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Recep Erdogan in a Russian Minefield

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Analysts, journalists and bloggers love to compare the Russian and Turkish leaders. And to be fair, there are a number of obvious parallels between the two. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, like Vladimir Putin, is not exactly enamoured with Western liberal principles and has become disillusioned with his country’s experience of cooperation with Europe. Both preach “traditional values,” rely on the so-called “Deep People” and call for a “religious revival.” Both staunchly defend their positions on the international stage and have no qualms about challenging their many external critics and, where necessary, going against the dominant global attitudes and trends.

The fact that the two have almost identical ideologies, carry themselves in a similar fashion and quite obviously share the same view of the modern world and where it is heading should in itself contribute to a rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara. What is more, Russia and Turkey objectively have many common or converging interests. The two countries complement each other quite successfully in a variety of areas — from energy to tourism, from transport and logistics to military-technical advancements, etc.

That said, bilateral relations remain fragile and inconsistent. Russia and Turkey are at the same time companions and competitors. In some cases, they are even direct opponents. Putin and Erdogan do not exactly trust each other, although, in general, they do not tend to trust any of their foreign partners. Periodic frictions, disputes and misunderstandings between Moscow and Ankara are actively exploited by third countries, many of which have no interest in the on-off interaction between Russia and Turkey turning into a strategic partnership.

The fragility of this interaction was laid bare for all to see five years ago following the downing of the Russian Su-24 on the Turkey–Syria border. For a moment, it looked like Russia and Turkey were about to go to war, and it was roughly six months before the sides were more or less on the same page again. A similar situation arose on the ground in Syria early this year, when Ankara accused Moscow of being directly involved in the deaths of dozens of Turkish soldiers in the Idlib Governorate.

In both cases, the sides found the political will to stop before the line in the sand had been crossed, preventing the situation from spiralling out of control and bringing all manner of unwanted consequences. Unfortunately, Turkey–Russia relations could easily veer off course at any time. The logic and dynamics of Turkey’s current foreign policy continue to place Erdogan in the middle of a minefield, where any step could prove fatal for his relations with Vladimir Putin. And the mines on this particular field vary greatly — in terms of their design, their charge and the way they have been camouflaged — but any of them could lead to an unintended escalation and permanently damage relations between Ankara and Moscow. Let us look at some of the foreign policy steps the Turkish leadership could take that would most likely open up a giant rift in Ankara’s relations with Moscow.

Intervention in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It should come as no surprise that Ankara has firmly and unequivocally supported Baku throughout the three decades of the Armenia–Azerbaijan confrontation. But it is one thing to offer political and diplomatic support to an ally in a frozen conflict, and it is another thing entirely to provide large-scale military assistance at the height of armed hostilities. This kind of assistance shifts the balance of power of the warring parties dramatically, gives Azerbaijan false hope that the Nagorno-Karabakh can be resolved quickly through military means and, as a result, makes the signing of any peace agreement that much more difficult.

Escalation in Libya. Turkey has been one of the main foreign actors in the Libyan Civil War from the very beginning. It was Turkish intervention that prevented Marshal Khalifa Haftar from capturing Tripoli. But if Ankara continues to internationalize the Libyan conflict by building up its own military presence in the country, helping Fayez al-Sarraj’s forces achieve a decisive victory over his many opponents in the eastern and southern regions, then it will face increasingly serious problems. And not only with Russia, but also with a number of other countries that are involved in the Libyan crisis in one way or another, from Egypt to France.

Pandering to terrorists in Idlib. Turkey’s obligations under the Sochi agreements on Idlib were to ensure the withdrawal of terrorist groups and heavy arms from the buffer zone. Two years later, and Ankara has failed to keep its end of the deal. Any hopes that Turkey would be able to somehow “rehabilitate” or at least “restrain” the Islamic fundamentalists in Idlib soon dissipated. If the terrorists, buffered by the Turkish presence in Idlib, use this territory as a base for launching active operations against Bashar Assad’s forces and the Russian military infrastructure in Syria, then it is only a matter of time until a new crisis between Russia and Turkey breaks out.

Operations against the Kurds in Northern Syria. Unsurprisingly, Russia and Turkey have different attitudes towards the Syrian Kurds and the role they would like to see them play in the country’s future. Thus far, Ankara and Moscow have managed to avoid problems on this issue by “agreeing to disagree.” However, if Turkey launches a new large-scale operation against the Kurds in Northern Syria, this will inevitably lead to the Kurds forming an alliance with the Syrian government, which Moscow would no doubt support (and perhaps even encourage). This could result in a direct clash between Damascus and Ankara in Northern Syria, with all the negative consequences this would entail for Russia–Turkey relations.

