Jet crisis with Syria, the role of Russia and the Turkish foreign policy

July 20, 2012, Friday/ 12:21:00/ OYTUN ORHAN

The fact that Turkish aircraft was downed over Mediterranean international waters by Syrian air defense systems brought along lots of arguments. This event might be expected to be one of the turning points of the Turkey – Syria relations and thus the development of the protest movement in Syria.

The shooting down of the jet created a new power distribution among the parties that conflict on Syria. The general opinion is that Syria cannot take such a decision at a level that would lead to severe consequences by itself. At this point Russia, which is the biggest supporter of the Assad regime and aims at re-establishing its global role, comes to the forefront. Therefore, besides the effects it would create in terms of development of Syrian uprising, jet crisis also made Russia's role in Syrian problem more important; and the Turkey-Russia relations brought along new arguments on the capacity of Turkish foreign policy.

Current Situation in Syria

The current situation in Syria is a complete deadlock. One of the facts that the events, which have been continuing for about a year and a half, put forth is that the Syrian opposition could not reach the capacity to topple the Ba'ath regime or could not create the conditions to make international intervention possible. Nevertheless, another fact is it is seen that the Assad administration does not have a chance to suppress Syrian opposition and to bring back the stability to the country. On the contrary, the Syrian military and political opposition is growing stronger with each passing day. Therefore, there is a balance among the conflicting forces within the country in terms of failure in reaching victory and in eliminating the other party.

The same balance also applies to the actors taking a different position alongside the conflicting parties. On one hand we see those who support the opposition that we can categorize as the “Friends of Syria Group”, and on the other side Russia, China, Iran supporting the Syrian administration. It is possible to add Maliki in Iraq and the Mikati government supported by Hezbollah in Lebanon to those who support Assad. There is no power distribution among these actors to radically change the decision of the other party.

The result of this balance is; violence acts which do not stop and increase with each passing day in Syria, civilian deaths, permanence of terror, increasing ethnic-sectarian decomposition, going towards a de-facto division in the country, elimination of state authority in a substantial part of the territories of the country. The aforesaid deadlock leads all the actors to revise their positions. The “Geneva Meeting”, which was carried out on 30 June 2012 with the participation of United Nations Security Council permanent members, and foreign ministers of Turkey, Qatar, Iraq, and Kuwait in Geneva, Switzerland upon the call of UN and Arab-League special envoy Kofi Annan, has been quite striking in terms of seeing the change of position. Above all, the fact that this meeting was held is the indicator that the parties had to sit down at negotiation table, thus they had to pay attention to the interests of the other party. One of the bargaining stages of the power distribution, caused by the struggle that has been going on for a year and a half, took place. The aforesaid meeting is an effort to find a common ground that redlines of the parties are taken into consideration. Both camps had to revise their maximalist demands in the first period. Anyone who expects a change in Syria states that a change has been observed in Russia's position compared to the first period, and that it is not certain how much longer it can stand behind the Assad regime. It is right in a sense. The fact that Russia accepted in the Geneva Meeting that opponents could be in the national unity government, that Russia declared it would stop arms sale to Syria, and that Russia talked to Syrian opposition groups such as Syrian National Council and National Coordination Committee in Moscow is the indicator of the aforesaid position change. However, the actual change of position took place among the actors defending the change in Syria. While change of regime, military intervention, safe zone were mentioned in the first period; currently the “Yemen Plan” envisaging a peaceful and limited change, or the “Annan Plan” defining the conflict in Syria as bilateral and envisaging to find a political solution to the problem is accepted. Therefore, the change in policies of the “Friends of Syria” group is more striking.

After the Geneva Meeting, the Annan Plan was revised in a rather action-directed way and a new diplomatic process was launched. It will be examined whether the problem could be solved through the Annan Plan in the short-term. If this political process collapses, the parties will continue wrist wrestling. And it will come to mean that the long-term instability, conflicts, civilian deaths, polarization in Syria will continue.

