After a decade long honeymoon period between Russia and Turkey, based on the close personal relationship between Putin and Erdogan, relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly after Turkey shot down a Russian military plane on November 24th, 2015.
Contrary to popular belief, Russia has come out on top in the tug-of-war over Turkish-Russian energy policies since 2002. Turkey has become extremely dependent on Russian natural gas and oil since then, allowing Russian energy companies to get involved in the Turkish energy sector. Gazprom purchased assets of Turkish energy companies; Rosatom was selected, without any form of bid, to construct Turkey's first nuclear power plant in Mersin-Akkuyu.
Due to the Ukrainian crisis, the Kremlin began to push the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline and cancelled the South Stream natural gas pipeline in order to bypass Ukrainian territory. However, the declaration of the Turkish Stream raised another question, whether Turkey was about to become Russia's new Ukraine with regards to controlling pipeline transportation.
Turkey welcomed the Turkish Stream proposal without first examining the benefits and downsides of the project. It was understood that during the election process of June and November 2015, Erdogan’s AKP party made promises to Russia that they would sign the necessary documents to launch the construction of the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline project once elected.
However, once elected, Erdogan could not keep his promise to Putin as his party (AKP-Justice and Development Party) were unable to get the necessary majority in the Turkish Parliament to approve the pipeline agreement. Only a few weeks later, Russia made a declaration that it would freeze the Turkish Stream project, and proceeded to send troops to Syria, with the official approval of the Syrian authorities, to fight against terrorist groups. This declaration marked the end of the honeymoon period between Russia and Turkey.
From August 30, 2015, Russia began to send troops and warplanes to Syria, expanding its airbase in Latakia. In doing this, Russia increased its level of aid to the Assad regime, both diplomatically and economically, to a level that Putin was aware would make Erdogan uncomfortable. Russia’s presence in Syria was universally accepted as legal and, following the Paris attacks, France even requested Russian cooperation to fight against ISIS in Syria.
Furthermore, Russia and the U.S. harmoniously conducted air operations in Syria. Following the shooting down of a Russian war plane by Turkey, the Kremlin launched a containment and alienation policy towards Turkey in the region, a policy that was executed in six steps. First, the Kremlin organized a presentation in order to accuse Erdogan and his family of taking part in the illegal oil trade with ISIS and aiding fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organizations.
Second, Russia influenced Iran, Iraq and Syria to exert diplomatic and economic pressure on Turkey. For example, Russia compelled Iran to ban the re-export of Turkish goods to Russia. Third, Russia launched economic sanctions against Turkey, cancelling visa-free travel and stopping tourism between two countries.
Fourth, Russia acted unanimously with the U.S. concerning Kurdish issues in Syria, challenging Turkish policies. Fifth, Russia withdrew a majority of its military from Syria, strengthening its position in the Syria talks in Geneva. Finally, Russia exerted its geopolitical influence in order to contain Turkey’s pipeline aims.
The Russian military is not entirely withdrawing from Syria, maintaining a long-term presence in both its Tartus and Latakia bases. Thus, Russia strengthened the position of Assad, while constructing new ties with both Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, actions that directly conflict with Turkey’s geopolitical aims. Erdogan and Barzani have formed a close relationship regarding energy, with Turkey providing significant support for the KRG. Russia has pursued its own relationship with the Iraqi Kurds, supplying them with anti-aircraft weaponry, which it says is to help fight ISIS. The problem with that, from Ankara’s perspective, is that ISIS does not possess aircraft – but Turkey does. In short, Russia and the U.S. are developing their relationship with Syrian and Iraqi Kurds separately and, in doing so, are challenging Erdogan's Kurdish policy.
Natural gas could be a major factor in the conflict in Syria and between Turkey and Russia. Russia, in an attempt to stop Turkey from transporting Kurdish oil and gas, has strengthened the Assad regime’s position on the Mediterranean coast. While this does not prevent the development of new pipeline routes from Northern Iraq to Syria, which would bypass the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Turkey-KRG natural gas pipeline, it does reduce the ability of Turkey to import oil and natural gas from Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.
As long as Russian-backed Syria controls Western Syria and the pipeline ports there, it is still possible to build new pipelines which start in Northern Iraq and end in Syria. Moreover, Turkey was so determined to be part of a Qatar-Turkey natural gas pipeline that it is willing to pass through ISIS dominated Iraqi and Syrian territories. However, Russian military operations and a strengthening Assad regime killed the Qatar-Turkey natural gas pipeline. Finally, the Russian containment policy and military presence in South Turkey triggered Turkey to ally with Israel. For a long time, Erdogan has used an anti-Semitic approach in domestic policy, but Turkey’s current lack of allies in the region has caused Erdogan to change his approach. U.S. Vice President Biden recently visited Israel and stated that Erdogan is eager to reconcile with Israel as soon as possible.
Although Erdogan is having trouble explaining his Israeli rapprochement, Ankara expects to sign pipeline agreements with Israel over the Eastern Mediterranean corridor. However, Russia is committed to blocking all the pipeline projects to Turkish territory as long as Erdogan sits in power.
To conclude, Russia’s intervention in Syria not only served to strengthen the Assad regime and weaken the Islamist extremist groups, but also challenged Turkish security and energy policies.
By Tugce Varol for Oilprice.com
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