An aggravation of the confrontation with Greece. Relations between Russia and Greece are somewhat troubled at the moment. Despite this, it is extremely unlikely that Moscow would take Ankara’s side in Turkey’s current territorial dispute with Greece. All the more so because, in the present situation regarding the delimitation of economic zones in the Mediterranean, Turkey is pitted not only against Greece but also against virtually all of Russia’s partners and friends in the Eastern Mediterranean. The “Greek issue,” compounded by Turkey’s activity in Libya (which makes Moscow uneasy), could trigger a new crisis in Russia–Turkey relations.

Expansion of military-technical cooperation with Ukraine. Russia and Turkey have always had fundamentally different views on Ukraine and Crimea, especially since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014. One way or another, Moscow has had to come to terms with the fact that Ankara does not recognize Crimea as a part of Russia and will not give up its claims to the role of “protector” of the Crimean Tatars. However, the ongoing expansion of military and political cooperation between Ankara and Kiev — particularly the supply of cutting-edge Turkish drones that Kiev can use in the East of the country — could be a thorn in the side of Moscow. Turkey’s attempts to lobby Ukrainian interests within NATO will be an equally sore point.

The aggressive promotion of Pan-Turkism in Russia. Fears about the possibility of Turkism “penetrating” into the predominantly Muslim and Turkic-speaking regions of the North Caucasus and the Volga Region have never completely disappeared among the Russian leadership. However, these fears have been compounded by the noticeable increase in the role of Islam in Erdogan’s domestic policies (one illustration of this is the recent change of status of the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in Istanbul). Many in Russia believe that Turkey is moving further and further away from Kemal Atatürk’s principles of a secular state, meaning that Ankara’s promotion of Pan-Turkism will be increasingly intertwined with the promotion of political Islam. This will pose a direct challenge to Russia’s national security and even its territorial unity

The above points do not mean that Recep Erdogan is the only one treading a minefield. Vladimir Putin is himself standing in the middle of a foreign policy minefield with regard to Turkey. There is little doubt that any Turkish politician or international relations expert worth their salt could respond to Moscow’s list of grievances against Ankara with an even longer list of Turkish grievances against Russia. And these are claims that cannot simply be swept under the carpet. Russia, it must be said, has not always approached Turkey’s basic interests on the international stage with due understanding, delicacy and tact.

It is true that there are influential anti-Russian forces within the Turkish elites who are intent on turning public opinion against Moscow. But at the same time, there is no shortage of groups in Russia that do not want to see a rapprochement with Ankara and thus try to fan the flames of the traditional anti-Turkish sentiments and prejudices, which have never gone away. Overly simplified and negative perceptions of the other side as the embodiment of social anarchy, failed economic modernization and political regression dominate in liberal circles in Russia and Turkey.

There is something for diplomats, military leaders, independent analysts and civil activists alike to think about here. Whatever the case may be, the stakes in the Russia–Turkey game are extremely high — not only for Russia and Turkey, but also for a number of nearby regions where Moscow and Ankara promote their often-opposing interests, particularly Central Asia and Northern Africa.

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

Erdogan punches above his weight

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Since months Turkish Lira losing its value and inflation is on the rise, the statistics shows that inflation increased from 8 percent by 17 percent and still climbs. According to the National Statistics Institute-Tüik, inflation jumped by 14.6 since 2020 and 17.84 % from the time when 2019. Turks have lost their reliance on Lira, so that people purchase foreign currency or gold, which in turn caused unemployment and capital fight. When venture capitalists avoid investing, it sparks unemployment subsequently, redundancy brings about less money spending and capital flow, ultimately, poverty and depression takes place.

Erdogan attempted to fix the issue thru his monetary policy and fiscal measures, and he even reshuffled national financial institutions.  Erdogan sacked finance minister and head of central bank in hope of deflation and economic recovery.

In order to ameliorate country’s Real GDP, Erdogan raised the prime interest rate, doubled gold reserves and began to sell collaterals. Despite Erdogan’s monetary measures, Turkish quarterly Nominal GDP signifies price increase and inflation escalation. One has better find the root cause for the economic stagnation in Turkey, in precise sluggish economic developments have not been effected due to fiscal policy, rather Erdogan’s politically motivated foreign and interior ambitious policies.

