Thursday, 2 February 2012

What the Crisis in Syria Holds for Turkish-Russian Relations

A piece I wrote on the crisis in Syria and Turkish-Russian relations has just been published by the always excellent Washington Review of Turkish and Eurasian Affairs. The article was written in late December so things have changed a bit since then, but the fundamental premises remain more or less intact, I think. The paper can be found here: introduction below.

The truism that the Middle East is going through a time of upheaval is, for once, true. The Arab Spring, the US withdrawal from Iraq, the stand-off between Iran and the West, and the rise of Turkey, have redrawn the geopolitical map, and its new lines are not yet clear.

The new Middle East will not just affect the regional states themselves; it will also have implications for relations between states in a much wider area. One particular case is the relationship between Turkey and Russia: the turmoil in the Middle East underlines their shared views on some issues, but it has also led to substantial divergences between Ankara and Moscow. The Syrian crisis may fracture this relationship further.

Both Russia and Turkey share a core fundamental goal in the Middle East: stability. Both have reasons to fear radical Islamist movements arising in chaotic or ungoverned zones; both also have reason to fear regional conflicts and flows of weapons and refugees. Russia is of course further away, but as a Eurasian power it has strong concerns over instability in a neighbouring and strategic region.


  1. Just out of curiosity - why does Turkey desire to dethrone Assad? Turkey has probably been the most outspoken of most nations for direct intervention in the region, going so far as to harbor opposition forces. I found a blog which argued that Turkey is looking to establish a pro-Sunni Islamic government in Syria which falls in line with Turkish aspirations as the lighthouse for Sunni Islam?

    1. It certainly isn't the Islamist angle. One could argue that Turkey is being 'neo-Ottoman' in the Middle East but it's not being driven by religion. Turkey's claim to regional leadership is founded on a hybrid of populism, democracy, anti-imperialism and economic power, but not on Islam except through a sense of homely piety. Erdogan sets himself up as 'a good Muslim', but not as some latter-day Caliph.

      Turkey's drive to get rid of Assad has three major causes.

      Firstly is the realpolitik angle. Get rid of Assad and you weaken Iranian influence: this is about power and influence, not sectarianism.

      Secondly is a desire to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Syria for both altruistic and pragmatic reasons: Turkey has no interest in a civil war on its southern border (partly due to the Kurds, etc).

      Thirdly is Erdogan's genuine anger at Assad for breaking his promises. Erdogan bears a grudge very well - his hostility to Israel stems to a large extent from the Gaza War, which ruined Turkish mediation efforts. Erdogan's anger is based not only on Assad's repression (although this is a major factor) but also on the feeling that he has crossed Turkey.