' into a Russian influence zone.

Thinking in the 19th century mode of ''projecting power'' by a ''blue-water'' navy and bases dotting your glacis, he wants to heighten Russia's military profile in the Caucasus by annexing 20 per cent of Georgia's territory, gobbling up Crimea in Ukraine and detaching Donetsk, playing the ethnic-demographic card in the Baltic States and now, establishing itself as chief foreign influence in Iran, Syria and Iraq.

Erdogan's ambitions can also be catalogued with little difficulty. He wants to carve out a zone of influence in both Syria and Iraq, largely to kill the Kurds' dream of dismantling the Turkish Republic and creating a great Kurdistan on the debris of Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi states. Erdogan also wants to sell Turkey to the European Union and NATO as the major power in the Middle East.

In a sense, both men hope to fill part of the gap left by the American retreat from global leadership under President Barack Obama. With the US no longer taken seriously by anybody, both Russia and Turkey hope to create a galaxy of alliances and partnerships around themselves.

Thus the Sukhoi incident was little more than an excuse for both sides. Some experts even believe that the Russian jet briefly strayed into Turkish airspace because of a wrong electronic flight-map coordinate supplied by Syrians who regard that part of Turkish territory as ''usurped land'' that belongs to Damascus. Turks called the disputed area Hatay; Syrians refer to it as Al-Iskanderoun. So, it is possible that the whole thing was the result of bad information and misunderstanding. The irony is that as far as Syria is concerned, Moscow and Ankara have more points in common than points that divide them.

Neither wants Syria to re-emerge as a partner, let alone an ally, of the Western democracies just across the Mediterranean, reviving the historic ''direction of national gaze'' that dates back to the Byzantine Empire.

Neither wants Syria to fall under radical Islamist groups either. Russia has been engaged in intermittent war against radical Islam since the end of the 18th century and is till obliged to control some of the Muslim ''possessions'' of the federation through State of Emergency and heavy military presence.

The emergence of a radical Islamist movement in Turkey would threaten not only the so-called ''secular system'' but also the complicated mosaic of religious sects and fraternities that have been forced to operate under the surface within the Kemalist republic. Against that background it is even more surprising that both Russia and Turkey have treated the so-called IS with kid gloves.

Leaving aside accusations and counter-accusations that both Turkey and Russia benefit from buying oil from IS and selling arms to it, there is little doubt that both have refrained from acting against the ''Caliphate''.

Regardless of bare-faced denials, it is clear that ''volunteers'' reach IS through Turkey and that it receives a good part of the vital supplies it needs through the same route. Ankara wants to see the back of Bashar al-Assad whose clan has a long history as clients of Russia and, more recently, the Islamic Republic in Iran. Erdogan believes that whatever happens, IS will be a major player in shaping the future of Syria and it is thus in Turkey's interest not to antagonize it beyond reason.

For his part, Putin also regards IS as at least a ''second choice'' in Syria, the first choice being Assad. This is because there is little possibility that IS might make a deal with Western powers and help take Syria into NATO's orbit. More than 90 per cent of Russian air raids have been against groups opposed to Assad, not forces controlled by IS. At the same time, IS has taken little or no action against the Assad regime, focusing its attention on destroying anti-Assad forces. The downing of a Russian passenger plane by IS over the Sinai was a warning to Moscow not to forget those considerations. IS has also reached tacit understanding with Tehran, Moscow's ally in Syria, not to attack Iranian targets. Iran's army chief General Salami says there is a 50-kilometres ''red-line'' on the Iranian border with Iraq that IS has agreed not to cross.

The Russo-Turkish tussle complicates an already complex situation. After the Turks shot his Sukhoi, Putin could not have swallowed his pride and moved on. Wisely, he has limited his reaction to largely diplomatic gesticulations such as the seizure of Turkish cargo ships carrying frozen chicken to Russia and publishing a draft bill to make denial of the ''Armenian genocide'' a crime. Putin also did a bit of sulking when he refused to meet with Erdogan during the ''climate summit'' in Paris.

Having full fed their respective egos it is time for both Erdogan and Putin to move on and, as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev suggested last week, focus on common interests rather than hurt vanities. Gorbachev is wise in reminding both Moscow and Ankara that they are condemned by facts of geopolitics to agree on a modus vivendi.

Both need to take a long, hard look at their Syrian policies and ask a number of questions.

Do they really think the world can tolerate a Syria in which the ''Caliphate'' is either dominant or plays a central role? Is it possible to revert to the status quo ante, with Assad in place as if nothing has happened in the past five years- as Tehran insists? Is it possible to exclude all of Assad's camp, as Erdogan seems to dream of, or should a segment be woven into the fabric of a new Syria?

Syria is in such a mess that no one can dream of achieving total victory. Erdogan cannot see the camp he supports seize exclusive power in Damascus. Putin cannot hope to wipe out all of Assad's opponents, that is to say at least 80 per cent of Syrians. Even if total victory was possible and someone offered Syria to either Putin or Erdogan on a silver platter, what are they going to do with it? Rebuilding a shattered Syria will cost over $1 trillion according to latest estimates. Could Putin, his economy in free fall, afford that? What about Erdogan who now lives on handouts from the EU? 

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.



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