Erdogan’s imperialistic political ideology to ottomanize the world has had backlashes, as result most of the regional countries have distanced themselves from Turkey. In order to sponsor such a dogma, Ankara signed an agreement with Moscow to run Turk-stream a natural gas pipeline. Moreover, Erdogan’s Ankara launched drilling in offshores of Greek and Cyprus, and signed an exclusive agreement with Tripolis’ leadership to get access to the oilfield and natural resources of the country, which nurtured a possible full-scale war between Athens and Ankara.  Meanwhile, Erdogan’s ambitions caused anger within European Union’s leaders, who warned Turkey with penalties and sanctions.  Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 missile system form Russia not only infuriated its traditional ally the United States but also annoyed its fellows within the NATO club. In the aftermath of the purchase, Trump’s administration sanctioned Turkey on 14 December 2020, Ankara was dropped from F35 stealth fighters’ project, and the decades-long history of productive defense cooperation between the countries demised. 

Erdogan has joined Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, and he recently signed an extradition covenant to deport Uyghurs and Beijing’s criticizers to China, whereby they face death penalties and capital punishment. Erdogan’s sponsorship of Turkish enunciated minorities not only defamed Turkey in Afghanistan, but also in most of east European countries.

Turkey’s military and financial support to HAMAS (Palestinian Radica Islamic Movement) exasperated Israel, which has been in turn counter-productive, triggering face-off between Ankara and Jerusalem. Turkish military intervention in both Azerbaijan and Libya led adversary between Ankara and Moscow. Erdogan’s fundamental Islamic hegemony (Muslim Brotherhood) instigated rift between Ankara and Riad and its allies, who sponsor the ideal of Salafism, consequently, most of the gulf countries removed Turkish products from their ranges and excessively complicated Ankara’s access to the regional markets. Ankara has recently agreed to finance and train Pakistan’s backed mercenaries and militants in Kashmir to fight Indian army in the region, which put Ankara at diplomatic, political and economic standoff with New Delhi.

Erdogan’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt ramified Ankara from Cairo, which minimizes Turkish entree to Suez-Canal. Accordingly, Erdogan has drawn a political, military and economic buffer zone all around the country.

If we put all pieces together, it will eventuate a conclusion that Erdogan punches above his weight. Erdogan’s monetary policy and populistic dogma cannot handle Turkey’s grimy economic situation and inflation, relatively a profound strategic shift in policy within internal and external realms of the country can rescue Ankara from total collapse. 

Additionally, thru populist rhetoric and national-populism, he hits below the belt.  Since Turkish lethargic economy cannot bear the burden of neo-ottmanism and tans-national Islamic fundamentalism as well as cross-border terrorism. 

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Can Syria be reborn from the ruins after a decade of civil war?

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According to the data from the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” (a non-governmental organization based in London), in 2020 – after ten years of civil war – “only” 6,800 people were killed in Syria, the lowest figure since 2011.

In this long and bloody decade a total of 387,000 people died, of whom 117,000 were innocent civilians, victims of a war that began with a student protest and, in a short time, turned into a small “world war” that saw Turkish, Iranian, Russian and American forces in the field, besides the “local” contenders, namely Bashar al-Assad’s loyalist army and the various indigenous militias, ranging from the Kurds in the North-East to the jihadist militiamen of various complexion or background.

 Considering the importance of Syria in the Middle East and in Mediterranean’s and North Africa’s equilibria, before analysing the possible developments of the geopolitical situation triggered by the conflict, it may be useful to go over the five phases in which the Syrian war unfolded, which turned out to be the most explosive and bloody consequence of the entire phenomenon of the so-called “Arab Springs”.

The first phase, in March 2011, was triggered by a demonstration of students in Deraa who, on the wave of the first protests in Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets to demand the democratization of Assad’s regime, based on an Alawite leadership (a minority sect of Shi’ite origin) that for over forty years had been in power in a country where the Sunnis, traditional enemies of the Shi’ites, accounted for 65% of the population – as is still currently the case.

The police repression of student demonstrations was extremely harsh and, also thanks to a skilful information and disinformation campaign by Al Jazeera – the Qatari TV channel which is a master in defending the interests of the “Muslim Brotherhood” protected and supported by the Qatari Emir – the protests quickly spread throughout the country, while Assad’s forces tried to control them with the military iron fist.

Soon what looked like a re-edition of the French 1968 protest movements in Arab guise turned into a full-blown civil war.

 In early 2012 there was the second phase of the crisis. The street protests turned into armed conflict due to the fact that better armed and better organized militias took the field, thanks to weapons and money from Qatar and Erdogan’s Turkey.

