Turkey-Russia Crisis: Q&A With Haaretz's Zvi Bar'el

Our Middle East expert answers your questions on the states' spiraling ties in wake of the downed warplane.

Ahead of Haaretz QDr. Zvi Bar'el, our Middle East affairs analyst, answered readers' questions about the spiraling relationship between Ankara and Moscow after Turkey downed a Russian warplane that was fighting in Syria.

Q. When Israeli troops killed Turkish nationals on the Mavi Marmara it caused a total breakdown in ties between the countries that, years later, has not yet been resolved. Do you expect a similar breakdown in ties between Ankara and Moscow?

A. The context of this situation is different to that of the Mavi Marmara. Russia and Turkey are strategic allies on a wide range of issues. Russia supplies more than half of Turkey's gas consumption, Turkey needs Russia's cooperation to prevent the establishment of a Syrian-Kurdish "state," and Russia uses Turkey to bypass the sanctions enacted by the European Union and American over Russia's annexation of Crimea. Hence, it looks likely that the two countries will mend their dispute soon. You can read my latest analysis, "Despite Bold Declarations, Russia and Turkey Have Too Much Lose," for more on this.

Q. Russia's President Vladimir Putin thought he could flex his muscles unopposed in Syria. Do you think he grossly underestimated the region?

A. Putin can rely on the fact that no country is willing to get involved in a war in Syria. He has a lot of leverage on Syrian President Bashar Assad's decisions and he is cooperating with Iran. Thus, it is mostly up to Russia and Iran to draw the political map of the solution to the Syrian war.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.

Q. Do you think NATO will back Turkey against Russia?

A. NATO has already backed Turkey. However, the organization is investing efforts in reconciling the two states. The last thing NATO wants now is to engage in a dispute with Russia over Syria.

Q. Is Turkey's NATO membership the main reason for Russia's (apparent) restraint or for Turkey's (apparent) arrogance in this conflict?

 A. Turkey does not operate as a NATO proxy, nor does Russia consider its conflict with Turkey a NATO-Russia dispute. Yet, both countries are bound together by myriad of interests that help to restrain their reactions.

Q. How do the reactions of the United States and NATO to Russian aggression against a NATO member affect the future situation in the former Soviet satellite countries?

A. NATO condemned the Russian attacks while trying to mediate between Turkey and Russia. It is difficult to say at this point to what extent NATO would be willing to interfere militarily. I believe that NATO prefers to detach the Syrian arena from eastern Ukraine, so right now those attacks would have no bearing on other areas.   

Q. What are some scenarios in which Russia could push NATO into having to choose between backing Turkey, and getting sucked into a quagmire and possible confrontation with Russia, and one in which NATO does not back a member and Russia uses that nonsupport in its favor with former satellites?

 A. NATO's position is to refrain from any military engagement in Syria or in other parts of the world. Backing Turkey is demonstrated now by NATO's rhetoric.   

Q. Why hasn't Turkey apologized to Russia for downing the jet?

 A. Turkey's will likely issue an apology as the next step.  

Q. But why did it refuse to apologize thus far? And why do you expect it will change its mind now?

Every conflict has it course of evolution. Prestige has an important role in cultivating conflicts, yet real interests tend to prevail.

Q. What would be more beneficial to Israel's strategic interests: that the tension between Turkey and Russia subsides, or that it escalates to, say, a conflict?

A. Although neither Turkey nor Russia are strategic allies of Israel, Israel would not benefit from any dispute or tension between the two countries. Both are important partners in the current international process that aims to find a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis. Ending the war in Syria is a strategic interest of Israel, hence it is imperative that all parties concerned reach a consensus. A conflict between Turkey and Russia is definitely not helpful to achieve that goal.  

Q. Underneath it all, is the real point of contention between Turkey and Russia that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is afraid of the Kurds gaining power?

A. That is a major concern of Turkey.

Q. A lot has been written about the Kurds and the Al Nusra Front, among those fighting Assad. But until now we've barely heard of the Turkmen. Why is that? And who are they?

A. In fact, we also did not head about the Yazidis before they were massacred by Islamic State, not did we head about the Houthis in Yemen before the war. The Turkmen are one of the ethnic minorities that live mainly in Syria and Iraq. There are between 100,000 to 200,000 Turkmen living in Syria and they are considered by Assad's regime to be proxies of Turkey. Soon after Turkey shot down the Russian warplane, the Turkmen were attacked by Russian bombers. Turkey considers the Turkmen in Syria and Iraq to be its protégées. Hence the uproar in Turkey against Russia's claims that it is fighting terrorists while killing Turkmen civilians.

