The Turkish Red Line and A Strategic Shift

Nov. 30, 2015 Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian warplane drew the country deeper into the Syrian crisis, even though it has been reluctant to get involved in the civil war raging across its border.

|November 30, 2015

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By George Friedman

The Turks shot down a Russian Su24 last week. The decision to shoot down the aircraft was enormously significant. This was not because there had been a confrontation with Russia. The consequences of such a confrontation can be contained. The reason is because it drew Turkey deeper into direct involvement with the conflicts swirling around its borders. Geopolitical Futures’ model holds that Turkey will resist such involvement vigorously, but will be drawn into these conflicts against its will, and when it is, it will emerge as the major power in the region. The willingness of the Turks to engage the Russians directly represents precisely the kind of reluctant assertiveness we expected, and represents a substantial step in the process that has been in place for a while.

On a certain level, destruction of the Russian aircraft was fairly routine and not particularly noteworthy. The Russians had been casual about the Turkish border, as happens during combat operations. Ankara had warned the Russians repeatedly and had been ignored. The Russians regarded the limited incursions as not all that significant. However, the Turkish leadership took a different position. Given the 17 seconds the incursion lasted, the decision to shoot down the plane was not made at the highest levels of the Turkish government. In fact, the F-16s that shot it down were not scrambled as they had to be on patrol already. This means that the Turkish leadership had made the political decision to shoot down an intruder, and the decision to shoot down this particular aircraft was made by ground control or pilots. In fact, following the incident, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he personally ordered the military to shoot down jets intruding into Turkish airspace. The incident was the result of a political decision.

The Turkish reason for shooting down the Russian plane had several immediate motives. Incursions happen but if there is no response from the country whose airspace is violated, the intruding country might draw a dangerous conclusion, which is that Turkey is either too disinterested, weak or frightened to intercept. In that case the incursions would likely get more frequent or intensive.

Moreover, Russia’s reason for being in Syria was in part irrelevant to Turkey and in part hostile. One reason for Russia being in Turkey was to challenge American control in the Middle East and to establish Russia as a great regional power. That had as much to do with pending Ukrainian negotiations as with Syria. This was not a matter that Turkey cared much about.

The other reason was to preserve the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Russia — and the Soviet Union before it — had been allied with the Assad clan since 1970. Russia wants to be regarded as a great power and to allow the Assad regime to be destroyed would not have been compatible with this. Russian credibility required that they act to save it from the Islamic State, the U.S. or Turkey. It was not an intervention against any nation, so much as an intervention on behalf of Assad. At the same time, it was not an intervention that displeased the Americans. They wanted Assad gone, but did not want to create a vacuum that IS could fill. The U.S. couldn’t protect the Assad regime but it did not want it to fall. This solved a problem.

However, it created a huge problem for the Turks. The Turks had been hostile to the Assad family for as long as the Russians supported them. Part of the reason was that the Turks were hostile to the Soviet Union while the Assad regime was their ally, and Soviet weapons in Syria threatened Turkey. The Turks were trapped between the Soviet Union to the north and Soviet allies — Syria and Iraq — to the south. It was not a comfortable position to be in and Russia had bad memories of the Turks going back centuries. The second issue was religious. Turkey is predominantly Sunni and the current AKP government is far more religiously oriented than previous secular governments. The Assad clan is Alawite, a variety of Shia Islam. One dimension of the region today is intensifying hostility between Sunni and Shiite actors. The long-term tension between Turkey and Assad now has an added dimension.

But the deepest issue is simply that the Turks retreated into their heartland after the Ottoman Empire. There is no room to retreat further and even that heartland contains dangerous fragments — the Kurds in the southeast. Turkey has had a fixed historic strategy since the fall of the Ottomans. On the one hand, they have avoided entanglements, particularly military entanglements, outside of Turkey in the region. Thus, for example, in World War II, in spite of potential opportunities for expansion, they rejected overtures from both the Germans and the Allies. During the Cold War, they would allow the Americans to help guarantee their national security, but limited their own exposure. During the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Turks refused the Americans the right to invade Iraq from the north.

At the same time, given their unwillingness to involve themselves outside of Turkey, they maintained an absolute commitment to securing Turkey internally and along its existing borders. The unwillingness to tolerate Russian incursions, however slight, inside Turkey’s borders is the same as their extreme unease with Kurdish intensions to the east, particularly in light of the gains made by Syrian Kurds on their southeastern flank.