While the Syrian regime began to lose control of strategic territories in the North and in the South of the country, ceding the city of Aleppo to the insurgents, Iran – worried about the fate of the regime and the Alawite minority – had the Shi’ite militias of Hezbollah intervene in the conflict, from the neighbouring Lebanon, as well as “military advisers” from the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” a powerful paramilitary organization created by the Ayatollahs to defend Iran’s interests abroad and the internal stability of the theocratic Republic.

In the spring of 2013, the Syrian regime appeared to be on the verge of collapse but, thanks to the Iranian help, it managed to maintain control of the capital and the strategic ports of Latakia and Tartus, in which a strong Russian naval presence was “hosted”.

The third phase marked the internationalization of the conflict, with the emergence of ISIS and the American and Turkish intervention.

 In June 2014, faced with the total marginalization of the Sunni minority by the Shi’ite majority in Iraq, a Sunni political-military group composed of former Iraqi members of Saddam Hussein’s regime decided to establish the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”, a jihadist military organization aimed at building a new Sunni nation sitting astride two States considered “bastard” because they were conceived by Anglo-French colonialism.

The armed forces of ISIS, under the leadership of the “Caliph” Al Baghdadi, quickly conquered the city of Raqqa and territories in the North-East on the borders with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, and initially thanks to the Turkish help they threatened to exterminate the Syrian Kurdish population and establish a bloody terror regime in the conquered areas.

The threat of ISIS led to the first American intervention, with targeted bombings in defence of the Kurds, while Turkey supported not only the Caliphate but also the creation of Sunni militias gathered under the name of “Jabhat Al Nusra”, that progressively reduced the control of the Syrian territory by the loyalist forces faithful to Damascus.

The fourth phase of the conflict started in 2015. The fate of Assad’s regime seemed doomed: the Damascus army did not even control the entire capital; the international isolation of the regime was almost absolute and the Sunni forces of ISIS and Al Nusra seemed destined to a victory that would deliver Syria to the fundamentalists and bring back to the centre of the Middle East scene a neo-Ottoman Turkey whose leader, Tayyip Recep Erdogan, pursued  the dual goal of definitively cutting Kurdish irredentism down to size and ensuring Turkey the role of centre of gravity in the whole region.

At that juncture Russia directly entered the field with its own air force, siding with the Iranian forces deployed in defence of Assad, thus turning the tide of an increasingly confused and bloody conflict.

In the fifth and final phase of the Syrian war, thanks to the Russian military support, which almost led to a direct clash between Russian and Turkish forces, the Syrian armed forces not only regained total control of the capital but also of all the cities that had fallen under the control of ISIS and its allies, ranging from Aleppo to Raqqa, at the time reduced to a heap of rubble as a result of street fighting and Russian and American bombings.

The final conquest of Deraa – the symbolic city of the civil war – by Assad’s military forces at the end of 2018 marked the end of Sunnis’ and their internal and external supporters’ hopes to overthrow the secular Alawite regime in Damascus. However, as the 6,800 deaths in 2020 show, Syria cannot be considered pacified.

The Syrian civil war had significant impacts throughout the Middle East and Europe.

Over 3 million refugees poured into Turkey, the Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Some of them arrived also in Europe via Greece, while Erdogan was “convinced” – with a donation of 7 billion euros- initially to curb and later to stop the flow of Syrian migrants to Europe.

 Currently Syria is a country in ruins which, however, remains fundamental for the Middle East equilibria.

The role played so far in the conflict by Russia, Iran and Turkey and, albeit marginally, by the United States and Israel, shows that what appeared to be the “Arab Spring” in Damascus, was indeed an attempt to exploit the international unpopularity of Assad’s regime to alter the regional balance in favour of Turkey, Qatar and the most reactionary Sunnis.

 Despite the Turkish military backlash that, in 2019, attempted to definitively eliminate the Kurdish threat from its borders by seizing Syrian territories, currently Syria is gradually integrating again into the Arab world.

It is a world that survived the impact of false “Arab Springs” which, badly analysed by a short-sighted and superficial West, were not initially understood in their most realistic sense, i.e. a well-orchestrated attempt by the most reactionary part of political Islam to overthrow the secular governments of the Arab-Muslim world.

Thanks to the efforts of Al Sisi’s Egypt, Syria is back again in the Arab League and has progressively resumed diplomatic relations with most Arab nations. With its support for Assad, Egypt is trying to curb the strong Iranian presence in the region and the unscrupulous activism of Turkish President Erdogan, who still dreams of becoming the “dominus” of the region.

The worst part of the Syrian war has come to an end. The Caliphate has been defeated militarily, but it still controls some parts of territory in the North-East of the country and is still able to carry out sporadic attacks against the regular armed forces.

