Russian roulette in the Middle East
“Have a friend like a Russian, have an enemy like a Russian.” These are the words of a high-level Turkish intelligence analyst who has personally had to deal with the Russians on issues like Chechnya, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), etc. “They stick to their word. They don’t talk much, but they definitely do what they say,” he added.
It was no surprise to many international observers that Russian President Vladimir Putin would get further involved in Syria after delivering his plan at the U.N. General Assembly last month. Despite all the criticism from Ankara, Moscow and Washington seem to be on the same page about Syria. But this is not all.
Yalim Eralp, a seasoned advisor at CNN Turk and a former ambassador, told me that crying foul against Russia may fall on deaf ears these days.
“Russia has been invited to Syria on the grounds of an anti-terror fight by a legal government, whether we like it or not. Bashar al-Assad and Putin are legally on the right side in terms of the U.N. Charter. Turkey’s only priority at this point should be avoiding any military conflict like dogfights, etc,” said Eralp.
On the road to Russia’s latest move, let us rewind and question the event:
1) Right before Russia’s Syria operation, Syrian refugees in Turkey suddenly moved en masse towards Europe. Did the military intelligence service of Syria, Al-Muhabarat, have a role in this mass exodus?
2) Is it a coincidence that Russia’s intervention has come after the refugee crisis?
3) Were the European countries, most of which belong to NATO, involuntarily forced to say “yes” to Russia’s operation?
4) Was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s urgent invitation and high-level reception in Brussels a result of this crisis, and did the EU ask him to take refugees back?
All the signs show that Russia was already planning to get more involved in Syria and the refugee influx accelerated the process. My intelligence sources tell me that hundreds of Al-Muhabarat agents and informers are actively present in Turkey. “They are not like the others,” my source told me. “The KGB trained them; they know the region and the language well.”
Turkey and Russia’s recent air confrontation is not just a warning sign for the future. Former U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, in his latest article for the Washington Institute, stressed the symbolism of Russian overflights over Hatay.
“Syria never officially acknowledged the loss of Hatay and its considerable Alawite community, however. Syrian maps still do not show Hatay as a part of Turkey (until recently, the regime maintained a similar cartographical attitude toward the entire country of Lebanon). While Damascus stopped emphasizing Hatay as its own territory during a thaw in relations a decade ago between Assad and then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it did not officially recognize Turkey’s sovereignty,” wrote Jeffrey.
“As Syria’s president and the informal leader of the Alawite community, Assad obviously knows this entire story. But does Moscow? It is hard to believe that a country so obsessed with its past and its historical claims (Crimea being only one of many examples) would have missed this connection,” he added.
If Washington can see the big picture from that distance, maybe Ankara should too.