It is now apparent that Russia can no longer ignore the reality that Turkey will remain the major impediment to Russia’s control over its strategic ability to escape the containment of geography as well as geopolitics. The question is: what can it do about it, and when? The answers are existential for Russia, but they also open the chance for Western powers to reconsider whether this is the time to bring Russia into the West, as Reagan and Thatcher envisioned.
The shooting down of a Russian Air Force Su-24 strike aircraft over northern Syria by Turkish Air Force F-16s on November 24, 2015, had an underlying strategic rationale, and has strategic consequences, which neither the Turkish Government — nor the U.S. Government, which supported it — have apparently fully considered.
However, even weeks later, what was left unstated by all parties as to whether the event was to be the defining watershed — the point of no return — in the multinational confrontation, which ostensibly has Syria as its focus, or whether it was to be just one more significant milestone in the evolution of the stra-tegic confrontation. Whether stated, or recognized, or not, the event made clear the fact that the experi-ment of Russia-Turkey cooperation was over, and what little trust was left is now gone for the foreseea-ble future.
And yet Russia cannot, from a geo-strategic standpoint, let the matter rest. This is close to an existential issue for Russia, whereas it does not register with the same level of importance for Turkey. Unless Rus-sia makes it so.
This appears to be the point at which the Russian Government feels that it could no longer achieve a workable relationship with the Turkish Government, and that, in fact, a truly viable relationship might nev-er be achieved. Equally, Moscow might consider that it would have no better opportunity than now, when Turkey’s principal ally, the United States, is not well-placed to respond strategically, to break up the Turk-ish state before it resumed its path toward its ambition of becoming a major global power.
What is clear is that Russia, if it is to break the mold and become the global power it has always sought to be, must break through once and for all to the south. Nuclear weapons may have given the USSR su-perpower status in the past, but the lack of southward freedom of movement ensured that it was never the global power it sought to be.
This reality (that Russia may be seeing its opportunity arising) may well be recognized by strategic policy officials in Washington, DC. This would account for what now appears, otherwise, to be irrational U.S. support for Turkish adventurism. Or Washington’s blind support for Ankara may just be a continuation of Western (particularly British and then U.S.) policy toward Russia since the Crimean War (1853-56).
Either way, there has been no Western consideration of a new geopolitical framework, which could em-brace Russia into the West since U.S. President Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, and UK Prime Minis-ter Margaret Thatcher left office in 1990. Both those leaders had envisaged a post-Soviet Russia as an integral new component of the West, but none of their successors in the U.S. or UK embraced the vision when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was finally dissolved in 1990-91.
Historical competition between Russia and Turkey has indicated that Turkey’s major strategic power lies in its ability to thwart or limit Russian freedom of action into the Mediterranean and the Middle East. If Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdo?an was to continue his present and proposed courses of action, Russia would be circumscribed even further. So, too, would Iran be restricted in its historical need to find freedom of movement westward into the Mediterranean. Thus, Iran and Russia — both historical adver-saries of Turkey — have common cause against Turkish ambition.
That is all now subtext. It was, in this latest incident, Turkey, working with the U.S. Government of Presi-dent Barack Obama, which planned and executed the November 24, 2015, interception of the Russian Air Force Su-24. The event was not a spontaneous occurrence, and, apparently, two USAF F-15C Eagle air superiority fighters (which had been deployed to Incirlik Air Force Base, Turkey, in November 2015) were in the air as back-up to the Türk Hava Kuvvetleri (Turkish Air Force: THK) F-16s, one of which shot down the Su-24. USAF sources subsequently said that the U.S. was taken by surprise when the THK shot down the Sukhoi, but that hardly squares with the historical Turkish practice of coordinating such actions with Washington. Moreover, the Turkish narrative that it “warned” the Russian aircraft several times over a pe-riod of five minutes before the THK F-16 shot it down also does not square with reality.
And in this particular ground attack operation, the two Su-24s — including the one which was destroyed — were engaged on missions which did not require them to enter Turkish airspace, even though an acci-dental entry into it was conceivable. Their targets were in the area of northern Syria: pro-Ankara Turkmen militia engaged in supporting the massive cross-border operations of ISIS (asad- Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi al-‘Iraq wash-Sham, or Islamic State) moving oil, fighters, and weapons across the Syria-Turkish border.
Dave Majumdar, Defense Editor at the U.S. blogsite, The National Interest, on December 7, 2015, noted: “The United States and Turkey are working on an agreement that would allow the US Air Force F-15Cs to defend Turkish airspace. However, the precise rules of engagement and procedures have yet to be ironed out.” It is possible that Turkey wanted to illustrate to the US that its airspace was, in fact, threat-ened. But what has been clear is that no credible Russian military threat to Turkey existed.