Turkey remains a threat to the stability of Syria, a half-destroyed country, with a collapsing economy as a result of the U.S. sanctions and the Covid 19 pandemic.

Egypt, the Gulf States and Russia are working to bring Syria’s relations with the rest of the world back to normalcy, thus taking the first steps in the process of physically rebuilding a country in ruins. China and North Korea are also players in the game – a game that, in the future, will have important positive economic repercussions for the protagonists of the process.

For the time being, Europe and the United States have a wait-and-see attitude and are satisfied with maintaining a system of indiscriminate sanctions that have negative effects not on the stability of the regime, but on the well-being of its citizens.

After a decade of war, Syria has the right to peace and reconstruction – a complex process at which Europe should look with pragmatism and rationality, recalling the statement by Henry Kissinger that “in the Middle East there can be no peace without Syria”.

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Maritime Border Dispute: The South Lebanon Crisis

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The Middle Eastern region has been riddled with crisis and disputes for centuries yet only a few seem to make their way out of an endless war. One such instance is making its way to the map as aged rivals: Lebanon and Israel, are inching their way to a possible resolution to a meddling dispute spanning decades. The two countries have been formally at war with each other since the Arb-Israel conflict initially sparked after the establishment of Israel post Holocaust in 1947-48. Though the official position has not deterred much since then, Lebanese representation states that a ‘framework’ has been devised under the eye of The United Nations (UN) while Israel’s energy minister Yuval Steinitz confirmed that the talks over the maritime dispute would initiate soon after being deterred since October 2020. The significance of these talks could only be deciphered once you realise the backdrop leading to such complex relations.

Both Lebanon and Israel are Middle Eastern countries located to the western periphery of Asia. Lebanon, officially known as the Lebanese Republic, shares a border with Syria to the north and east while meets Israel in the south. The two countries share no border on land and have overlapping borders in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which stems the basis of the conflict. The disputed region is cited by experts as rich with lucrative energy reserves. Back in 2011, Israel discovered two gas fields in the region as the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu stated that, “The state enjoys exclusive economic rights including the right to exploit sea’s natural resources”. Lebanon on the other hand is not economically upright relative to Israel and could reap immense benefits from the resourceful region.

As Lebanon and Israel share no defined border on land, it makes it significantly difficult to draw a justifiable demarcation to the maritime. The current boundary, known as the ‘Blue Line’, was drawn by the UN after, almost 22 years of occupation, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon back in 2000.

The region is the most sensitive region between the two countries as it has often been deemed as the ‘Tensest Frontier’ of the region. Historical facets make this fact even more apparent since Israeli forces have met thorough resistance over decades in this very perimeter from the Lebanese army and the Shia militant group, its arch-rival, Hezbollah. The deadliest conflict struck between the duo back in 2006 when Israeli forces clashed with Hezbollah over the blue line frontier. A month-long war resulted in 1190 casualties on the Lebanese side whilst 163 Israeli soldiers were rendered dead in the sea. A recent skirmish came about only 3 months back in July when Lebanese border again quivered with ammunition. A set-up attack sparked when a Hezbollah cell comprising of heavy artillery throttled the Israeli forces. The responsibility of the attack was never accepted by Hezbollah, but the incident was cited as a revenge operation over the assassination of a Hezbollah fighter due to an Israeli airstrike in Damascus mid-July.

Despite the nations being on rough patch, both militaristically and diplomatically, both have showed positive signs to resolve the dispute once and for all. Israel has been under pressure over the growing tensions as the normalisation of relations with UAE, Bahrain and Morocco came about. While, Lebanon is still reeling with the catastrophe struck by the blast in Beirut and subsequent resignation of the government. Although Lebanon refused to directly negotiate the talks with the Israeli representatives, the UN still welcomed this step toward the much-awaited talks as a ‘Historic Agreement’. However, the talks stalled after the fourth round left some dents in the position of either parties. Israel’s Energy Minister, Yuval Steinitz accused Lebanon of changing, in fact, contradicting its position on the borders seven times, stating that “Lebanon’s position during the fourth round of negotiations not only contradicts its previous positions, but also contradicts Lebanon’s position regarding the maritime borders with Syria, which takes the Lebanese island near the borders into consideration,”

The fifth round of the talks was deferred just hours before the scheduled meeting, casting a gloom over the optimism shown by the UN. After 3 years of dedicated mediation, UN presumes these talks to pave a way towards a conclusive end to the dispute and beginning of development of natural resources for the benefit of all people of the region.

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