All of these operational principles that have constituted Turkey’s model are in danger of breaking down. Part of this is simply a matter of Syria. The Turks must be concerned with the Syrian border. The myriad forces building up in Syria have the potential of spreading the conflict — or the power of one group or another — northward beyond Turkey’s border. Turkey’s attempt to maintain control of its frontier is threatened by Russia attacking Turkic groups in Syria, allied with Turkey and serving as a buffer to their south. The Russian protection of Assad, and effective control over Assad’s strategy, has made these groups a primary target. From the Turkish point of view, this doesn’t make sense unless the Russians mean to challenge Turkish territory. What from the Russian point of view is the suppression of anti-Assad factions is from the Turkish point of view preparation for a challenge from Russia.

At the same time, there is a broader picture. The historical challenge of Russia has come from the north. The Turks have interests in the Black Sea, obviously, but also in Ukraine and Crimea itself, where ethnically related Tartars live. The latter are not currently overwhelmingly significant concerns for Turkey, but it provides a sense of how wide their historically based interests go.

Russia has now entered a new phase in its history. Its interest in Ukraine and failure to achieve its ultimate objectives there – including not having a pro-Western government in Kiev – does not calm Turkish nerves. They know that in the long run Russia must, at the very least, have a neutral Ukraine. They also know that command of the Black Sea by the Russian Navy has been a historical given. At this point, the Turks can’t assume that Ukrainian neutrality is all that Russia wants and, while it knows Russia’s military capability is limited at this point, it does not know that this will be true in the next two years. Nor does Turkey know, given Russian insecurity, that Russia will not expand its diplomatic and military presence in the Caucasus. In watching preliminary negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia sponsored by the Russians, Turkey understands that it is not only the Black Sea that is at stake, but Turkey’s northeastern border as well.

It is also not clear what end state Russia is seeking in Syria. Defending the Assad regime and asserting its equality with the U.S. is one thing. However, regardless of Russia’s subjective desires, objectively, the success of Russia in saving Assad — or his government, with Assad at the helm — will leave Russia in a powerful position. Therefore, Turkey is now watching the Russians, whom they were no much concerned with in recent years, executing an encirclement of Turkey. Encirclement may not be Russia’s intention, but realties are more important than intentions.

Then there are the Americans, whom Turkey has kept at arms length in recent years. The U.S. has, since World War II, been the guarantor of Turkey’s national security. At this point, the U.S. has shifted its broader strategy from one of direct, full-spectrum military engagement, to limited involvement and dependence on secondary powers needed to establish a balance of power and, therefore, contain each other. The Turkish desire to operate within its borders and not support American operations in the region now turns on the Turks. Facing a broad potential challenge from the Russians, the Turks find the Americans no longer have a singular concern in Turkish national security.

The U.S. is prepared to allow Russia to protect the Assad regime and is not challenging its support of Assad’s attack on the north. The U.S. is content to let events take their course. The American interest in Iraq is primarily the defense of the Kurds in the north, a strategy that leaves Turkey more than a little uneasy, particularly when accompanied by the strange entente with Iran. And finally, the American interest in finding some accommodation in Ukraine — not shared by some in the current administration but driven by limits of American power to defend Ukraine against an attack by Russia that is far from imminent — means that the future of its northern interface with Russia is in question.

All of this mixes with the IS question, which I put last because from the Turkish standpoint, this is a secondary threat to the Russian operations along its frontiers and to the unwillingness of the U.S. to block them without a regional coalition. It is interesting that aside from rhetoric, the U.S. and Turkey are unwilling to insert major forces to defeat IS. Judging by actions the U.S. is content to allow events to evolve as they might, and Turkey’s focus is on trying to protect its borders without being drawn into the conflict. IS is not drawing major effort from either country.

But it is clear after the Su-24 was shot down and the Russians announced sanctions on Turkey, that Turkey’s current concern is Russia. According to our model, as Russia weakened and became more aggressive, and Turkey strengthened, inevitably there would be a clash between the two. Turkey must have U.S. support, but it will not come in Syria. The primary American strategy against the Russians is constructing an alliance structure from the Baltics to Romania. Ideally this alliance structure must include Georgia and Azerbaijan and therefore the pivot of the alliance structure is Turkey. The American price for rebuilding its relationship with Turkey is joining in this informal alliance, sanctioned as it is by NATO. That would create a line of containment from the Baltics to Azerbaijan and make Poland and Turkey the foundations of the alliance system.

This would, of course, move Turkey along to a new strategic posture where it must project force beyond its borders, since the containment of Russia must be fluid. This is a line that the Turks have been unwilling to cross to date. However, with the shoot-down of a Russian aircraft — and all the other Russian-focused matters swirling around them, our model predicts that Turkey will be drawn outward, not because of IS — although that may be an issue as well — but because of Russia. This will draw them out and into an alliance structure that the U.S. has been carefully and quietly constructing. And any membership of Turkey in this alliance will require it to go beyond its borders and move beyond the past century of its history.

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