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Centre of Business Development and Strategic Management|01 Mart 2016 Tuesday

Incek Debates Discussed Turkey-Russia Crisis

21. Yüzyıl Türkiye Enstitüsü tarafından yazıldı.

Insight, Incek Debates         

‘How to contain Turkey-Russia Crisis?’

 

The Incek Debates, on 25 February 2016, discussed the question of ‘How to contain Turkey-Russia crisis’ with participation, as speakers, by former MP, Ambassador Dr. Onur Öymen, Prof. Dr. Hasan Ali Karasar of Atılım University and Dr. BG (Ret’d) Oktay Bingöl of Başkent University. The debate was chaired by Dr. Haldun Solmaztürk, Director of 21. Century Turkey Institute, and participated by a select group of experts as well as a widely international representation from the diplomatic corps resident in Ankara. Below is a rapporteur’s summary of the outcome of the debate, not necessarily reflecting particular viewpoints expressed by any one of the debaters, nor those of any one or all of the participants in consensus. The debate was held under the Chatham House Rule.

 

Executive Summary

Turkey and Russia has a common history which extends over a long period of time and replete with tensions, conflicts and wars. However there have been also peaceful times, during which the two countries maintained good-neighbourly and friendly relations. The most prominent of such periods was the time of the Turkish War of Independence. Although Russia’s gradual intervention and reestablishing itself in Syria soured the relations, the SU-24  incident in November 2015—the day before Mr. Lavrov’s planned visit to Ankara—was followed by a rapid political escalation, military stand-off, embargoes and sanctions, and fiery political rhetoric.

For some analysts, this was an accident, based on a decision made and executed on the spot, at the tactical level, not necessarily authorised by the higher Turkish military or political authorities. However, it was argued, such an incident was structurally and contextually almost unavoidable and it was an outcome rather than the cause of a long-building escalation—military, political as well as psychological. In the aftermath, Russia did firmly establish itself in Syria, militarily and politically, and gained an enhanced international legitimacy and even stronger voice in Syrian affairs while Turkey was almost completely sidelined and disengaged from developments in Syria.

The most puzzling aspect of the whole episode has been to explain the Turkish government’s perceived erratic political behavior, reflected in inconsistent and even contradictory statements by leading Turkish officials, fluctuating between conciliation, rapprochement and outright defiance, even threat, back and forth. There is a general consensus that, for regional security and stability the crisis between Turkey and Russia should first be contained and then be resolved, and to this end, a fundamental change in Turkey’s Syria policy is a must.

Some argue that it is too late for a policy change and the only thing Turkey can do now is damage control. But, if Turkey considers an autonomous—if not independent—Kurdish entity in Northern Syria a ‘threat’ which can only be avoided by maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria within its current borders, and if this is also the main objective of Russia—which seems evident—then there is a sound strategic ground for cooperation, hence reconciliation.

Turkey has to reconsider its Syria policy in the light of the recent developments. Bearing in mind the feud-like positions leaders set themselves in, and already failed initiatives for mediation, Track 2 diplomacy supported by Track 3 measures may be the only available way ahead to contain and de-escalate the crisis, and for slowly paving the way for Track 1 to join. This is not easy nor its outcome is certain, but it has to be attempted.

 

World Economic Forum listed ‘Large scale involuntary migration’ and ‘Interstateconflict with regional consequences’ among the top 5 risks in 2016. According to International Crisis Group, ‘Syria & Iraq’ is the No 1 conflict to watch, followed by ‘Turkey’. Yet, Turkey’s Erdogan is included in the list of ‘Unpredictable leaders’ (along with Russia’s Putin, Saudi Arabia’s bin Salman and Ukraine’s Poroshenko) and ‘Turkey’ as a whole is one of the top 10 risks identified by Eurasia Group. These lists and their content can be challenged on various grounds, but it would be difficult to reject them entirely. Turkey is faced with many and serious risks and itself represents risks for the region and beyond. A conflict with Russia was certainly not needed and should have been avoided; however it did happen and now it is time for some reflection.

 

History

 

Turkey and Russia has a common history which extends over a long period of time and replete with tensions, conflicts and wars. Russia traditionally supported nationalistic—and religious—movements in the Balkans throughout the 19th Century at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. It demanded military bases in the Turkish Straits and territorial consessions from Turkey on the Caucasian border, immediately after the II World War, in 1946. However there have been also peaceful times, during which the two countries maintained good-neighbourly and friendly relations. The most prominent of such periods was the time of the Turkish War of Independence following the I World War and occupation of Turkey by the ‘Western’ Allies based on the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. Even during the Cold War, after Turkey became a NATO member in 1952, they maintained a balanced accord and mutual respect despite the fact that they were in opposite camps of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union substantially contributed to Turkey’s economic development, a NATO member. Nevertheless, Turkey (and the ottoman Empire before) has always been influenced by the rivalries between great powers.

 

What happened?

 

Following the end of the Cold War, bilateral relations between the two countries witnessed a new positive era, unprecedented in history, in the context of Black Sea Cooperation, Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, Open Skies Treaty, improved trade, tourism, business investments, academic education, transportation, cooperation in energy sector etc. Defense against terrorism was recently added to this long list. Although Russia’s gradual intervention and reestablishing itself in Syria soured the relations, when the Russian SU-24 was shot down by Turkish F-16s in November 2015, this came as a shock. This incident was followed by a rapid political escalation, military stand-off, large-scale embargoes—imposed particularly by Russia—sanctions and fiery political rhetoric.  

 

Why did this happen?

 

There have been various and sharply different readings of this incident:

 

For some analysts, this was an accident, based on a decision made and executed on the spot, at the tactical level, not necessarily authorised by the higher Turkish military or political authorities. However, it was argued that long-standing rules of engagement which were in force since the start of the Syrian civil war and—mistakenly—were not revised despite the drastic changes in the operational environment, did contribute to this unintended and unforeseen outcome. This, it was argued, made such an incident structurally and contextually almost unavoidable. ….

Full report is available for 21. Century Turkey Institute Members.

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