White Papers

Turkey, NATO and Syria

December 11, 2015

Russia has expanded its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean  and intensified its operations in Syria.  NATO allies are discussing an operation against Daesh. TheUnited States is sending troops to Iraq, and Turkey has already deployed forces in Mosul.  The United Kingdom has opened its air base in Cyprus to France, while Denmark and Germany are preparing to use the Incirlik Air Base. Patriot missiles are once again being deployed on  the Turkish border. The United States has decided to send naval forces to the Eastern Mediterranean. No one pays attention anymore to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,  or to  the competition among the biggest players  in oil and energy, domination of maritime routes, global sea trades or leading the energy markets. Everyone talks about Syria, Russia, and Daesh. Radical groups such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, or Daesh, which do not have  capitals, flags, or addresses, occupy the epicenter of  global perception. Even Russia, which recently joined the massacre, entered Syria using the motto "fight against Daesh/ISIS"

Back in 2013, in a letter to Congressman Eliot Engel of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that is still fresh in our in memories, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey opposed an intervention in Syria with a pragmatic point of view. Likewise, the statements following the recent G20 Summit in Antalya also showed that a settlement between the United States and Russia does not seem very probable.

The West is trying to push Turkey into the Syrian quagmire alone, and the Russians are provoking this, however, the delicate balance of intervention in a broader sense, after a certain time, might go out of kilter. It may be correct to say that "any circumstances following the intervention cannot be worse than Assad's massacring/massacres" but the dysfunction of the international system and its institutions due, most of the time, to local interests cutting off any benefits, should not be ignored.

Unfortunately thinking about the sociological structure and the delicate balance and contemplating military strategies in Syria is not enough to answer whether the circumstances following an intervention  in Syria would drag the country into a sectarian war or not. That probability is an ambiguous process within an intricate complexity that depends on how the calculations and moves of several vital actors including the United States, Russia, Hezbollah, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey will take shape on the ground.

In post-Assad Syria, we do not know yet which parties will ask for what from an emergent Syria that might or might not form after the operation.

The statement "We are afraid of a probable sectarian war" shows Turkey's redline  regarding the future of Syria and the region. It is also a message to the other actors who have plans in the region "to stay away from such an evil trap."

More or less, Obama's statement at the G20 summit was  that deployment of American troops to Syria is not logical. The stance clearly exhibits a strategy that does not aim to end the humanitarian tragedy but is based on whether the new political environment would serve American interests or not. Which brings to mind General Dempsey's letter in which he said that the side that the United States should support is the one  serving United States interests when the balances are settled.

Actually, if everything proceeded in its own way, the limits of  a possible operation in military plans would be valid until the operation starts. After that, the military operation will forcefully drag that army in the direction determined by the new outcomes, and  bounce off  warfare dynamics and balances. No one has given any solid testimony that  whether the United States previously calculated that it would be stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan for ten years and spend three trillion dollars. A historiographic approach shows no strong evidence that the Bush administration had such a projection. Therefore, discussions on limited or comprehensive military operations do not accord with the reality on the ground and military strategy at the battlefront. It cannot be ignored that many risks and uncertainties will form in this process. On the other hand, this should not lead to the idea that "an operation is not valid or necessary." It might change the balance of power throughout the region a great deal, but one should ask whether the region is ready for such a reset or if the US can reset the Middle East. It seems that the United States is neither willing or able. It is quite obvious that neither the Russians nor the Persians would like to see such a reflection on the ground in Syria. But more to the point, Russia is still an ongoing threat to NATO. “A secure and stable Middle East (or the Caucasus or the Balkans) are in American interests” is a statement that does not reflect anything as long as the United States has not committed to an approach that secures its interests. 

Turkey has been shouldering the incredible burden of the civil war in Syria more than any other actor on Earth. So far, none of the great powers, the UN, or NATO allies have givenTurkey any commitments, or tangible support  on this bitter journey and until the refugees started to knock on their doors, the Europeans were not totally enthusiastic in talking about Syria as a human calamity. If NATO has a border with Syria through Turkey  and if Russia is in Syria, after this point it will be perceived as a matter of a NATO-Russia rally on Turkish borders. If the United States has as a project for the 21st century keeping up its global patronage through NATO, then this is a fundamental security vacuum to fill.

Whether Turkey is to intervene in Syria or not, what is important here is that the operation should be equipped with the necessary strategic perceptions, means, and tools so that it can be consistent within itself and it can be saved from being impeded by international institutions. Erdogan has been criticizing the UN system because the structural reality of international organizations is far from capable of serving the international community because it is alienated from  current international  realpolitik and because of its weakness and exhaustion in the face of major incidents. The massacres in Syria have reached this apogee due to the impotent UN system that still functions in accordance with Cold War-era conditions.

