Recent developments in Syria have led to substantial and public divergences between Ankara and Moscow. In this sense, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Russia on July 18 comes at a critical time, and the developments in Syria will of course be on top of the agenda. In the main, commentators see the Syrian crisis as the key point of divergence between Russia and Turkey; this will constitute a “test of political will for both countries.” First of all, both Russia and Turkey share a fundamental goal for the “new” Middle East: stability. However, the perceived nature of this “stability” is different, and for this reason, their proposed strategies are different.
From the Russian standpoint, the recent developments across the Middle East have resulted in a gradual waning of Moscow’s influence; in the cases of Iran and Syria, the Russian ruling elite thought that the West was trying to create an unstable and chaotic situation. Moscow opposes external intervention in the domestic issues of these countries. Russia’s policy towards the Middle East today is a far cry from the ideologically driven Cold War zero-sum thinking that guided the Kremlin for many years and prompted their loss of influence. Putin’s policy in the region was pragmatic during his previous presidencies, and this led to a rapprochement with Muslim countries.
However, when chaos arose with the so-called Arab awakening, Moscow’s leadership sought a guiding principle that would enable a zero-sum policy. Now their aim is to stonewall any military intervention in Iran and Syria. For instance, a poll by the Russian Levanda Center conducted in March reveals that there is by no means an overwhelming desire among Russians for political distance from the current Syrian regime. This is despite the fact that Russia’s weapons sales to Syria equate to only 5 percent of its total arms exports, and the reality that the naval base in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartous -- the last Russian military base outside of the former Soviet Union republics -- is little more than a pier. To Russia, Syria is a bargaining chip with NATO and the US. Russia’s political elites understand how hard it will be to keep Assad in Syria, but after Libya, they don’t want to see the next move in Iran orchestrated by the US or other Western countries. Moreover, they still believe that in organizing a meeting of the Syrian opposition in Moscow, they will secure their interests in the country’s “post-Assad” period. But now the Syrian opposition forces are divided, and the struggle for power will only escalate as soon as the Assad regime is on the brink of collapse. With regard to Turkey’s position, Russia believes that NATO is planning to launch its military intervention from Turkey, using Turkish forces either to intervene directly in Syria or at least to establish a buffer zone within it. In the larger context, Turkey’s convergence with the Western position toward the Arab revolutions is an important factor drawing Turkey, Europe and the United States closer together while distancing Turkey from Russia and Iran. Even during the last month when a Turkish jet was shot down by Syria, the Russians and Syrians believed the plane was on a NATO mission to test Syria’s airspace. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated at a press conference in Geneva that Russia has “data to prove that the jet shot down by Syria had violated Syrian airspace, contrary to Ankara’s claims.” Turkish leadership remained diplomatic, refraining from blaming Russia, and they did not target Russia or China in the call for greater pressure on and isolation of the Syrian regime.
The central point of distinction is that Russia’s policy in the Middle East is somewhere in between self-determination and sovereignty, while the Turkish Middle East policy is on the axis of populism and realpolitik. Both countries see the Syrian crisis as an important signpost in their “return” to the Middle East. However, the Russian government has not hidden its distrust of the Arab revolutions, and does not regard them as democratic processes, rather as political destabilization of the region.
Since 2002, Moscow has supported “pragmatic rapprochement” with Muslim countries. Conversely, Turkey perceives the Arab Spring as a key step towards democratization. The main distinction is that Turkey believes that it has already proven its “return” -- they have sufficient political clout to act as a model for Arab countries. In Egypt, for instance, the new presidency and the public attitudes are similar to what the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and its leadership have in Turkey. Russia has no such aims regarding becoming a model for Arab countries; Moscow has lacked a strategy in the face of the revolutions, and its reaction has been defensive and reactive. Russia’s approach towards the region will significantly change, and become more defensive, after Islamic-backed parties win the elections (such as Egypt). Meanwhile, Moscow is also wondering about negative developments in the North Caucasus, where radical Islamic tendencies are growing.
No one expects Erdoğan’s visit to change Moscow’s position on Syria, but this visit is important following Turkey’s recently signed energy agreement with Azerbaijan, which angered Gazprom. It should also be noted that after the “jet crisis,” the Russian food safety and quarantine service, Rosselkhoznadzor (RSN) issued an announcement claiming that 33 violations of quarantine regulations had been uncovered in relation to Turkish exports. In addition, some Russian tourism websites have posted that Turkey’s tourist zones have been problematic for Russian travelers. These seemingly apolitical moves may be deemed unnecessary, but it is hard to deny that they constitute the “soft” political message to Turkey.
The full impact of the crisis in Syria has yet to be realized. The development of bilateral relations between Moscow and Ankara, despite the growth of trade, can be halted. Far from becoming strategic partners, the Syrian crisis may well lead Turkey and Russia to see one another on opposite lines of a very significant geopolitical fault line. This is a test of geopolitics, not economics.