When the Arab protests spread to Syria, most of the analysts and decision makers predicted that government change would take place in Syria, just like in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya before long. There are many factors that make Assad and Ba'ath regime different from other precedents, and make it possible to continue its power despite the past year and a half. Nevertheless, the factor which could not be foreseen and maybe which relieves the Syrian administration the most has been the stance taken by Russia in the Syrian crisis. Russia changed all the balances by using its veto power within United Nations, its military capacity and deterrence in favor of Syrian regime. This support has had important results for Turkey in terms of affecting the success of Syrian policy, questioning the impact capacity of the Turkish foreign policy and in terms of the Turkey-Russia relations.

Russian and Turkish Foreign Policy in Syrian Crisis

In Syrian problem, Russia's final goal is probably not to protect Assad or Ba'ath regime. Russia has been striving to impose that Russia's vital interests should be taken into consideration if there is going to be a change in Syria, and that Russia itself is one of the major actors in post-Assad structuring. Protecting Assad and Ba'ath regime serves these purposes as a front. If Russia's defense industry agreements are to continue, its privileges in Tartous port are to carry on, if it is guaranteed there won't be the monocracy of Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis, the interests of Syrian Orthodox' are to be protected, if its investments in the country are not negatively affected, and if it believes that no chaos will take place in Syria; then it would give green light to Assad's leaving the power. Therefore, the resistance of Russia against toppling the Assad regime could be broken only through the assurance that this country's strategic interests will be protected also in the post-Assad period. And this requires a major bargain involving the global actors.

Thus, Russia gives the message that; “If Assad leaves, I will be one of the major actors shaping the new structuring. Change is possible only through my approval, and I will be one of the powerful actors on the table while determining the new structure.” Along with the Syrian crisis, Russia sees the limits of its power both in global scale and in the Middle East. Russia, which showed itself as the most powerful actor in Caucasus with a strategic importance through the Georgia War, has been striving to show through Syrian issue that “it is still a super power and one of the major actors in the Middle East”. Therefore, the Syrian issue is directly related to its foreign policy, rather than protecting its interests. Thinking of having made a mistake in Libya, Russia knows it will no more be effective in its Middle East policy if it loses Syria. In addition to this, Russia exports approximately 10 % of its defense industry to Syria. Russia has almost 20 billion dollar of investment in Syria. In addition to all these, Russia does not want to face the wave of democratization and split within its own borders. Another important reason is the fact that political Islam has become stronger in the countries where Arab protests take place. In a potential regime change in Syria, Russia thinks that Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis will come to power. Russia has been following the rise of political Islam with concern regarding that it will negatively affect its own Muslim minorities, the Chechen problem, and that it will cause to security problem. Therefore, it has been striving to draw a line to the process of strengthening of political Islamist movements which came to power in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt starting from Morocco, and maybe to its own borders in the future through Syria. 

What forces the Western camp to act hesitantly on Syria and prevents them from taking a joint stand is the unpredictability of the post-Assad period. As a matter of fact, a Sunni Arab power, which would probably further correspond to Turkey and thus to the West rather than Assad regime which is in a close relationship with Iran and Hezbollah, could be desired by West. The power distribution, created by the Iraqi invasion in favor of Iran, might be desired to be reversed through a potential change in Syria. The new Syria would be preferred to join the Sunni countries camp which is in a close relationship with the West. However, the major concern is the fact that Al Qaeda is also a Sunni movement, and the possibility that Al Qaeda could take advantage of a possible regime change.

Lastly, Syrian problem and jet crisis have had negative results for Turkey. If the fixation that Russia might be behind the Syrian attack is right, Russia aims at questioning the regional super power role that Turkey has been trying to play. The question marks regarding the capacity of controversial hard power of Turkey in Syrian crisis, and regarding its will to use it increased upon the jet crisis. The International Crisis Group analyst Hugh Pope expresses this fact through the following statement: “Turks might sell goods to the Middle East, and the Middle Eastern populations might have Turkish products in their homes. However, Turkey's capacity to inject power to states in the region is very limited.” Therefore; Arab protests, Syrian uprising and jet crisis made it possible for Turkey to see its limits in the foreign policy. The necessity of envisaging the challenges to occur against the system you want to establish. Above all, the necessity of estimating whether you have efficient foreign policy tools that could be used against the aforesaid challenges came up. Suggesting a foreign policy based on stability in an instable region does not do any good. Therefore, this process will enable Turkish foreign policy to have a more realistic ground.

Oytun Orhan, ORSAM Middle East Specialist, A.İ.B.U. Ph.D. Programme