From Syria to Caucasus: Will Separate Sparks Become One Big Fire?
Andrey ARESHEV | 11.07.2012 | WORLD

From Syria to Caucasus: Will Separate Sparks Become One Big Fire?

After a stop in the Bosphorus a NATO naval group weighed anchor and sailed on to the Eastern Mediterranean nearing the Syrian shore in early July. Formally the mission (no US Navy ships in the composition of the unit) is countering the «terrorist threat». German General T. Kughler literally said NATO would not allow terrorism in the Mediterranean. 

The words smack of outright hypocrisy. If not for arms and mercenaries coming from the West into the country stricken by unrest and rogues going on a rampage, the Bashar Assad’s government would have dealt with the very terrorist threat that herr Kughler called to fight against. The real goal of the NATO’s new naval «anti-terror mission» is intimidation of Syria and demonstration of solidarity with Turkey. 

After a Turkish spy plane was hit on June 22 while seeking «holes» in Syrian shore line air defense, Turkey’s militaristic rhetoric got its «second wind». The most up-to-date radars and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are reported to be moved to the border between Turkey and Syria. The redislocation of Air Force and Army units to the Syrian border is to demonstrate the Turkey’s resolve to play its role in the play with the Article 5 of NATO’s Charter pertaining to «collective defense» being enforced at the final stage. Today any provocation may formally become a pretext for launching air strikes against Syria while going around the UN Security Council. According to the CNN-Turk Turkey is ready to establish a buffer zone on the Syrian border. Ankara already approached Brussels on the issue at the recent NATO summit. 

No matter many a time the «Syrian issue» was part of Russia - Turkey high level consultations agenda, the diplomatic split still goes on being widened. The so called Strategic Cooperation Council and other agencies established with fanfare back then keep mum, their formal coordinators – the foreign chiefs of the two countries – stick to outright opposite stances. No surprise. As many experts note, no matter solid trade turnover and cooperation in some spheres, no way the situational pattern is accompanied by «strategic scope». Quite differently the Ankara-Washington ties are exactly of strategic nature. That’s the principal difference. 

From the point of view of Russia’s security Syria is a «far situated forward edge of battle area», while Turkey’s foreign policy is focused on Washington even if it evokes serious criticism in the society and may seriously exacerbate the internal problems in perspective. The Syrian civil war may bring to memory the many centuries old historic grievances and contradictions that undermine the Turkish society. But the strive for influence expansion, laying an eye on Syrian land and resources and, of course, the affect of US policy make the Turkish leadership inclined to take a more irreconcilable stance against its southern neighbor. 

Now let’s turn to the Caucasus where the Turkish foreign policy is exercised along by and large the same lines. As is known instead of the «Syrian enemy» Turkey has a clearly identified «friend» whose support is the goal of «democratic community». Naturally the country in question is Georgia. As more frequent visits of different level functionaries show the interest to this state has considerably grown. Only in June Hillary Clinton was followed by Deputy Secretary General of NATO Alexander Vershbow, NATO's Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Transformation General Mieczyslaw Bieniek, a few US senators and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. An impending visit of Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been announced. 

The reinvigoration of Turkish diplomacy in the «Georgian» direction is strictly synchronized with measures actively taken by Ankara to ignite the Syrian hotbed. In the recent months a number of events took place in Turkey (concerning the Circassian issue, for instance) that evoked harsh reproof from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The facts comparison allows to admit: «limited inclusion of the «Greater Caucasus» conflict potential into the geopolitical equation of «Greater Middle East» appears to become a working organic element of strategic planning for Western decision makers. 

The Trabzon Declaration was signed by Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey foreign chiefs. Reportedly military and political issues made part of the agenda along with economic issues. The signing was timed with the US State Secretary Hillary Clinton’s South Caucasian tour. Besides arms sales Georgia was promised assistance in boosting its air defense and air force capability. According to Georgian foreign policy documents the military cooperation with Turkey, a neighbor and a NATO member, has an important role to play, something that shouldn’t be underestimated. 

Ankara strives for bigger presence in the Caucasus by cooperating with Tbilisi. The growing Turkish presence in Adjara raises questions even in the opposition ranks. There is an apprehension the Turks would make Adjara the «second Cyprus» or even the «second Kosovo» as time goes by. There are other issues on the radar screen of Georgians. Muslim religious expansion, for instance, is a special issue for Orthodox Georgia. Still until now the current political calculations prevail over historic reminiscences and religious feelings. So the construction of Tbilisi – Ahalkaki - Kars railway (to great extent at the expense of funds coming from Azerbaijan) continues. 

All this poses a difficult challenge for Armenia, excluded from the Georgia-Turkey project, as well as for Russia, whose Caucasus policy faces tough tests. The Kars - Gyumri raiway is still not open, but US ambassador to Erevan John Heffern told in an interview to a Turkish newspaper that the US would promote the idea of developing economic ties between Armenia and Turkey. According to him the railway link should be restarted even without making open the whole border to give a great impetus to trade and tourism. Looks like Washington is to waive an objection of Baku that insists that any warming in Armenia-Turkey relations should be tied to the management of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict exclusively on the conditions of Azerbaijan. 

Not sure about trade and tourism one can definitely say the offer made by John Heffern will certainly facilitate the arms transit – especially in case Bashar Assad is overthrown (many are convinced Iran is the next). Later in Erevan John Heffern will elaborate on «railways issue» he likes so much. The ambassador also mentioned the talks between Armenian and Turkish companies concerning laying the fiber optics cable connecting the two countries. 

The creation of Turkish military strike force along the Syrian border, the Ankara’s vigorous diplomatic activity in the Caucasus are accompanied by no less significant initiatives in Central Asia, where, following Washington, Turkey goes on being more adamant while promoting its interests. And the question if the growing number of unstable hotspots along the geopolitical axis the Middle East – the Caucasus – Central Asia may move to a new level of explosive intensification, this time encompassing the territory of Russian Federation, hangs in the air…