Critics of American and European policy towards Russia since the end of the Cold War, such as Noam Chomsky and Peter Hitchens, among others, have continuously pointed to the fact that Moscow has felt encircled in recent years. The expansion of NATO and the specter of former states within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence joining such an alliance is unacceptable from the point of view of any Russian leader, they invariably argue, and not just Vladimir Putin, whatever you might think of him and his various policies.
The same could be said to a large extent for Turkey in the Middle East. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has adamantly insisted that Turkey will maintain an active foreign policy in the region in spite of the many setbacks it has suffered in recent years, particularly in Syria where their efforts to pressure President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power and step-down have been an abysmal failure. Left to deal with over 2.5 million Syrian refugees and the reignited conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the east Turkey has a mere shadow of what it was a mere five years ago. This coupled with the tensions between it and Russia over its shooting down of the Russian warplane, which was bombing anti-Assad Turkmen on the Syrian side of the porous Syrian-Turkish frontier, last November has seen Turkey feeling more and more like it is being rolled back into a corner. This is a slap in the face of its grandiose view of itself as a great regional power which cannot be simply shoved into a corner by an outside power like Russia.
Had an American bomber flying along the Ukrainian-Russian border bombing Russian-backed separatists, in order to bolster the central government in Kiev, been shot down by a Russian jet in a similar fashion and had the Americans sought to punish the Russians in response, by placing sanctions on them and beefing up their military forces in Ukraine like Russia did in Syria, the Russians would doubtlessly have felt they were being unjustly treated as Ankara currently feels it is being.
Add to this the rise of the Kurds in Syria: Moscow’s embrace of the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) political party in Turkey coupled with its stated desire to open an office for the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Russia has deeply frustrated and angered Ankara. It has even lashed out angrily at Washington and openly question it about whether it supports Turkey as an ally or the PYD, which has been a valuable ad-hoc ally for the U.S. in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS).
All of these pronouncements are symptoms of a country which feels itself being unfairly marginalized and encroached upon. This is dangerous since it increases the chance that Turkey will do something reckless in an attempt to reverse this undesirable status quo. Likely in Syria. Tens-of-thousands more Syrians are converging on the Turkish border where they are not being allowed enter. They are fleeing a Syrian offensive in Aleppo which is making successful gains thanks to Russian air support. The Russians want to help the Syrians close off the border to Turkey and in doing so sever many supply lines to various armed anti-Assad groups Turkey, the Saudis and others, have been supporting. This will likely entail more Russian bombing of the Turkmen fighters on that border which might incur a Turkish response, increasing the risk of a clash or even a Russian shoot-down of jets belonging to that NATO air force or vice versa. A dangerous prospect for obvious reasons.
Turkey views the Turkmen south of its border, many of whom are Turkish nationals, in ways not overly dissimilar to how Russia views the people of Crimea, where many Russian-speakers feel more affinity with Moscow than they do with Kiev. Russian actions in Georgia and the Ukraine (both in support of separatist movements) in recent years may prove to be apt precedents to what Turkey may soon do in Syria in a clear bid to claim, or in its view reclaim, the mantle of being the dominant power in the region which will not tolerate anyone cornering it or stepping on its toes.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.