At best, Russia may now move to cover its tactical operations in northern Syria more effectively by of-fering its own deterrence of top cover by advanced fighters while the ground attack aircraft, such as the Su-24s, do their job. It is also clear that any further Turkish incursions into Syrian airspace were now at- risk, but the Turks already knew that.
Recently-retired U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt.-Gen. Michael Flynn publicly said in Mos-cow on December 10, 2015, that there was no possibility that the Turkish shootdown was undertaken without the express permission and direction of “the highest authority” in Turkey.
Indeed, Turkey has traditionally played the role of aggressor in terms of airspace violation. Not only did the THK lose an RF-4E Phantom II reconnaissance aircraft well into Syrian airspace on June 22, 2012, as a result of surface-to-air missile fire, it continues to consistently invade the airspace of fellow NATO member and neighbor Greece in a manner far more hostile than the penetration of Turkish airspace it al-leged Russia undertook (for 17 seconds). THK F-16s entered Greek airspace some 2,200 times in 2014 alone. Moreover, Turkey consistently has violated Cypriot air-, sea, and land-space since its 1974 inva-sion and occupation of the northern 37 percent of Cyprus.1
So Turkey is hardly the victim. [Indeed, by deliberately starting the “civil war” to remove Pres. Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, Turkey only incurred a “refugee problem” as a result of its own actions, and has subsequently sought to push those refugees onward into Europe as quickly as possible, seeking political rewards from Europe as the only power capable of stopping the refugee flows.]
In any event, Pres. Erdo?an, three years ago said that “a short- term border violation can never be a pre-text for an attack”. But that, of course, was when a THK aircraft was shot down by Syria when the THK F-4E deliberately and for some time penetrated Syrian airspace on a mission against Syria. Related: Turkey Prepares For Protracted Standoff With Russia
So the possibility exists that the shootdown was done by Turkey to implicate the U.S. in its plans, but that would have been an unusual risk for Ankara to take. More likely that, as far as joint rationales were concerned, the U.S. and Turkey were attempting to gauge Russian reaction to such an incident, and also to deliver a message — along with “plausible deniability” on the part of the U.S. — that Russia was “on notice” of a strong response capability from the Ankara-Washington alliance.
In any event, the point to ponder is whether Turkey’s motivation in the shootdown was short-term and tactical, or long-term and strategic, and whether Ankara conceived that this might finally incite Moscow to make its grand strategy play to break through Turkey to the south.
Russia has claimed, in its treatment of the November 24, 2015, incident, that Ankara shot down the Su-24 in order to protect the supply chain of oil tankers coming from oil wells captured by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The Russian Air Force had been targeting those convoys of tankers, with some success, severely disrupting the flow of cash to ISIS. The Russian response to the shootdown was to publicize that mis-sion and to lay out evidence that the Turkish Government was totally complicit with the ISIS traffic, and therefore was a major component of the success of ISIS itself.
That ISIS has been selling oil from the captured wells since it took them over — literally at the beginning of its occupation of Iraqi, and then Syrian lands — has been well- known since it began. Moreover, it was common knowledge that the oil was being sent across the Turkish border, and that Turkish officials facili-tated this trade. Russia claimed, with some evidence, that Pres. Erdo?an’s third son, Bilal [Necmettin Bilal Erdo?an], 35, was a key manager of this supply chain, and that he and his associates (including his father) were amassing a considerable fortune as a result. Tankers belonging to Bilal’s company, BMZ Ltd., are reported to be transporting the illegal oil to Japan.
In an August 26, 2014, report entitled “Why the Islamic Caliphate May Be the Key to Transforming Re-gional Alliances in the Greater Middle East”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, the oil traffic was reported that ISIS leader [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi “cannot survive without Turkey’s support, both from the initial financial and weapons support, to the long-term logistical support. Some 10 percent of his fighters are reportedly Turkish, and most of his fighters are ‘foreign’ and need to enter his region via Tur-key.
By late August 2014, al- Baghdadi was working to broaden his land ‘border’ with Turkey in order to facili-tate better contact. The ‘caliphate’ needs to export the 800,000 barrels per day of oil production from the wells it captured in Syria and Iraq, and although it must do this through trucks, rather than pipelines, it is hoping for a stable traffic through Turkey, despite United Nations sanctions against the trade. The ‘cali-phate’ may be achieving as much as $3-million per day from illicit oil exports, insufficient to allow it to govern the territory it has seized.” The oil trade has, since then, become far more organized and substan-tially more productive for ISIS and its Turkish partners, but it was clear that US officials have been abso-lutely aware of the traffic — and Ankara’s role in it — since the beginning.
