Putin, Erdogan and the infinite Middle East


The talks between the Russian and Turkish presidents in Moscow ended with the surrender by the Turks of even more serious positions than might have been originally assumed. It was clear that no one would withdraw the Syrian troops at the positions of October-November 2019. It was also clear that Damascus would not give up control of the M-5 highway.

But the creation of a security zone around the M-4 highway and its joint patrolling could only be considered as a very demanding position (so that there was something to concede during the negotiations). In the end, the Syrian troops are still relatively (by local standards) far from the M-4 highway, and the course of hostilities over the past week has not given hope for major breakthroughs. There was a stubborn encounter battle in which both sides suffered serious losses in people and equipment and should have been exhausted soon (all the more so since the Syrian army has been nonstop attacking for three months now).

Nevertheless, the Turks conceded. They conceded, although they cannot but understand, that the application of the “Sochi principle”: “you could not unblock the route, therefore we captured half-Idlib,” is more than likely to the situation with the M-4 highway. Assad is determined to liberate all Idlib. Russia supports him in this. Turkey has no formal reason to keep an army on Syrian territory. After this surrender, it will be much more difficult for Ankara to arrange another crisis.

Actually, already in the course of this crisis, Russia showed tremendous indifference to the Turkish threats. It is understandable. If Turkey wanted to fight, this should have been done in 2015. Then a large territory of Syria was controlled by various kinds of militants. Assad’s troops with difficulty kept separate cities and communications between them (and even then, militants constantly broke through to the highways). The Syrian army was weak and stretched, and the Russian group [of forces] has not yet completed concentration. Under these conditions, the Turkish offensive had some chances, if not victory, then compromise peace — the war would be too difficult for Russia.

In the current conditions, when Turkey got naughty, being pressed to the border, and Assad, in fact, had no other fronts, Ankara is not beneficial to fight. Moreover, she has unfinished military crises in Libya, Iraq and Rojava.

And yet, I repeat, Turkey gave too much, even for its current (far from brilliant) position. In the end, Ankara knew that Russia also did not want a direct conflict with Turkey and would not bring the matter to a break. That is, a compromise could be more favorable for Turkey.

But if one is losing in something, then in something else he must gain. Especially if the losses are in the nature of an unforced concession. What could Turkey find during the negotiations if it agreed to rather harsh conditions that Erdogan had yet to “sell” in the domestic Turkish political market (which would be far from simple)?

I think the answer should be sought in what brings us together. In the Middle East, there are three main regional leaders claiming hegemony in the region. These are Turkey, Iran and Israel. All states are not Arab, and Israel is also not Islamic. Everyone in the Arab world is seriously suspicious of them. Arabs prefer not to let any of them seriously strengthen.

Until the beginning of the XXI century, the greatest fears among the Arabs were caused by the Turkish-Israeli informal alliance, which also relied on the United States and NATO. But at the beginning of the century, this alliance broke up, and Israel began to partner with Saudi Arabia (he also got into the Syrian crisis in company with Riyadh). Turkey made an attempt to play an independent role, as a result of which it became involved in all Middle Eastern crises, without a single ally. Iran, in the tough confrontation between the United States and its allied Saudi Arabia and Israel, managed to strengthen its position by establishing partial control over Iraq, but they (positions) remained deeply vulnerable. The [possible] loss in Syria led to the unambiguous transfer of hostilities to Iranian territory.

As one can see, three potential regional hegemons are involved in the Syrian crisis, and for each of them a loss in this crisis entails serious costs. The arrival of Russia in Syria made Assad’s victory inevitable, and therefore strengthened the position of Iran.

But Russia does not at all need Iran that reigns over the entire Middle East, multiplying by zero all its geopolitical opponents. In this case, Iran will not need an alliance with Moscow at all, and the contradictions between us are enough for Tehran to begin to pursue an unfriendly policy towards Russia, forcing it out of the Middle East and creating [us] problems in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Thus, Russia needs that, after the Syrian crisis, which will be resolved by Assad’s unequivocal victory, Turkey, like Israel, retained their regional potential. In this case, since the contradictions in the Turkey-Iran-Israel triangle are always stronger than the contradictions of any of these states with Russia, Moscow can play the role of an arbiter and guarantor of stability in the region that is comfortable for her. The only thing that prevented the rapid creation of such a structure was the unpreparedness of Turkey and Israel for compromises. Ankara wanted to permanently retain the “security zone” in the north of Syria, and Israel completely refuses to even discuss the possibility of returning the Golan Heights to Syria.

It seems that in Moscow, we managed to agree with the Turks precisely on strategic cooperation in the entire Middle East. They unconditionally surrender their positions in Syria, but they receive Russian support in resolving the Kurdish issue and possibly in the issue of Iraqi settlement. In the end, Moscow does not need Iraq as a vassal of Persia. If there is no way to ensure full independence for Iraq, let Ankara and Tehran balance each other there at this stage. Naturally, small geopolitical games will be complemented by the expansion of programs of economic and military-technical cooperation. The Turkish economy is increasingly dependent on Russia (including access to the Russian market and joint trade in energy carriers). This creates a much stronger bond than military-political exchanges and/or threats.

If it succeeds with Turkey, — so far it succeeds, — it will be a great example for Israel. Tel Aviv is constantly turning to Moscow for support, understanding that it is Russia that in the coming decades will play the first violin in the region and the issues of war and peace will depend on it. But, as mentioned above, Israel is not yet ready for the right level of geopolitical compromise. Over time, its geopolitical position will inevitably worsen, and therefore, its willingness to compromise will increase. Israel has really very well trained generals. They know how to consider not only the current situation, but also trends. Already now they can calculate with an accuracy of several months the time when the threat of being dumped at sea materializes with respect to Israel. And they know that there is not much time left — the term is calculated in years, not in decades.

When a decision needs to be made urgently, an example of constructive Russian-Turkish cooperation will help the Israeli leadership make the right decision. In the end, as the practice of recent years shows, Russia does not wish anyone harm and is ready to help everyone, but only if the applicant for Russian support is agreement-capable and ready to help himself.

Thus, I think that the huge, obviously not justified by the situation, tactical concessions of Turkey during the Moscow talks should be offset by the cumulative effect that Moscow and Ankara should receive from strategic partnership in the Middle East.

In general, this solution is quite transparent. I am sure that our opponents in the West are also calculating it well. Therefore, they will still try to disrupt the Moscow peace [deal] — both due to pressure on Erdogan by the Turkish war party, and by organizing provocations in Idlib. But no one promised it would be easy.

Rostislav Ishchenko, 03/06/2020.



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