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'Russia may retaliate against Turkey by using terror organizations'
Turkey's downing of a Russian military aircraft due to it violating its airspace became a major discussion topic in news media around the world. Moreover, Russia's possible response to Turkey and the consequences of this incident on the Syrian civil war and international politics in the medium-term is still unknown. Daily Sabah talked to Associate Professor Nihat Ali Özcan from TOBB University of Economics and Technology (ETÜ) and discussed the consequences of this incident. According to Özcan, Russia's violation of Turkish airspace was not due to either inadequacy of the pilots' training or technical inadequacy. On the contrary, he asserted that Russia wanted to test Turkey's reaction, the speed of decision-making processes and to what extent Turkey's allies would support Turkey. However, Turkey's reaction was far beyond Russia's expectations.
Özcan believes that, after this incident, the tension between the two countries will be maintained for the time being, and he stressed that Russia can use the PKK, Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) and other terrorist organization to punish Turkey. Regarding the EU's reaction after the Nov. 13 Paris attack, Özcan believes this attack revealed the EU's weak spot; therefore, Europe will adopt a two-stage solution: Increasing internal security through increased control and focusing on the origin of the issue – Syria and Iraq.
DS: How are you evaluating the developments originating from Turkey shooting down a Russian military aircraft due to the airspace violation? Is there a possibility of an armed conflict between Turkey and Russia?
The current situation has a more complex and different background than the traditional tensions. This is more than just the bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia. Comments over the downed military aircraft are only the tip of the iceberg. Russia perceives this as an extension of its strategies about the Ukrainian and Syrian crises. As you know, Russia acquired Crimea for a naval base on the Black Sea. If Russia cannot consolidate this with a hold on the Mediterranean Sea, it will all be irrelevant. Therefore, Russia is not assessing the situation within the parameters of the West. This constitutes the basis of the difference between Turkey and Russia's points of view. Russia wants to regain its reputation, which was lost during the Cold War; Syria is within this framework. They want a government in Syria that will be sympathetic toward Russia. Hence, they support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. There is more to it, of course. The developments have caused Russia to become a "natural ally" with Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. On the other hand, while fighting against DAESH is a priority for the West, it seems to be secondary to Russia. The downed aircraft crisis should be evaluated with these points in mind. Turkey's approach to the Syrian crisis and its priorities are different than Russia's. Turkey mostly wants a change in the Syrian regime, resolution of the regional conflicts and the conclusion of the refugee crisis. Many criticize Turkey for its Syrian policies; however, Turkey faces Russia both in Syria and in the Black Sea. Therefore, Turkey is perceived as "a country to be constrained." The predicament is the two countries' mutual economic dependency. This dependency acts as a brake, figuratively speaking, preventing both countries from radical actions. Yet, the relationship is of asymmetrical nature. While Russia can act rashly and renounce its relations with Turkey, Turkey has to rely on Russia, especially in the energy sector. Therefore, Russia seems to be more intrepid and coarse. However, in terms of the relations between the two countries, distrust and suspicion will be prevalent.
DS: Concerning the trade relations between the two countries, Turkey is the one that has a foreign trade deficit of about $20 billion. In this regard, is Turkey not an indispensable player for Russia?
It is obvious that the Ukrainian crisis has had a significant toll on Russia. Therefore, the recent economic negativities will have a greater effect. Moreover, when you add the possible cost of the Syrian civil war, the Russian economy may become more fragile. However, considering the political system and culture in Russia, they may continue to act irrationally, contrary to what was foreseen. Hence, Turkey's energy dependency may make Russia more aggressive. Russia's Syria policy will cost it militarily and economically in the medium-term. In addition, because of its Syrian policy, Russia will need to develop an interesting relationship with Iran's rivals in the Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia. The aircraft downing crisis made the conflicts between Turkey and Russia apparent. Russia tried to send a message to Turkey by systematically violating Turkey's airspace. Airspace violations are not due to either inadequacy of the pilots' training or technical inadequacy. With this, Russia wanted to test Turkey's reaction, the speed of decision-making processes and to what extent Turkey's allies would support Turkey. However, Turkey's reaction was far beyond Russia's expectations. Turkey showed a strong reaction by shooting down the aircraft. The tension between the two countries seems that it will be maintained for the time being. A new balance in their bilateral relation will take time.
DS: How will bilateral relations be shaped in this new balance?
Turkey may diversify to overcome its energy dependency and/or change its Syrian policies. Turkey may also adopt a new approach that will relieve the tensions. Ultimately, the relations will stay tense for some time.
DS: Do you expect the tension between the two countries to escalate and transform into active conflict?
The downing of the military aircraft had a negative impact on the nationalistic notions in Russia. It is hard for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a former intelligence agent and believes in the power of propaganda in shaping public opinion, to acknowledge this incident. He will act to compensate this psychological "damage," first in Syria. As a result, Russia may try to diminish Turkey's influence in Syria. Russia may also mobilize its covert operational potentials, which are the remnants of the Cold War era. Some Marxist movements in Turkey had either direct or indirect relations with Soviet intelligence. The PKK is one that comes to mind. Since the Cold War, Russia maintained its relations with the PKK and used it against Turkey when needed. The most typical example is the mobilization of the PKK in 1993. As a response to pipeline policies, the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflicts and Chechnya, Russia used the PKK. In this context, Russia may provide weaponry to the PKK, reestablish relations with terrorist organizations such as the DHKP-C or even help in the formation of new organizations.
DS: How do you evaluate NATO's reaction to this situation?
