Syria – a Poisoned Gift for Putin and Erdogan
15 December 2015
By Amir Taheri
As might have been expected, the crisis in relations between Moscow and
Ankara has dominated regional politics since the Turks downed a Russian
warplane close to the Syrian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly
believes that the Turks shot his plane as part of a plot by NATO to warn
Moscow against throwing is weight around. For his part, Turkish President
Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems persuaded that the Russians arranged the
''incident'' to puncture his ego.
Thus, the first element in this imbroglio is the clash of two Everest-size
egos – Putin and Erdogan. Both see themselves as ''great leaders in the
classical style'' of ''providential saviors'' of their respective nations.
Both have empire-building ambitions. Putin wants to revive as much of the
Soviet Empire as possible, at least by turning the so-called ''near-abroad''
into a Russian influence zone.
Thinking in the 19th century mode of ''projecting power'' by a ''blue-water''
navy and bases dotting your glacis, he wants to heighten Russia's military
profile in the Caucasus by annexing 20 per cent of Georgia's territory,
gobbling up Crimea in Ukraine and detaching Donetsk, playing the
ethnic-demographic card in the Baltic States and now, establishing itself as
chief foreign influence in Iran, Syria and Iraq.
Erdogan's ambitions can also be catalogued with little difficulty. He wants
to carve out a zone of influence in both Syria and Iraq, largely to kill the
Kurds' dream of dismantling the Turkish Republic and creating a great
Kurdistan on the debris of Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi states. Erdogan also
wants to sell Turkey to the European Union and NATO as the major power in the
In a sense, both men hope to fill part of the gap left by the American
retreat from global leadership under President Barack Obama. With the US no
longer taken seriously by anybody, both Russia and Turkey hope to create a
galaxy of alliances and partnerships around themselves.
Thus the Sukhoi incident was little more than an excuse for both sides. Some
experts even believe that the Russian jet briefly strayed into Turkish
airspace because of a wrong electronic flight-map coordinate supplied by
Syrians who regard that part of Turkish territory as ''usurped land'' that
belongs to Damascus. Turks called the disputed area Hatay; Syrians refer to
it as Al-Iskanderoun. So, it is possible that the whole thing was the result
of bad information and misunderstanding. The irony is that as far as Syria is
concerned, Moscow and Ankara have more points in common than points that
Neither wants Syria to re-emerge as a partner, let alone an ally, of the
Western democracies just across the Mediterranean, reviving the historic
''direction of national gaze'' that dates back to the Byzantine Empire.
Neither wants Syria to fall under radical Islamist groups
either. Russia has been engaged in intermittent war against radical Islam
since the end of the 18th century and is till obliged to control some of the
Muslim ''possessions'' of the federation through State of Emergency and heavy
The emergence of a radical Islamist movement in Turkey would threaten not
only the so-called ''secular system'' but also the complicated mosaic of
religious sects and fraternities that have been forced to operate under the
surface within the Kemalist republic. Against that background it is even more
surprising that both Russia and Turkey have treated the so-called IS with kid
Leaving aside accusations and counter-accusations that both Turkey and Russia
benefit from buying oil from IS and selling arms to it, there is little doubt
that both have refrained from acting against the ''Caliphate''.
Regardless of bare-faced denials, it is clear that ''volunteers'' reach IS
through Turkey and that it receives a good part of the vital supplies it
needs through the same route. Ankara wants to see the back of Bashar al-Assad
whose clan has a long history as clients of Russia and, more recently, the
Islamic Republic in Iran. Erdogan believes that whatever happens, IS will be
a major player in shaping the future of Syria and it is thus in Turkey's
interest not to antagonize it beyond reason.
For his part, Putin also regards IS as at least a ''second choice'' in Syria,
the first choice being Assad. This is because there is little possibility
that IS might make a deal with Western powers and help take Syria into NATO's
orbit. More than 90 per cent of Russian air raids have been against groups
opposed to Assad, not forces controlled by IS. At the same time, IS has taken
little or no action against the Assad regime, focusing its attention on
destroying anti-Assad forces. The downing of a Russian passenger plane by IS
over the Sinai was a warning to Moscow not to forget those considerations. IS
has also reached tacit understanding with Tehran, Moscow's ally in Syria, not
to attack Iranian targets. Iran's army chief General Salami says there is a
50-kilometres ''red-line'' on the Iranian border with Iraq that IS has agreed
not to cross.
The Russo-Turkish tussle complicates an already complex situation. After the
Turks shot his Sukhoi, Putin could not have swallowed his pride and moved on.
Wisely, he has limited his reaction to largely diplomatic gesticulations such
as the seizure of Turkish cargo ships carrying frozen chicken to Russia and
publishing a draft bill to make denial of the ''Armenian genocide'' a crime.
Putin also did a bit of sulking when he refused to meet with Erdogan during
the ''climate summit'' in Paris.
Having full fed their respective egos it is time for both Erdogan and Putin
to move on and, as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev suggested last
week, focus on common interests rather than hurt vanities. Gorbachev is wise
in reminding both Moscow and Ankara that they are condemned by facts of
geopolitics to agree on a modus vivendi.
Both need to take a long, hard look at their Syrian policies and ask a number
Do they really think the world can
tolerate a Syria in which the ''Caliphate'' is either dominant or plays a
central role? Is it possible to revert to the status quo ante, with Assad in
place as if nothing has happened in the past five years- as Tehran insists?
Is it possible to exclude all of Assad's camp, as Erdogan seems to dream of,
or should a segment be woven into the fabric of a new Syria?
Syria is in such a mess that no one can dream of achieving total victory.
Erdogan cannot see the camp he supports seize exclusive power in Damascus.
Putin cannot hope to wipe out all of Assad's opponents, that is to say at
least 80 per cent of Syrians. Even if total victory was possible and someone
offered Syria to either Putin or Erdogan on a silver platter, what are they
going to do with it? Rebuilding a shattered Syria will cost over $1 trillion
according to latest estimates. Could Putin, his economy in free fall, afford
that? What about Erdogan who now lives on handouts from the EU?
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.