Moreover, as Defense & Foreign Affairs has reported, U.S. intelligence officials have participated actively inside Turkey with MIT in preparing jihadist fighters operating in Syria.2
So it is Moscow’s allegation that the Russian air strikes against the ISIS oil convoys, which threatened both the economics of the ISIS operation and the bank account of the Turkish President, resulting in An-kara’s urgent need to stop the Russian air operations. Given that the scope of the Turkish-ISIS oil piracy — and the breach of United Nations sanctions against ISIS — were well-known to Washington, it was disingenuous of the U.S. State Dept. to claim that it had no knowledge of the oil trade and no belief that the Turkish Government or President was engaged with it, thus making them — Erdo?an and his Gov-ernment — a critical ally of ISIS.
So did Turkey destroy the Su-24 in order to force Russia to cease and desist destroying ISIS’s (and Erdo?an’s) oil trade? Clearly, Turkey has resisted all calls to close its border to ISIS, and has failed to undertake any meaningful military missions against ISIS. Meanwhile, as Russia highlighted (and, again, this was well-known since the beginning of ISIS operations, even before the group became known by that appellation), there is the reality that ISIS fighters are receiving medical treatment in Turkish hospitals, and are receiving weapons via Turkey with the support of Turkish officials (mostly from the Turkish Na-tional Intelligence Service, MIT).
Reports exist, too, that Pres. Erdo?an’s daughter, Sümeyye Erdo?an, runs a secret hospital camp inside Turkey and near the Syrian border to treat wounded ISIS fighters.
Despite the staunch support for Turkey from the U.S. State Dept. and U.S. President Barack Obama (who said that Turkey had the right to defend its airspace), it seems clear that Turkey has embarrassed the U.S. by its posture. Ankara has, if nothing else, succeed in losing the once-strong support it received from the U.S. Congress and media, despite a substantial increase in Turkey’s lobbying expenditures in Washington, DC. President Erdo?an has now made himself a factor in the U.S. Presidential election campaign, at least as far as some of the Republican contenders are concerned.
It is possible that Turkey wanted to protect its illicit linkage with ISIS and, at the same time, drag the U.S. into the belief that it had no option but to support Turkey if it was to prevent Russian southward expan-sion. But it is equally possible that the Turkish action may have proven to be the trigger for Moscow to finally make its move toward a break with Ankara.
There is little prospect that Russia would move precipitously in its response to Turkey; neither would it undertake direct military action unless first attacked on a significant scale by Turkey. Russian President Vladimir Putin made that clear. He began, predictably, with steps designed to make Turkey’s delicate economic situation worse, with real short-term impact. That is underway. Turkey, which already has Rus-sia as its preponderant trading partner, is well aware that Moscow can compound the problem by forcing oil and gas supply lines to begin moving from the Caspian through Georgia to Turkish ports (and on to Europe) through new routes which would avoid letting Turkey benefit from the transit trade in energy. Related: EU Could Break Gazprom’s Business Model
It is probable, then, that now the battle for influence in Georgia will begin to escalate, with Russia, Tur-key, the U.S., and the European Union all engaged. Georgia, potentially, could benefit as the new hub in energy flow to Europe, as the cross-Black Sea tanker route steps in as a short-term alternative to the pipeline trade through Turkey.
Russia’s growing diplomatic, economic, and military links with Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and (perhaps more tenuously) Greece and Cyprus will be brought to bear when possible in the attempt to contain Turkey. More discreetly, Russia will attempt to build a cooperative approach with Iran and the various Kurdish groups, which are equally anxious to punish Turkey but which are historically wary of Moscow.3
Certainly, in the short-term, Turkey will lose much of the $6.5-billion a year it has been getting from Rus-sian tourists. But that is a small component of the total economic exposure.
Turkey, too, will not remain inactive. It will resume its support for anti-Russian terrorism, including support for jihadist movements in the Caucasus. These have included such groups as Kvadrat (Quadrant), a Bos-nia-based Wahhabist unit, which had “laundered” its operations through Turkish-occupied Northern Cy-prus, thence into Turkey and on into the Russian Caucasus.4 But the reactivation of Turkish-backed terror-ism in the Russian Caucasus will be far wider than just Kvadrat: Turkey works extensively, even now, with Chechen and other Caucasus groups inside ISIS and in the jihadi operations in Syria.
