Russia and Turkey seem to represent two sides of a “communication game” aiming at exposing each other as a culprit in international diplomacy. The shooting down of Russian Su-24 bomber by Turkish fighter jet F-16 at the Syrian border could be interpreted as a result of different national interests of both states. These conflicting interests can clearly be detected throughout the course of the Syrian civil war. The Russian-Turkish bilateral rift can be analysed on the broader context of internal policies and Middle East geopolitics.
On one hand, Moscow focuses on the secret relations between Ankara and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Russia attempts to propagate that Turkey and ISIS have mutual geopolitical and commercial interests. Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Ankara’s government of “collusion” with ISIS, alluding to accusations against Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he personally benefits from the illegal oil trade with ISIS.
On the other hand, Turkey claims its airspace was violated accusing Russia of Soviet-style propaganda. Ankara stresses the violation of its sovereignty as a state in order to prove that Russian engagement in Syria is not selfless but serves Russian imperial ambitions to dominate the Middle East.
Moscow has traditionally criticized American interventionist policies in the Middle East under the pretext of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the war on terror.
Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are considered as two powerful leaders by the international community. They control their state mechanisms such as military and media. Their increased nationalism helps them maintain their high levels of popularity within their states. Furthermore, Putin attempts to defend the rights of Russian diaspora all over the world, while Erdogan considers himself as the “protector” of all suppressed Sunni Muslim populations in the Middle East.
While Putin is continuously criticized by the West for infringement of human rights and violation of the freedom of press, many Russians think he claimed a status for Russia as a great power in the international arena.
Erdogan seems to be going in the right direction toward eradicating the traditional bulwarks of the secular state of Turkey. Some even claim that he is attempting to become the “new Sultan”. Adopting a tough rhetoric against the Kurdish PKK before the election helped AKP party to win the second snap of elections on 01 November 2015. Furthermore, infringement of human rights and violation of the freedom of press are clearly commonplace in Turkey.
Following “double standards”, the West evaluates Putin and Erdogan’s internal policies differently. While Putin is a traditional target of the West for his human rights records, western powers imposed economic sanctions against Russia following the Ukrainian crisis. Erdogan, however, is less targeted by the West due to Turkey’s role within the NATO and its role in tackling Europe’s migration crisis, which could reduce the influx of refugees to Europe.
Syria and Gas-Geopolitics
Syrian war is an arena of conflicting geopolitical interests between Russia and Turkey, in which they have supported Shiite and Sunni factions respectively.
Russian military engagement is changing the rules of Syrian civil war in favour of Bashar Al-Assad against ISIS and Syrian Sunnis rebels. Moscow is a close ally of Assad. Russian aim, however, is to secure its geopolitical interests in a post-war Syria and to preserve its naval base in Tartus at any cost.
On the contrary Turkey is a staunch opponent to Assad. It supports Sunni rebels and desperately stands against the creation of an autonomous Syrian Kurdish entity, which might undermine Turkey’s vital geopolitical and energy interests.
According to Foreign Affairs, natural gas represents one of the reasons for the outburst of the Syrian civil war: “the most of the foreign belligerents in the war in Syria are gas-exporting countries with interests in one of the two competing pipeline projects that seek to cross Syrian territory to deliver either Qatari or Iranian gas to Europe.”
In 2009, Qatar proposed to build a pipeline to deliver gas to Turkey via Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria in order to supply the European markets, but President Assad rejected the plan. In 2011 he accepted an alternative Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline.
Turkey considers the proposed Qatari pipeline important for its geo-economic interests. It is supposed to help Turkey diversify its gas supplies far from Russian gas and to become gas hub between Asia and Europe.
A Qatari pipeline seriously threatens Russian energy interests in Europe and Gazprom monopoly. In 2014, Gazprom supplied 146.6 billion cubic meters of gas to European countries. While western European countries accounted for approximately 80% of the company’s exports, central European states accounted for 20%.
Risking Gas Revenues?
Russia and Turkey seem to be engaged in a “chicken game” using media outlets and propaganda tactics in the minefield of the Syrian conflict. Putin and Erdogan continue their fierce rhetoric against each other showing no signs of weakness or concession.
Moscow can use the “energy weapon” in order to castigate Turkey, which imports about 60% of its natural gas from Russia. However the question is if Moscow can risk its gas revenues, especially that low oil prices have already hammered its economy.
Edited by Hakim Khatib R