Turco-Russian confrontation: A hot debate in Greece
Greece has been watching developments in the recent Russia-Turkey row with increased concern. Although the Alexis Tsipras government has not been able to give a new impetus to relations between Athens and Moscow as anticipated, historical affinities with the “blond nation from the north” - as Russia is known in popular Greek mythology - have come to the fore since the downing of the Russian Su-24 by the Turks.
If you put aside the ongoing problem with refugees flowing into Greece from Turkey as a half-domestic half-foreign issue, Greeks remain heavily involved in their ongoing domestic socio-political and economic crisis, which the last general election did not managed to solve. An inward-looking media have paid limited attention to what is happening outside the eurozone.
However, the Paris bombings and particularly the Turkey-Russia crisis have given a new energy to a hot public debate that brings historical enmities to the foreground, places Islam against Orthodoxy, and has fueled theories of a new proxy Cold War.
I have been following the public discussion among academics, journalists and strategists in Greece since the crisis broke out between Russia and Turkey. The general approach among the Greeks is that since the beginning of its disintegration, Syria has been a theater of serious confrontation between big international players, namely the U.S. and Russia. The first collateral damage we are witnessing from this is in the form of the flows of refugees that have been flooding Europe since last summer. Many analysts are already predicting major upheavals in our immediate neighborhood, including a redrawing of the map and a defining of new borders. Some even suggest that “Syria could be the cause of World War III.”
There are also more moderate voices who say there are more stages ahead before we reach such a grave stage. They claimed that nothing so terrible could happen, at least until the end of Barack Obama’s presidential term. “Obama is the one preventing an escalation at the moment. After he goes, nobody knows,” one Greek political analyst with a good knowledge of U.S. affairs told me a month ago.
The shooting down of the Su-24 by Turkish fighter planes gave a new spin to the debate in Greece on who are the other strategic players in the region. Ankara’s bold move to wedge itself dynamically into the game was interpreted as a planned action to disrupt the stability plan for Syria agreed by the U.S. and Russia in Vienna just before the G-20 Summit in Antalya. These voices - and they are many - say Ankara wanted to present Russia as part of the problem in Syria, not part of the solution as the Vienna agreement was supposed to demonstrate.
Greek analysts think the plan that the U.S. previously tried to apply in the Middle East by supporting “moderate” Sunni opposition groups against secularist authoritarian regimes - Gaddafi, Mubarak, al-Assad - eventually backfired, creating both the ISIS monstrosity but also the refugee crisis that threatens the unity and economy of Europe. A grand alliance against ISIS that would include Russia and keep the Syria regime in place for a period of time may be a better alternative. But this, they believe, is not something to the liking of Ankara, whose policy conducted so far has focused on the removal of the Syrian regime; what’s more, Turkey fears that a change of the U.S. plan would allow Kurds to be included in the calculus.
“The stability model for Syria, on which the U.S. and Russia seem to converge, brings Turkey face-to-face with a strategic defeat because the way things are developing the Kurds are destined to take up an important role on the military and strategic level,” wrote one analyst on the newly launched web CNN Greek.
If that is the case, will we see the deployment of more Turkish troops in Mosul as yet another strategic move by Ankara to demonstrate its importance in the region? And what will be the next move by Russia? Most importantly, is the West going to eventually put “boots on the ground” with U.S., French, British forces together with the Russians in an all-allied front against ISIS? What role will Ankara play in such a plan?