Q. To what extent do you think Turkey will tolerate Russia's continued and increased targeting of the Turkmen inside of Syria before Erdogan strikes back?

A. Russia is aware of Turkey's sensitivity toward the Turkmen population in Syria. However, it claims that it hits ISIS targets in the Latakya region, a claim that Turkey refutes by arguing that ISIS has little presence in that area. If Russia continues its attacks on the Turkmen, Turkey might intensify its aerial presence in the north eastern part of Syria, which may end in a clash between the two air forces.

Q. Was the Russian plane in Syrian airspace or Turkish airspace?

A. This is currently the core of the dispute. However, even if the Russian plane did cross into Turkish airspace, it is questionable as to whether Turkey needed to shoot it down.

Q. But Turkey said Russia had entered its airspace against Anakara's wishes on a number of occasions before it shot down this plane. That is, it seems Turkey was sick and tired of Russia ignoring its air-space sovereignty and this was its way of putting its foot down. What alternatives do you think Turkey had?

 A. There is a difference between a hostile incursion and a non-hostile one. Russia's planes have entered Israel's air space and still there is full cooperation with the Russian air force.  

Q. So what was Turkey's real motive in downing the Russian jet?

A. Formally, to protect its sovereignty. Turkey has warned Russia several times in the past not to penetrate its airspace. However, as Russia and Turkey are not enemies, apparently there was no threat to Turkey from Russia's incursion, so it seems more like a protestation of national pride rather than a protective measure. 

Q. Do you think the conflict in Syria is turning into World War Three?

A. No.

Q. How has this incident helped or hurt Turkey's stand within the European Union in regard to the integration process?

A. Turkey is using the European Union's panic over the influx in Syrian refugees into Europe to promote its accession to the EU. The incident with Russia is not a factor in that equation.  

Q. How does this incident affect the peace talks regarding Syria? (Some reports indicate that the deterioration in Turkish-Russian relations upsets the fragile Western coalition that is trying to stop ISIS, build bridges with moderate rebels, and find a solution for Syria that doesn't include Bashar Assad. What is your analysis?

A. It may affect the political negotiations as Russia may intensify its attacks against militias that are supported by Turkey, or if Russia further adopts the Syrian Kurds as partners, while Turkey regards them as terrorists. Yet, both Turkey and Russia have a mutual interest to end the war in Syria. It does not seem likely that either country would boycott the negotiations which will soon be resumed. 

Q. Who can outlast a prolonged economic sanctions campaign – Russia or Turkey? And how does this affect Iran and Turkey and their relationship to each other, with regards to trade and energy between the two and with regards to their situation with the countries in the region?

 A. So far, Russia has imposed only declarative sanctions on Turkey. If prolonged, they may hurt Turkey's tourism industry and part of its agricultural exports. However, Turkey's economy is healthy and Russia needs Turkey economically as much as Turkey needs the Russian market

Q. Where does Saudi Arabia fit into this situation between Turkey and Russia for promoting its own agenda?

 A. Russia and Turkey have good relations with Saudi Arabia, which is concerned mainly with the Iranian influence in the area. Hence, Saudi Arabia needs to coordinate its policies with Russia and with Turkey in order to maintain some influence over Syria's future and to minimize Iran's impact on the political outcome of the negotiations. Accordingly, so far, Saudi Arabia has not taken sides in the dispute between Turkey and Russia, hoping to keep both of them on its side.

Q. This is a related question, albeit slightly off-topic: Does a fragmented Syria (or fragmented Lebanon, Iraq or Turkey) help or hinder the West in its future dealings in the Middle East? Particularly in regards to formulating actions against extremist groups, the consequences resulting from effects of climate change on the region, or bringing the regional players to any type of enforceable treaty if the region reverts to a tribal, rather than national, basis. And, if these states do all fragment, does that boost Iran's status in both the region and the world stage as a populated state, a stable entity and one that has had a strong infrastructure for centuries?

 A. There are too many assumptions in this question to address. We have to realize that only four out of 22 Arab states and 57 Muslim nations are going through a process of civil war and fragmentation. But even in those countries, the struggle is over who rules their countries and not tribal areas. It is too early to mourn nationalism in the Middle East. 

That's all we've got time for today. Thank you for all your questions.