Even as the German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle who was on a visit to China diverted himself to Istanbul in a mission Saturday ostensibly aimed at tamping down Turkish-Syrian tensions, Der Spiegel calmly reported that the information about the «non civilian cargo», which led to the interception of a Syrian aircraft by the Turkish air force the previous Wednesday night, was actually passed on to Ankara by the American intelligence.
Furthermore, Der Spiegel disclosed authoritatively, «Ankara only forced the plane to land after close contact with its Western allies»… The question naturally arises: Was it an incident that had been choreographed with a view to change the dynamics of the Syrian situation? Stranger ways have been found to kick-start wars in history.
The pattern of the rhetoric may give some clues. Russia, of course, vehemently and promptly denied that it violated international law. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in fact, gave a detailed explanation: «In the wake of all sorts of insinuations spread in connection with the Syrian jet’s landing, I’d like to stress we don’t have secrets in this respect. We’ve cleared out the situation and the truth is that, quite naturally, the jet was not carrying any weapons and certainly couldn’t be carrying them».
He added, «The cargo was supplied by a legal Russian supplier in a legitimate way to a legal customer. It’s electric engineering equipment for a radar station, a dual-purpose equipment that isn’t forbidden by any international conventions. Airway bills for it were filled out in strict compliance with international requirements. Transportation of these cargoes by civil aviation jets is normal practice and this is confirmed by the fact the Turkish authorities offered the crew either to change the route or to land in Ankara before it entered Turkey’s airspace. The captain decided to land because he knew the crew wasn’t doing anything illegal».
The Turkish side has pointedly refused to join issue with Moscow’s narrative. The Turkish statement was actually evasive and loquacious – to the effect that Ankara acted on the basis of «information that the plane was carrying cargo of a nature that could not possibly be in compliance with the rules of civil aviation». Meanwhile, Ankara lost no time to transfer the topic to the diplomatic channel away from the limelight. Russia’s Gazprom has since announced that it will be stepping up the supply of gas to Turkey to offset the shortfall in the supplies from Iran through the winter season. Ankara also since disclosed, almost eight weeks in advance, that President Vladimir Putin will be visiting Turkey on December 3. This is the first point.
Now, the intriguing part is that it was left to a third party to resort to shrill rhetoric – the United States. The state department spokesperson in Washington used harsh language to allege that Moscow is pursuing a «morally bankrupt» policy on Syria. The spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, «No responsible country ought to be aiding and abetting the war machine of the Assad regime, and particularly those with responsibilities for global peace and security – as UN Security Council members have».
Nuland added, «We [US] have no doubt that this was serious military equipment». Evidently, Nuland was under instruction to go to town on the Syrian plane issue. Why would the US be so overtly keen to introduce high-class polemics? This is the second point.
The geopolitics is not difficult to understand. The US has been probably hoping all along that Syria would be the wedge that forces apart the partnership between Russia and Turkey, which has witnessed a remarkable upswing through the past decade, helped largely by the understanding and personal rapport at the leadership level between Putin and Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan.
Russia has significantly expanded its energy cooperation with Turkey, meeting two-thirds of the latter’s gas needs. Russia is set up to build Turkey’s first nuclear plant; the 25 billion dollar project can be a game changer in the overall relationship. The 63 billion cubic meter South Stream gas pipeline is slated to pass through Turkish waters to feed the European markets.
Evidently, a high level of interdependency is developing between the two countries, which is nothing short of historic in their troubled relationship through centuries, and holding the potential to profoundly impact the geopolitics of a vast region comprising the Black Sea, Caucasus, the Caspian, «Turkic» Central Asia and the eastern Mediterranean.
Suffice to say, Moscow and Ankara have done well so far to decouple the Russian-Turkish bilateral relationship from the Syrian question. However, whether this is achievable in the coming period remains to be seen. The US rhetoric underscores the complexities. This is the third point.
Obviously, Moscow realizes that a new criticality is arising in the Turkish-Syrian standoff, which is also amply evident from the growing belligerence in Turkey’s rhetoric toward Damascus as well as its military deployments on the border regions in an operational mode. President Vladimir Putin held a meeting with the advisory Security Council regarding the Syrian situation on Friday.
