Turkey’s ‘Bear Trap’ Option in Syria

by | Oct 7, 2015


The two incidents involving Turkey and the Russian aircraft operating in northern Syria on successive days in the weekend throw into bold relief the single most crucial template of the Syrian conflict in the coming months. Turkey happens to be the only regional power that could actually create a “quagmire” for Russia in Syria – similar to the role Pakistan performed in the eighties vis-à-vis the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

Like in the case of Pakistan (which started nurturing Islamist groups in Afghanistan as far back as the early seventies, much before the Soviet intervention), Turkey too has a 3-4 year old nexus with the extremist groups in Syria (including the Islamic State). These Islamist groups hold the potential to be transformed as the famous “Peshawar Seven” of the Afghan jihad in the eighties – provided, of course, Turkish President Recep Erdogan chooses to follow the audacious footsteps of the Pakistani dictator Gen. Zi ul-Haq.

Will he, or won’t he? That is the question that Moscow will be keenly testing out in the weeks and months ahead. Consider the following.

An unnamed Turkish official bragged on Friday that the country’s radar system had “locked on” the Russian aircraft operating in northern Syria. If so, no doubt, it was an unfriendly — and needlessly provocative — act by Turkey. At any rate, the very next day a Russian SU-30 violated the Turkish air space, forcing Ankara to scramble jets. Indeed, Turkey became furious at the loss of face (parliamentary election is due on November 1) and protested to the Russians, who of course promptly clarified that it was all due to “navigational error”.

But then, the very next day, it was the turn of an unidentified MIG-29 to a “lock-on” for over five minutes when two Turkish F-16 were patrolling the border region with Syria. It stands to reason that an early attempt is afoot on both sides to explore the ground rules, so to speak, in the emergent backdrop of the Russian intervention, which phenomenally shifts the balance of forces in Syria.

Clearly, Russia has quietly, firmly signaled that its aircraft will operate all across the Syrian airspace, including the regions close to the Turkish border. Russia has frontally challenged the dictum that Turkey has been unilaterally enforcing so far by threatening to shoot down any Syrian aircraft operating in the Syrian airspace near the Turkish border.

The Turkish dictum had enabled Ankara up until now to ensure that the Syrian rebels could operate with impunity in a significant belt in northern Syria without fear of air attacks by Damascus. Russia is summarily terminating that privilege Ankara enjoyed. Russia is also simultaneously strengthening Syria’s air defence system and a point is reaching when the Turkish air force cannot any longer operate inside the Syrian airspace. In short, the weekend’s incidents have forced Ankara to contend with the new reality that its continued violations of Syria’s territorial integrity will come at a heavy price.

By the way, Israel also is traveling in the same boat as Turkey — clandestinely supporting al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria, launching wanton air attacks on targets deep inside Syria, and systematically wearing down the Syrian state and its sovereignty. Israel too is livid that Russia will apply “red lines” in Syria aimed at squashing Israeli interference in Syrian affairs. Israel is furious with Moscow — like Turkey — but has no option but to fall in line with the Russian ground rules.

Erdogan is visiting Brussels (where NATO headquarters is located) and Paris in what appears to be an effort to rebuild Turkey’s tattered ties with Europe and sound out France on mobilizing an opinion in favor of creating a “safe zone” and “no fly zone” inside Syria. Turkey will not confront Russia on its own and any Turkish move to counter Moscow’s build-up in Syria will only be within the overall framework of a western move to strategically counter Moscow’s growing profile in the Middle East.

Thus, much depends on the US stance. From present indications, President Barack Obama would rather focus American resources and energy on the key issues at hand in the Greater Middle East – fight against the IS and the Afghan problem. Europe, too, cannot afford to plunge into a “great game” spirit over Syria, as the refugee flow at its doorstep forewarns that the negative fallouts of a protracted Syrian conflict are very serious. Arguably, Europe has an overarching convergence of security interests with Russia in the latter’s campaign to degrade and destroy the IS and other extremist groups operating in Syria.

In sum, an Afghanistan-type quagmire scenario is unlikely to develop in Syria for the Russians. During the Cold War, US brilliantly succeeded in pitting radical Islam against communism. Today, however, Russia enjoys diversified ties with the Muslim Middle East. The Russian diplomacy has been particularly active in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the Gulf region as well as in Cairo and Amman. Egypt and Jordan have distinctly edged closer to Russia on the Syrian question.

Conversely, Moscow’s close ties with the Syrian Kurdish leadership (which supports the PKK’s separatist movement inside Turkey) will act as a deterrent against Ankara setting up a bear trap in Syria. Suffice it to say, fueling insurgency is a game that both Turkey and Russia can play. (Read a brilliant interview by an old friend Amberin Zaman with the Syrian Kurdish leader Salih Muslim, which brings out the “wheels within wheels” of Turkey’s Kurdish problem.)

Simply put, if yet another Kurdistan takes shape in Syria (alongside the one already existing in northern Iraq), it would inevitably blur the sanctity and inviolability of Turkey’s established borders to the south and make them look somewhat like the Durand Line separating Pakistan from Afghanistan – a lawless no-man’s land that is condemned to remain a dagger forever aimed at Turkey’s heart.

Erdogan’s priority will be to ensure that Turkey regains a place at the high table if a Syrian peace process picks up. Erdogan will try its best to forestall the emergence of yet another Kurdish entity in its neighborhood, which is a fast-emerging scenario already. Ankara’s main challenge lies in persuading Russia and the US to rein in the aspirations of the Syrian Kurds for regional autonomy in northern Syria as quid pro quo for their robust participation as Washington and Moscow’s foot soldiers in the war against the IS.

At the end of the day, therefore, Erdogan will begin talking with the Kremlin. Actually, the conversation never really ended. His equation with the Russian leader at the personal level is something he can still count on. Vladimir Putin too has taken great pains to encourage Erdogan’s “Look East” policies. Unlike the western powers, Russia has never been prescriptive about Turkey’s domestic politics. If Erdogan manages to win the November election and succeeds in switching Turkey to a presidential system, Putin will only congratulate him and possibly even draw satisfaction that he has a friend in Ankara who is likely to be a life-time executive president with whom he can do business to great mutual benefit.

Reprinted with permission from Indian Punchline blog.


  • Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

    Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.

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