This event happened right after the Paris attacks. The Paris attacks had an effect on NATO's approach and its enemy list. DAESH has become a priority; however, due to factors such as the upcoming presidential elections in the U.S. next year and Europe's conciliatory approach, NATO could not react as hastily and strongly as it desired. As a result of the meetings held in Vienna, it was announced that a transitional government will be established, new elections will be held within 18 months and, most importantly, Assad is to be removed from his office.
DS: In your opinion, how will the tensions between Turkey and Russia affect this process?
There seems to be implicit rapport between the U.S. and Russia regarding Syria. Iraq is the primary focus of the U.S. in its fight against DAESH, while Syria seems to be secondary in this respect. Russia is the leading player in Syria. I do not know if there is a collusive agreement; however, the current military actions and developments suggest an accord. The important question is what will happen to the civilians in the Sunni regions once DAESH is eliminated. The U.S. and Russia are not satisfied with the Sunni Arabs within the conflict zone. In this case, a Sunni group that is approved by Russia and the U.S. will participate in the negotiations. We will have to wait and see if this is going to work or not.
DS: Doesn't an approved opposition group mean excluding the other opposition groups fighting on the battlefields? There is a hypothesis that if Assad is removed and an inclusive government is established, the conflicts will cease. In the situation you have expressed, doesn't a handpicked group being in the negotiations mean the perpetuation of conflicts and terrorism in Syria?
It is not possible to cease the conflicts in Syria. While less prominent, terror will still exist. It should not be forgotten that Russia will be militarily more active by the day in Syria. The Russian operations that started with air strikes may lead to land operations as well, as it was in the case in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1988. Then, Russia's military existence in Syria may become larger. A war with many players that extends across a vast geography may perpetuate itself as more divisions form. Most probably, we will not see a stronger Syria. For example, the Democratic Union Party's (PYD) invasion of other territories out of its natural hinterland will cause an Arab-Kurdish conflict in the future. This can also be said for Northern Iraq. Therefore, we will have to wait for a long period of time to see permanent peace in Syria.
DS: There is a general opinion that the decrease in oil prices between 1987 and 1988 as well as the Soviet Union being mired in Afghanistan caused the dissolution of the USSR. Does Russia not face the same conditions? Will Russia's policies cause it to become smaller and frail?
We can utilize the historical experiences. It is important as they expand one's mind; however, no one can guarantee that it will end in the same result as before. While Russia possesses vast territory and potential, they do not have a significant production output. On the other hand, Russia's economy relying on natural resource exports can also cause frailty, especially when it relies on a single commodity such as oil or gas. When the global prices of the said commodity decrease, it goes downhill for Russia. Moreover, the increase in the economic demands of the Russian people, crises in the Russian political systems and the Ukrainian crisis along with ongoing economic sanctions from Western countries brings forth some challenges to Russia as well. Even if Russia consists of a population strong in politics and education, these issues exist. In addition, the costly Ukrainian and Syrian crises may force Russia's hand in both domestic and foreign politics, along with the economy.
DS: There is a return to security policy within Europe after the Paris attacks. Do you think that Europe will be more politically closed in the years to follow?
The most prominent feature of European politics and the European bureaucracy is to scrutinize developments, determine their causes and arrive at a rational conclusion. After the attacks, European citizens put immense pressure on their governments. The governments know well that in order to control this pressure, they have to send positive messages to the masses. This was also a message to be given to terrorism. The states wanted to communicate a message and show that they stand strong and provide security with their policies and military. Eventually, what will be done in the short-term, medium-term and long-term will be decided. Europe had plans regarding the prevention of radicalism and pursuit of terrorist organizations and terrorists. Cooperation with neighboring countries was one of the parts of this plan. All of these were established after 9/11. However, the attacks revealed the weak spots of the EU. The greatest fear of the European public was revealed to be an attack from within. Therefore, we can say that Europe will adopt a two-stage solution: Increasing internal security through increased control and focusing on the origin of the issue, which are Syria and Iraq.
DS: According to the information you have provided, how will Turkey's fight against the PKK be shaped?
Currently, the PKK is acting with a low capacity in Turkey. The PKK's main focus is Syria and Iraq, as they believe that there will be a greater yield in these countries in the future.
DS: The PYD acts in Syria, yet you have defined it as the PKK. Do you see any difference between these two organizations?
I do not. When their historical backgrounds, mobility and strategy are examined, it will be seen that they are not different. The PKK's existence in Syria started with jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan's departure to Syria. The structure is similar to corporations; corporations have offices in different countries. While you appoint the administrators from the headquarters, you will provide local solutions in different regions. The PKK is an organization that has acted within Syria since 1979. Since that day, they have used different names for their local organizations. Seeing the Arab Spring as an opportunity, the PKK consolidated its Syrian branch. Therefore, the PYD is no different than the PKK in terms of its ideological structure, political activities or organization. Using a different name is a tactic developed by countries such as the U.S. to eliminate the accusations of cooperating with terrorist organizations. Returning to the subject, the PKK will continue its current strategy until next summer, due to seasonal conditions and the U.S.'s increased pressure on DAESH.
DS: Finally, taking countries' current strategies in the fight against DAESH into consideration, how do you perceive the chance of success?
There will not be a fast and decisive victory; however, DAESH's physical capacities may be reduced and weakened. The most important point is to defeat DAESH's ideology. At this point, the problem is to find a local Sunni group to replace DAESH. It is obvious that this cannot be achieved in a single stroke. Even though DAESH is weakened, it will adapt quickly and continue its existence in different forms.
This commentary was published in Daily Sabah News on 30.11.2015