Turkish-Russian tension causes military build up
Despite the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Sergey Lavrov, meeting in Belgrade on Dec. 3 - marking the first high-level contact between the two countries since the downing of a Russian jet for violating Turkish air space on Nov. 24 - tension keeps escalating. One result is the ongoing military pile up in the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s words in Moscow before the meeting in Belgrade increased the strain in relations. He said Russia would “not forget” the incident and its response would not be limited to economic sanctions. “Apparently Allah decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey by taking away their sanity,” Putin said in the kind of language rarely heard in diplomacy. “Part of the current Turkish leadership has a direct responsibility for the deaths of our troops in Syria.”
Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, meanwhile, again challenged Putin over his claims that Turkey’s leadership has been helping the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) by smuggling oil into the country. Erdoğan repeated his vow to step down from his position if Putin can prove his accusations, asking whether Putin will do the same if he cannot back up his claims. He also said it was “not ethical” for Putin to involve Erdoğan’s family members in his accusations against Turkey, while adding that Ankara has evidence that the Russians have themselves been involved in the illegal oil trade with ISIL.
As the war of words between the Turkish and Russian leaders continues, the military build-up in the region has further increased over the past two days. Russia announced that it will sell and deploy S-300 missile systems to Iran, a major defender of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. That follows Moscow’s decision to deploy superior model S-400 missile systems to Syria, while also stationing its Black Sea fleet flag ship, the “Moskva” missile cruiser, off of Syria. Meanwhile, on Nov. 3 three NATO warships with Spanish, Portuguese and Canadian flags entered the Black Sea, passing through the Turkish straits. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had already announced that Germany and Denmark would be sending warships to the Eastern Mediterranean to support Turkey amid Russia’s increased positioning in Syria, in addition to the U.S. missile destroyer USS Doland Cook already patrolling there.
Added to this picture, British war planes started taking off from their bases in Cyprus on the night of Nov. 2 to bomb ISIL targets in Syria, only three hours after Prime Minister David Cameron got parliamentary approval for air strike operations.
German Foreign Minister Ursula Von Der Leyen was in Ankara on the afternoon of Nov. 3 to get Turkish permission to deploy Tornado war planes and 550 troopers at Turkey’s strategic İncirlik air base near the Syria border, where the U.S.’s F-15, 16 and A-10 jets have been staging operations against ISIL alongside Turkish F-16s. Ankara has also given French fighter planes permission to use Turkish air space in operations against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, while the U.K. has already opened its bases in Cyprus to French air forces staging anti-ISIL operations.
All this adds up to an unusually serious military build-up in an already explosively tense region. The common assumption is that neither the U.S. nor Russia want to get into a direct fight over the crisis in Syria or the one in Ukraine. But historical experience shows us that conflicts - even wars - can sometimes start over unintended or even unimportant incidents, like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. As such, the need for a diplomatic solution to the tension between Turkey and Russia over the crisis in Syria is vital, in order to prevent tension from further escalating into open conflict.