BERİL DEDEOĞLU

Russia’s weight in the Syrian problem

As the media often prefers to highlight spectacular details about the Syrian crisis, we may miss the big picture. This is not to say that details don’t matter, knowing that the devil is always in the details, but when speaking about Syria we sometimes have to look at the situation from a broader angle. When we do this, the first impression we get is that the Syrian regime has no intention of changing its stance and Turkey will also not modify its “pro-Syrian opposition” policy. The shooting down of a Turkish war plane was a serious incident and from now on, even if the Syrian government apologizes and pays compensation, Turkey’s policy will remain the same.

The problem is that the policy followed by Turkey and its partners is quite different from the policy adopted by some other countries, and Turkey may become the one who pays the price of the rivalry between these two groups of countries.

Russia doesn’t want to lose its influence over Syria even after an eventual regime change in the country. One of the other places in the eastern Mediterranean that Russia does not want to lose sway over is Cyprus. There, in exchange for fulfilling the Greek Cypriot government’s financial aid request, Russia wants to obtain a military base. Russia believes that its relations with Southern Cyprus, Israel, Syria and Iran are essential for its national interests. In this context, Russia is carefully watching Turkey’s every movement.

Despite what one may first think, Russia is not disturbed that Turkey wants to maintain its presence in Cyprus, has tense relations with Israel, keeps its distance from Iran and gets along well with the Syrian people. Russia calculates that rather than having to deal with third-party countries, it is more convenient to have Turkey playing an important role in the region. If Turkey decides to or is forced to leave the game by committing serious mistakes, NATO may enter into the equation. That is unacceptable for Russia, and no one is capable of foreseeing the consequences of such a development.

Nevertheless, even if Russia tolerates some degree of Turkish influence over Syria, it will definitely be concerned if Turkey’s influence grows too strong. In this context, the shooting down of a Turkish F-4 jet was probably a message conveyed to Turkey by Syria to show that there are still lines that should not be crossed.

Turkey will not attack Syria just because one of its reconnaissance planes was shot down. But this may only be a beginning. Several weeks ago, Syrian troops violated the border and killed a number of people in Turkish territory; and then we had this F-4 incident. The third provocation may be something worse.

If the provocations continue, Turkey may choose to set aside diplomatic methods and give an answer that the Syrian government deserves. In this case, those who were waiting for Turkey to intervene in Syria will be pleased. Who knows, maybe those countries will be very quick to call upon the fifth article of the NATO treaty, which states that an attack on any member of the organization shall be considered to be an attack on all, in order to “protect” Turkey. We may even see, let’s say, French or British war planes attacking Syria before Turkish planes do. This scenario will allow NATO to enter Syria, but the bill will, for the most part, be covered by Turkey.

Turkey faces serious problems and has to deal with delicate risks as it tries to expand its zone of influence in the eastern Mediterranean and to counterbalance other powers who try to do the same. After having considered all possible scenarios, it appears that for Turkey’s interests, the less harmful one is to have NATO and Russia come to an agreement about Syria’s future. The problem is that there are still some NATO members who insist that the alliance must consider Russia as the main foe.

2012-06-29