Russia ‘has come back to the Middle East’: Turkish professor
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Russia, once a significant actor in Middle Eastern politics, has in recent years returned to the region as a “game-setter,” according to Professor Nurşin Ateşoğlu Güney, the dean and head of the International Relations Department at Bahçeşehir (BAU) Cyprus University.
Despite difficulties, Turkey’s continuing relations with Western institutions like the EU strengthen its hands in its ties with Russia and other regional powers, Güney told the Hürriyet Daily News, adding that Ankara is “pursuing a multilateral balance diplomacy” that includes Iran.
Would you say the Middle East is entering a new era?
Yes, definitely. 2015 was a historical turning point. Compared to the U.S., Russia has limited military capabilities, but by creating anti-access/area-denial exclusion zones in Syria it has used this limited capability in a very skillful way and thus maintained its presence in the region. That’s why Russia is also now a neighbor of Turkey to the south. With its two naval basis and deployment of an air defense system, Moscow’s power projection in these areas has been extended. Russia has come back to the Middle East, which it had left, and it is now a game-setter for the region.
But President Vladimir Putin recently ordered the withdrawal of Russian soldiers.
Russia is now well-established in the Middle East. Reducing its number of soldiers is not so important. It is impossible to do anything in Syria without Russia. Moscow has stepped into the vacuum left by the U.S. during the Obama administration, which preferred to “lead from behind.” Russia profited from this window of opportunity and turned its limited military capacity into maximum benefits. The Russian naval doctrine published in 2010 says it is imperative to reach the Mediterranean, and this has basically now been realized through Syria. Russia has now settled in the Middle East and on the Mediterranean. I don’t think it will leave the region.
How do you see U.S. policy in the region?
I see it as pursuing the creation of two belts. The first one is to Turkey’s south in Syria. The [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK-PYD [Democratic Union Party] belt, which aims to reach the Mediterranean, is about containing Iran or even rolling back Iranian gains. Ever since 2003 Iran has been increasing its sphere of influence in the region from Iraq to Lebanon to Syria. So this belt aims at the rollback of Iranian gains.
Another aim of this belt is to cut off Turkey’s access to the Middle East. Relations between Washington and Ankara have been sour ever since Turkey denied access to U.S. soldiers to enter Iraq in 2003. So I think the presence of the belt is also to confuse Turkey and keep it preoccupied.
The emergence of this belt started with the Obama administration. But the emergence of the second belt started with the Trump administration, and is related to the emerging axis between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. This belt could extend to Greece via Greek Cyprus; it is not just a geostrategic belt but also a geo-economic belt.
Relations between the countries in these belts cannot be called “alliances.” They have selective engagements with each other. Currently, the re-entry of Russia and the U.S.’s cultivation of these two belts gives way to a geostrategic competition reminiscent of the Cold War. There are collaboration camps evolving around these two big powers, but the difference from the Cold War is that these camps are not really “alliances.” They are fragile because there are divergences in their perceptions of threats and interests.
If there is competition reminiscent of the Cold War, what is the competition about? After all, it is no longer a war of ideologies.
For Russia, it is about compensating for its past losses in the region and now maintaining its presence. It is important for Russia to consolidate the perception that it is a great power.
How do you analyze U.S. policy in the region? At one time there was talk about a retreat from the Middle East and a pivot to Asia.
The U.S. did not retreat from the Middle East. Its military power enables it to “lead from behind” and to have no boots on the ground. The U.S. does not want to abandon its dominance of the region’s energy resources and it has no intention of leaving the Middle East. It therefore endorses issue-based collaborations and uses proxies.
Is the PKK/PYD simply the U.S.’s most recent proxy?
It is there in our south. These are surrogate wars and the U.S. is using surrogates. But it can abandon them at any time.
Where do you see Turkey in this picture? Some argue that Turkey is breaking away from the Western alliance.
It is still in it. Despite all difficulties Turkey hasn’t broken its relations with Western institutions like the EU. These relations strengthen Turkey’s hand in its ties with Russia and others. It may purchase the S-400 missile defense system from Russia but there is still the presence of NATO’s nuclear power in Turkey. No matter how open to debate it may be, this nuclear presence gives Turkey a deterrence in the region. Turkey–U.S. relations have always had problems in the past, and Turkey’s relations with Russia have also had many problems in the past. What Turkey has always done is compartmentalize its relations; so currently Turkey is pursuing a balancing policy.
Ankara’s most important priority at the moment is eradicating the threat coming from its south. Last year’s Euphrates Shield Operation and subsequent moves were all about that. Turkey’s defense paradigm has changed and it is now about addressing threats from where they stem, before they reach our border.
But we used to have cross-border operations in the past too.
That was different. Today we are talking about acting preemptively. This is something that has been put into practice, based on a defensive reflex. It is not an offensive stance as the government keeps saying Turkey respects the territorial integrity of countries in the region.
Previously the threat was the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL]. Now the PYD has started to create a belt to our south. Turkey broke into that belt and prevented it from reaching the Mediterranean, thanks to the Euphrates Shield Operation.
So Turkey is performing a balancing act between the U.S. and Russia?
No, it follows a “multilateral balance policy.” There is also Iran to consider. This balancing policy needs to be broadened to include Egypt too. The region and the current environment dictates a multilateral diplomacy, so Turkey cannot restrain itself to just one camp. Relations with the U.S. have taken a nose dive but the door of dialogue is open.
But the current image looks like Turkey is arm-in-arm with Russia, especially with the ongoing saga over the purchase of the S-400s.
There is a deficit in Turkey’s air defense and we need to cover that. I think the S-400s are a mid-term formula. Ultimately, Turkey needs to build its own anti-ballistic missile defense system. The French-Italian option is also still there. So in that issue too Turkey is performing a balancing act.
There are signs that Turkey is now changing its policy in Syria and will accept a solution with Bashar al–Assad.
There has not yet been an official statement. But the balances are changing in this strategic environment. We can observe fractures within several blocs and collaboration schemes that keep changing. Currently everything is very fluid and blurred, so Turkey must constantly reset its foreign policy. Currently Turkey’s priority issue is the PKK/PYD threat on its border and there is no threat perception stemming from the Syrian regime. Indeed, that threat has actually moved away from the border, with both the regime and its missiles moving away from the Turkish border. Whether al-Assad will remain as the head of the government or not is all still subject to negotiation.
What do you think about Turkey’s recent initiative following the U.S.’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?
I believe Turkey conducted very successful public diplomacy on the issue. Trump took this decision because he knew about disunity in the Islamic and Arab world. But by bringing together the Organization of Islamic Cooperation [OIC] in such a short time, Turkey showed that it is not alone it its policy. Some leaders did not show up but the summit ultimately issued the decision to recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Obviously there are question marks about the implementation process but still this poses some pressure. There are few such decisions in OIC history, and I think the summit served at least as a wake-up call.
Who is Nurşin Ateşoğlu?
Professor Nurşin Ateşoğlu Güney is dean and head of the international relations department at Bahçeşehir (BAU) Cyprus University and was previously head of the international relations department at Yıldız Technical University. Prof. Güney is also vice president at the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BILGESAM). She has extensively published on the Middle East, American foreign policy, security policies, the European Union, NATO and arms control and disarmament issues, as well as energy and migration issues.
Prof. Güney is also a member of the IISS (International Institute for Strategic Studies) and board of directors of the International Geostrategic Maritime Observatory. She is a frequent commentator on national and international TV stations. Her articles are also published in national papers.