Three interlocking vectors
There are three or four interlocking vectors here and their interplay is going to be crucial in the coming weeks. First, much depends on how the situation develops on the ground. The Guardian newspaper reported that Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean city of Antakya has become a meeting point for arms dealers from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon and it is the centre for equipping and arming the rebels in Syria.
As things stand, Syrian government forces have begun challenging the rebels all over the country. They have had success in Damascus, but face resistance in Aleppo and the northern provinces. Thus, the fate of the covert war depends heavily on Turkey. And there are growing indications that hardliners in Ankara are prevailing.
In a summing up over the weekend, Deutsche Welle warned that Turkey «risks getting mired» in the Syrian conflict after having «misgauged» it. The commentary noted:
«Weapons deliveries from Turkey remain the most important support the Syrian rebels are receiving, which has helped the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army to secure a strip of territory nearly 20 kilometres deep into the Syrian side on the border with Turkey.
«The majority of the Turkish population has little sympathy for Erdogan’s stance on the Syria conflict. For the first time in his 10 years in office, the prime minister is facing widespread opposition. Half of the country’s electorate voted for his AKP party in last year’s parliamentary election – largely because it was perceived as offering stability to the country. Since then, Turkey has enjoyed high growth rates and now belongs to the biggest 20 economies in the world. With wide sectors of the population having achieved relative prosperity, many Turkish people now fear that Erdogan's aggressive stance towards Syria is endangering that».
Thoughtful Turkish commentators have also voiced similar misgivings. Mehmet Ali Birand, one of Turkey’s seniormost political observers, wrote in Hurriyet newspaper, «The civil war in Syria does not threaten Turkey’s vital interests. In other words, it is not our duty. It should not be our duty to save the Syrian people from al-Assad. Let’s defend them, support them, but we should have boundaries».
Again, in a devastating column in the pro-government Islamist daily Zaman, prominent Turkish commentator Abdullah Bozkurt wrote on Friday: «The government seems to be divided on how far Turkey should take the matter with Syria. The relentless war lobby is after a «fait accompli» to commit the government and the country to a permanent war in Syria… Opposition parties are against the risky adventure while the public is overwhelmingly opposed to the notion of the war».
Part of Erdogan’s posturing is due to his expectation that with the nerve-wracking distractions of the election in the US on November 8 behind him, President Barack Obama will revisit the Syrian question. The Obama administration has consistently made it clear that it was not willing to engage in direct military intervention. Its distaste toward intervention probably increased after it transpired that various Saalfi groups and al-Qaeda affiliates have entered the Syrian cauldron.
Polls indicate that the American opinion supports more sanctions against the Syrian regime and a no-fly zone but no direct intervention or arming of Syrian rebels. But then, there is the hawkish opinion, too. The influential pundit, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington argues that Obama should not remain trapped in policy dilemmas and «hollow posturing» but should actively «help to do the job» – namely, adopt a strategy like in the 1980s when it gave the famous stinger missiles («equalizer») to the Afghan Mujahideen.
He wrote last week that if only the US could provide similar «equalizers» to the Syrian rebels, it will ensure that the rebel fighters «inflict far more serious casualties» on the government forces and help expand own safe zones and thereby «take advantage of «no fly» or «no move» zones enforced with limited uses of U.S. or allied force, and be able to quickly become far more effective with limited training by U.S. or other Special Forces».
Finally, woven into all this is another new reality – the division among the Arabs themselves about the crisis in Syria. There is a world of difference between the stance of, say, Oman and Kuwait on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other – or, between Saudi Arabia and Egypt and between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The prominent Arabic daily Al-Hayat wrote bitterly on Saturday:
«The countries of the GCC do not now have the choice to head to the Arab League and then to the [UN] Security Council… This sexpartite bloc perhaps does not have the option of heading to NATO and asking it to intervene... In fact, it may not even be possible to reach unanimous agreement even among these six countries, due to the differences in their stances».
In sum, the US’ regional allies are waiting expectantly like the pair of men in Samuel Beckett’s play vainly for someone named Godot to arrive anytime soon after November 8. To keep themselves occupied in the meanwhile they eat, sleep, converse, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide – in fact, anything «to hold the terrible silence at bay». It may even include intercepting a plane or two.