Significantly, by early December 2015, President Erdo?an assumed that the crisis had passed sufficient-ly for Turkey to expand its activities in the area. There was no indication that Turkey and ISIS had dimin-ished their extensive and integrated operations in terms of oil transactions, the supply of weapons to ISIS via Turkey, and the use of Turkey as a medical support arena for ISIS wounded. But Turkey went further and deployed Turkish Army troops into northern Iraq near the ISIS-held city of Mosul in early De-cember 2015. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi led calls for Turkish troops to be withdrawn immediate-ly; they had not been withdrawn by the time this report went to press.
Russia then asked the UN Security Council to review Turkish operations in Syria and Iraq. Russia has been cooperating on ISIS-related intelligence matters with the government of Iraq, and has, as well, been helping to supply defense systems to Iraq.
What are Russia’s Retaliatory Options?
Fundamental, almost routine, economic retaliatory steps against Turkey began by Russia immediately after the November 24, 2015, shootdown, but Moscow — as President Putin promised — was not about to be lured into a confrontation which President Erdo?an could use as an excuse to call on NATO sup-port, particularly under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which specifies that an attack on one Alli-ance member would be considered an attack on all. In any event, most NATO states have indicated to Ankara that they would not allow Turkey to drag them into a war with Russia.
The path, however, is open for a great Russian cooperation with the Kurdish forces, as well as with other regional allies which are concerned about Turkey’s strategic adventurism. The Kurds, particularly those led by the majority Kurdish force (under the PKK: Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, the Kurdish Workers’ Par-ty), are now well underway in responding to Ankara. The civil war is underway inside Turkey, and it re-mains literally out-of-bounds to the international media. What is significant is that the Kurds have thus far not agreed to cooperate with Russia, but are awaiting a nod from their principal ally, Israel, before trust-ing Russia.
Thus Israel’s position becomes critical in this debate.
Much of the Israeli leadership still hopes that a rapprochement might be achievable with Turkey, but that hope is fading. On the other hand, Israeli planners have to consider whether a broken Turkey — perhaps replaced by a patchwork of states, and with no non-Arab player other than Iran to monitor the region — is worse than a troublesome Turkey. There is also the question of whether unqualified Israeli support for the Kurdish “big push” against Turkey would then jeopardize Israeli strategic relations with Saudi Arabia, which is apparently undecided on whether, or how much, it favors a continuation of the Turkish state.
Without Turkey, according to the Saudi rationale, who would be the counterweight to Iran?
Israel is also not immune to this argument, although for Israel the prospect exists for an eventual reunion with Tehran, after the clerical leadership goes, or modifies.
So Russia is left with three potential regional allies — apart from Syria, Iraq, and Iran — against Ankara: Greece, Egypt, and Jordan. And Cyprus and Armenia to the limited extent that they can assist.
Egyptian President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi arrived in Athens on December 9, 2015, for three days of talks with Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras to discuss the prospect for a Mediterranean consortium for the joint exploitation of Israeli, Egyptian and Cypriot offshore gas wells. It is almost certain that the subtext of that visit also included ways to limit Turkish engagement in the process, even though Israelis engaged in development of the network of offshore gas fields continue to discuss the prospect of delivering gas onshore at Turkish terminals. The other two prospects are to deliver the gas for processing in Greece or in Egypt.
That is increasingly a non-starter, as with other Russian moves to start limiting oil and gas flows through Turkey, and Russia is offering support for the Mediterranean gasfield developments.
Turkey has begun to escalate still further, attempting to begin constraining Russian maritime and naval traffic through the Bosphorus Straits and Dardanelles by invoking the 1936 Montreux Convention. Ankara has already begun sending up “trial balloons” on this.
Article 20 of the Montreux Convention states that in time of war, if Turkey was a belligerent, the provi-sions of Articles 10 to 18 would not be applicable; the passage of warships would be left entirely to the discretion of the Turkish Government. Article 21 states that should Turkey consider itself to be threatened with imminent danger of war she shall have the right to apply the provisions of Article 20 of the Convention. Related: Oil Industry Cutting Again, But It Still Might Not Be Enough
Articles 10 to 18 are the articles which allow for various states, including Russia, to transit military ships through the straits. In short, if Turkey invoked either Article 20 or Article 21, Russia would be legally blocked from moving any naval vessel through the Straits. If Russia forced a transit, this would be re-garded as an act of war against Turkey. Analyst Mark Langfan, writing in the Israeli website Arutz Sheva on November 30, 2015, noted in the Israeli website Arutz Sheva, that, by Turkey “non-violently” invoking Montreux Article 20 or 21, it could force Russia to act militarily against Turkey. Turkey could, thus, “non- aggressively” force Russia to the “aggressor”.
