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Russia-Turkey: the value of Syria, prerequisites of the conflict and balance of forces

Things at the Turkish “front” are clear: the downing of the Su-24 was a pre-planned action and Russia is not going to keep this secret. Nor is it going to be silent about Turkey’s ties with the Syrian Jihadists. As far as the Turks are concerned, they do not seem to be ready for any compromises.

Russia’s reaction was a surprise to them as was the lack of support from their NATO allies. But they in Turkey could hardly be unaware that they took a very big risk when they downed a plane belonging to a nuclear power. What might push them to do that?

The problem is that for the Turks Syria is more than just a neighbor or a part of their former empire. With Syria, Turkey is always an empire, without it, it ceases to be one.

Syria has always been the gates into the Middle East. Since the Bronze Age, it has been a military and trade crossroads. Today, it is a hub for existing and projected pipelines. Syria is to be present in any sustainable “imperial” project in the Middle East (be it Turkish, Saudi or Iranian). This is mere geography.

For Turkey, it is part of the former “Turkish world” and a tangle of old conflicts. Turks first appeared in Syria in XI as a ruling military caste. There, you can find the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire Osman I. Since the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, that place has been a mini enclave controlled by Turkish troops.

The conquest of Syria turned Osman I into the leader of the Sunni world. In 1516, Selim I routed Egyptian Mamluks near Aleppo and was proclaimed a guardian of Mecca and Medina (the two holy Muslim cities). That was enough for him to become the leader of all Muslims, especially as he also controlled Damascus, the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate.

Till the second half of XIX, Syria was very loyal to the Ottomans. Aleppo was the third biggest city of the Ottoman Empire and its commercial center, while commerce (particularly, the Levantine one with active presence of French) was one of foundations of the Ottoman might and the driver that defined future ways of expansion.

The rise of Turkish and Arab nationalism and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire turned Syria into a knot of insolvable conflicts. The new “colonial” borders torn apart traditional territorial and ethnic communities. For example, mono-ethnic Arab region of al-Jazirah (now the hotbed of ISIL) was divided among Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The same is true for Kurdistan.

But the bone of discord at that moment was Levant, a mono-economic but multi-ethnic and multi-religious region. Initially, its historical province, Hatay, was part of the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon. The Turks refused to lose their “historical” lands and annexed the province in 1939. Until 2005, Hatay was a disputed territory, with Alawites still having a significant community in that mostly Turkish region.

A total of 800,000-2,000,000 Arabs may live in Turkey’s borderline provinces (Hatay, Urfa, Mardin), while the north of Syria is home to almost 100,000 Turkomans (who are ethnically very close to Anatolian Turks).

After WWII, Turkey and post-French Syria found themselves on the opposite sides of geopolitical barricades: Turkey was NATO’s eastern outpost and Israel’s ally, while Syria was oriented towards the Soviet Union. As a result, mutual enmity was growing; the Kurdish problem and water issue were aggravating factors. 

In 1974, Turkey started to build a Keban Dam on the Euphrates, a facility controlling water supplies in all of the northeast Syria (including al-Jazirah). The Turks were going to build a total of 22 dams and 19 water power plants there. For them, that project was expected to be a source of cheap electricity, for the Syrians and the Iraqis it was meant to be a source of huge problems. In 1981, the Turks started to build Karakaya, in 1990, they finished the biggest dam, Ataturk. As a result, the flow of the Euphrates on the Turkish-Syrian border dropped from 20,000,000 c m to 16,000,000 c m a year. The same year, the Turks displayed the strength of their water weapon by draining the river from the border to Lake Assad. In 2006-2010, they used it again to put the fertile northeast of Syria on the verge of hunger.

Syria has a similar weapon in the area of Orontes River, but here we are talking about much smaller water resources.

So, instead of using water, the Syrians decided to support the Kurdish Workers Party. In 1982, they gave shelter to the party’s leader Abdullah Ocalan. In 1999 the Turks forced the Syrians to give the Kurdish leader back.

When Erdogan’s party first came into power, Turkish-Syrian relations improved. Erdogan was al-Assad’s “best friend” (in 2005-2009 al-Assad’s Defense Minister was a Turkoman). But the Arab spring of 2011 was a signal for the Turks to stop their “soft power” policy and to take action.

Turkey’s motives are clear:

1. If Turkey gets Syria, it will be able to control all connections between Europe and the Gulf and to bypass the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, in Egypt Turkey has quite a good ally, Muslim Brotherhood.

2. Syria is a spring board for Turkey’s further expansion into the Greater Middle East.

3. The Turks are suffering from trade deficit. So, Syria could be a new sales market for them as well as a bridge to the markets of Jordan and Lebanon.

4. A puppet regime in Syria would cut a big part of Turkish Kurdistan from the outer world.

All this fits well into Erdogan’s Napoleonic plans. Not long ago, the Turks were very close to their goal but the Russian interference stopped them. Today Erdogan has just 14% support for his Syrian policy and is facing the prospect of an almost independent Kurdish autonomy. His neo-Ottoman project is sinking. The partition of Syria was Erdogan’s last chance but that required a compromise with Moscow and Damascus.

In other words, Turkey’s conflict with Russia was inevitable. And what are the chances of the parties?

In a sanction war with Russia, Turkey will be the loser. In terms of community exports, Russia has a huge advantage. So, if the Russians stop exporting goods to Turkey, the Turks will have big problems.

In military terms, Turkey is strong enough to beat the Syrian army and the Russian air force. The Turks have 208 F-16C/D fighters with highly competent crews. But, in contrast, they have quite weak air defense. So, a direct conflict with the Russians would have very bad consequences for them. In other words, the Turks will attack only if they know that they will be no full—value counter-attack.

The more realistic scenario is to close the Bosporus Strait. Erdogan has already shown that the international law has no value to him. Russian ships are already having problems with crossing the strait. The Russians’ counter-argument is gas: gas accounts for 32% of Turkey’s energy mix, with Russia being the key supplier (57% in 2014). Today the Turks have neither technical nor financial capacities to replace Russian gas. So, Erdogan is bluffing when saying that he can do it. In other words, the Russians have enough economic levers to pressure the Turkish President, especially as he is receiving no support from either his foreign allies or own people.

Obviously, the best option for Russia today is to ignore the “Sultan” – for any other step may have very serious consequences. The Russian attitude is based on a supposition that Erdogan’s regime will not stay in power for ever.

The problem here is that for us there are no other Turks. In fact, it has become a fixed idea for them to interfere in the affairs of their neighbors. So, Erdogan’s “Kemalist” successors will hardly be more peaceful. On the other hand, they will be more pro-American and more anti-Russian. Like it or not, in the south we are facing the revival of centuries-old problem.

EADaily Analysis

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