Looking at Assad's acts in the last four years, it is easy to draw the conclusion  that taking no action against Assad is much worse than doing something against him. The statement that “the opposition that fights with the Assad regime might not support American interests in case they gain control” in Dempsey's letter shows that Washington has more vital issues and interests than ending the massacre, but after this point nothing can be as egregious as of US mission in NATO’s future and failed implications. Common ground over Syria still cannot be reached, and Assad can continue to shed blood in the 21st century, in which democratic values for the first time have reached the greater part of humanity. 

Is Russia's support for Assad only bound to Syria's vital importance for Russia's imperial strategies? Today, Russia's only military naval base outside of the former USSR borders is in Tartus, Syria. But is Assad's strategic importance and politic asset for Moscow's geopolitical and military strategies in the Middle East so colossal that Russia can afford to take the side of a dictator who restlessly murders his own people? Which one is greater? Or more importantly, Putin has been trying to show his prowess to the World since the 2008 Georgian War to cover up  domestically and abroad Russia’s great geopolitical vulnerability and rotten domestic socioeconomic conditions. Russia is a rotten goliath economically.

On the other hand, Russia's détente with the United States is not an equation that is dependent only on Syria because Russia is trying to fortify its position among other major actors in the international order, where fault lines are just becoming evident, through its involvement in Syria. Russia is proceeding towards a new “Cold War” balance, but Russia, a sick giant that is socioeconomically rotten from inside, is not the old Russia anymore. The race for geopolitical superiority among major actors and the struggle for taking advantage is being tested through international balances and the conflict in Syria.

Therefore, the Syrian issue goes beyond being about itself, Turkey, and the Middle East, and becomes part of a huge equation with so many unknowns. The answer to the question "When will the shedding of blood in Syria  stop?" is "When the United States and Russia reach an agreement on various other front lines"

By downing a Russian jet that violated its airspace, Turkey has claimed that it may easily turn her soft power into a hard power if necessary and that Turkey is not willing to leave Syria either to the US or Russia alone.

On the occasion of the Syrian conflict, so many known and unknown military, geopolitic, energy and economic instruments are being used as subcontractors in the background for  the determination of fault lines in the "Big Game," which encompasses a geography that is much larger than Syria. On the other hand, continuous chaos in the Middle East is beneficial for Russia,  one of the biggest producers of oil and gas in the world, as a way of managing energy politics. An extra dollar the price per barrel of crude oil, due to the chaos in the Middle East, returns to  Russia as billions of dollars in cash. This becomes much more important if we consider that Russia's neighbor Europe is on the edge of bankruptcy and that the global financial crisis is not yet totally over.

In 2012 Hillary Clinton's statement that Russia and China stand on the wrong side of history and her call for  the international community to penalize Russia and China  shows that the game is much bigger than Syria itself and also showcases  the strain in United States-Russian and United States-Chinese relations in  recent years.

But the attitude of the Obama administration in the last two years forces us to ask the same question of the United States. One should ask, is the Obama administration on the correct side of history as it continues to be a spectator to the atrocity in Syria?

Obviously at the current  juncture Russia sees itself as an aggrieved major power  trying to mount its guard against the United States in all regions from Eastern Europe to the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus while Syria is being  serves  as the "carrot". As such, every other party, with Russia being in first place, puts down its poison on Syria.

In the new era, when it comes to the control of energy sources of the world, it might be expected that Russia may control gas and United States the price and supply of oil in the short and the medium run. Russia's creating an impression of approaching China against the US may save the day, but that cannot be successful  in long-term politics. China's deliberate advance on the international stage may disengage China from the US and Russia even more and make the sharing of Eastern Europe and the oil sources of theMiddle East and the Caspian sea more important. It may also make Iran's situation, which is for today a puzzlement. 

Turkey stands at the middle of all of the equations we mentioned above. Erdogan's tough stance against the West in recent years shows that Turkey will not agree to assume a passive mission that will be imposed on it as at the beginning of the Cold War era. It shows that Turkey is engaged in a mission that is wide-ranging and proportional to its historical experiences.

If we take a compass and draw a circle with the center in Turkey, we find the living space of the "Big Game." Turkey's Syrian strategy with respect to the US and Russia may determine the codes of the future of the Middle East and Turkey. If Russia can establish good relations with the new regime in post-Assad Syria, an agreement between the United States and Russia may be possible, allowing Russia  to preserve its political and military privileges in return.

The civil war in Syria, with its multi-platformed structure, would seem to be a litmus test for the upcoming period in determining the sides and missions of all major powers.

Baha ERBAS
THO's Senior Fellow