The Russian factor

The Russian factor

Turkey has managed to surround itself with neighbors to the East and North with who it is in serious disagreements over Syria. If the matter simply involved Syria this could be contained. But it does not because Turkey’s ties with Moscow, Baghdad, and Tehran are also involved now.

Put another way, supporting the regime in Damascus or opposing it has turned into a strategic struggle for regional influence. It is also clear that this struggle is across a sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite powers too.

Key Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are clearly in the American fold, given the military agreements they have signed with Washington worth billions of dollars. Turkey is also in this fold, and increasingly so as a result of the Syrian crisis.

It is also becoming evident that the Shiite powers and elements are increasingly aligning themselves with Russia. This was further demonstrated by the military cooperation agreement worth billions of dollars that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – who represents a significant portion of Iraq’s majority Shiites - signed with Moscow last week.

Meanwhile, Baghdad has made it clear that its armaments program is partly aimed at balancing Turkey’s regional power. The al-Maliki government, which appears set to stay in power for some time, clearly does not look on Turkey as a friendly power anymore.

Iran is in a similar situation. It is careful to maintain ties with Turkey for a host of objective reasons, not least being the large economic interest involved. But Tehran has changed its position on Turkey since the Erdogan government decided to allow the radar facilities of NATO’s missile defense systems to be deployed on its soil.

Iranian military officials have already directed a host of bellicose statements aimed at Turkey over this issue. Given the fact that Russia also considers this missile defense system to be aimed at it, it is hardly surprising that the situation should have driven Moscow and Tehran closer. In the meantime, ties between Russia and Iran have been further enhanced because of their similar stances on Syria.

The Alawite al-Assad regime is clearly considered to be vitally important for the Russian-led axis that is developing in the region. The toppling of this regime will most likely result in a Sunni one in Damascus that is hostile to Russia, Iran and Iraq, given that the Sunnis who are fighting al-Assad represent the majority in Syria.

The sum of all of this is that Ankara and Moscow are in opposing camps again in the region, as they were during the Cold War. The tension between Ankara and Moscow over the Syrian passenger plane that was forcibly landed in Turkey last week after taking off from Russia, on the basis of a tip-off that it was carrying military equipment, also points to this.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted in the Turkish media on Monday saying this incident would not spoil ties between Ankara and Moscow, which are deep rooted. The same situation prevails with Iran as already mentioned. The fact is, however, that when the chips are down in terms of strategic interests in the Middle East, it is becoming clearer who will be siding with who, and who will be supporting who in the future.

Today Turkey is very much on one side of a growing regional divide that is also reflected in a global divide reminiscent of the one that existed during the Cold War. In Syria it has seen its “axe hit a stone” as the Turkish saying goes. Russia has proved to be the main stone in this case, preventing all the moves that Turkey wants to see over Syria at the U.N.

It is no surprise that Prime Minister Erdogan finds little reason to hide his anger against Moscow over this issue. Angry as he and his government may be, though, it is increasingly clear that Ankara is in no position to underestimate the Russian factor when it comes to developments in this neighborhood.