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October 12, 2012

Analysts: Turkish-Russian Tensions Could Spread to Middle East

by Dorian Jones

Russia pressed ahead with an angry flow of rhetoric Friday, demanding that Turkish authorities reveal exactly what type of munitions they claim to have found aboard a Syrian airliner forced down over Turkey on Wednesday.  The incident comes as Russian-Turkish relations grow increasingly tense.  

The Kremlin strongly denies Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's claim that Russian-made munitions were aboard a Syrian plane intercepted by Turkish jets.

Soli Ozel, who teaches international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, warns that the dispute could escalate.

"The Russians are obviously blistering and the Turkish government has the obligation to provide evidence that there was ammunition on the plane.  And if they can't, I am sure the Russians are going to be even more bitter. I am sure they are going to respond to this,"  Ozel said.

Relations are already strained, with Moscow strongly supporting the Syrian government and Ankara backing the rebels.  But political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir University says powerful commercial interests will contain the latest dispute.

"The two countries are heavily trading.  They have become important trading partners over the years. I don't think the disagreements regarding Syria will affect this trade partnership between the two countries," Aktar said.

Last year, a Russian company won $1 billion contract to build a nuclear reactor in Turkey.

Ankara, one of the biggest consumers of Russian energy, is lobbying to become an energy hub to distribute Russian energy to the region.

Despite these commercial ventures, Erdogan has recently stepped up his rhetoric against Moscow over its support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
 
Political scientist Aktar says Ankara underestimates the importance of Moscow in the region.

"So far Ankara does not take Russia seriously but maybe it should. Russia is a full partner in the Eastern Mediterranean game and therefore Turkey needs to take Russia seriously," Aktar said.

While Turkey deals with its frayed relationship with Moscow, it also faces rising tensions and home and with its other neighbors.

More than 100,000 mostly Sunni Muslim Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey, fleeing persecution by Mr. Assad and his Alawite militias.  Alawite Arabs in southern Turkey resent the refugees, mirroring Syria's Alawite-Sunni split.  Political analysts say this problem could spread in the region if Syria descends into sectarian warfare.

Iran, Assad's biggest backer, has become embittered by Turkey's position on Syria.

Semih Idiz is the diplomatic correspondent for the newspaper Milliyet.  He says Ankara's interception of the Syrian plane and the Iraqi prime minister's recent visit to Moscow are signs of a growing rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims that threatens to revive rivalries in the region.

"This situation will drive Ankara and Washington much closer. We've already seen Washington backing Turkey's decision to force landing this plane.  If you look at Russia, it's clearly reasserting itself in the region and the Shia element in the region is playing to Russia.  (Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri) Maliki was in Moscow, signed this major arms deal and said angry words at Turkey implying indirectly part of the reason why they are arming is because of Turkey.  So we have a new Cold War chess play developing and this is all coming out of Syria," Idiz said.

Many regional analysts agree that Turkey has one thing in its favor: It is the only member of the NATO military alliance bordering Syria.  The missiles that make up Syria's air defense and offensive capacities are now under NATO surveillance, which may help prevent further escalation in the region.