Moscow has clearly long gamed out this scenario, which accounts for President Putin’s commitment to a measured response to Ankara. Thus it must be a proxy response, for the most part, as well as an eco-nomic one. But while it demonstrates the delicacy needed by Moscow, it also demonstrates the reality that Russia cannot continue to be strategically constrained by an increasingly hostile and ambitious Tur-key.
So where Turkey is vulnerable is in its economy.
The effects of Russian economic embargoes against Turkey are far more significant than would seem to be the case because the Turkish economy is more vulnerable than it has been portrayed. It is far more leveraged with borrowings than at any time in the recent past. It has a discreet outflow of domestic capi-tal and is heavily reliant on discreet financial injections, probably coming from Qatar, and possible Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia’s ability to prop up Turkey is becoming limited.
Russia cannot count on unequivocal support from fellow Orthodox Christian states, such as Greece and Cyprus, or even Bulgaria. But they do have common cause to be wary of Turkey.
So Russia must act cautiously. But the threat from Turkey to use the Montreux Convention to limit Russia makes Russian support for Syria even more important, so that Russia can maintain its naval port status at Latakia, in Syria. Russian investors are also looking to acquire the Greek northern port of Thessaloniki, which is probably to be privatized to meet Greek requirements under its European Union financing deals, but there is no suggestion at this stage that such a move would be a precursor to a Russian naval pres-ence in Greece. That would be a difficult situation for Athens to support at this stage.
There is also the question of the interests of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the region. China’s projection of maritime engagements into the north-western Indian Ocean, including up into the Red Sea in Djibouti, and its recent naval exercises with Egypt (where it has offered to sell advanced Yuan-class submarines) may make it disposed to discuss common interests with Russia. After all, the PRC had hoped to make progress on security issues with Turkey, but these hopes have been dashed by the can-cellation by Turkey of a proposed purchase of PRC air defense units. Turkey has also run hot and cold on proposed membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Nonetheless, while Turkey may not be regarded as an entirely stable partner for the PRC in the region, Beijing would be wary of act-ing precipitously against it.
A PRC company does, however, control much of the Greek port of Piraeus, which it sees as its critical investment in the region, giving it trade access through the container terminal into the European Union marketplace.
All Russian options against Turkey, then, must entail indirect political action as well as direct economic action. Turkey’s membership of NATO, although now being widely questioned by other NATO members, still safeguards Turkey from any major, direct formal military threat, including a direct military attack from Iran. But Iran, too, is both dependent on as well as hostile to Turkey, so Iran — like Russia — is con-strained to act cautiously and indirectly against Turkey. Moreover, Iran cannot risk that its own Kurdish population could join with Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish Kurds to form a new Kurdish state.
For the moment, then, the appearance will be that Turkey has been able to act against Russia with impu-nity. That, however, is short-term, and deceptive. Turkey is losing political support rapidly within the U.S. political establishment and media, although retaining the loyalty of President Barack Obama. But Obama has only a year more in office.
And in Europe, the naked blackmail which Turkey exerted through the push of “Syrian refugees” into the EU, and then demanding political and financial aid to stop the flow of these migrants, has cost Ankara any chance it might have had of entering the EU, even if it still wished to do so. And in the short-term, this all has hardened Ankara’s position on remaining in control of the northern 37 percent of Cyprus, which it has occupied militarily since 1974.
This is going to be a slow conflict, then, one in which Russia will work to ensure a rapid closure to the ability of ISIS to finance operations through its oil trade with Turkey. The Turkish move into the area near Mosul, Iraq, is an attempt to protect DI’ISH’s rear from Russian or Iranian (or proxy) strikes, should that prove to be a next step. There is no doubt that Pres. Erdo?an believes that continued brinkmanship will be possible, although he is not perhaps aware that he is losing the information war, or the psychological war.
All of his actions have continued to isolate Turkey, thus far without adverse ramifications. However, in-creasing security problems at home, coupled with an economic stall, may well transform his situation.
Pres. Putin, on the other hand, is not playing brinkmanship; he is playing the long game. This also has an economic cost to Russia, but there are moves underway by several European states to end the sanc-tions regime against Moscow, and this could provide some compensation.
Whatever happens, however, Russia cannot fail to act against Turkish gatekeeping into the indefinite fu-ture.
By Gregory Copley
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