Once upon a Tsar and a Sultan: Putin vs. Erdogan

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem

Hisham Melhem


By : Hisham Melhem


When a Turkish jet fighter shot down a Russian warplane on Tuesday over the Syrian-Turkish borders, the multifaceted four and a half year-old war in Syria entered a new darker phase. Those dangerous deadly few moments were another reminder to the warring parties that one of their enduring enemies is the law of unintended consequences. Tension between the once sworn enemies was rising ever since Russia intervened militarily two months ago to support the teetering Assad regime, thus exploiting the vacuum created in part by the failure of the Obama administration to effectively influence the ebb and flow on the battlefields directly and through its allies and to provide strong leadership to shape and reconcile the competing interests of its regional allies in Syria.

Given the conflicting objectives of Russia and Turkey in Syria, their regional and international alliances, and their bitter history, the incident brought to the surface not only their decades-long enmity during the Cold War, but also the centuries-long bloody hostility between their predecessors, the Russian and the Ottoman Empires. Over the centuries Ottoman Sultans and Russian Tsars dispatched armies and navies against each other’s and fought long and horrendous wars on different fronts, by themselves and as part of alliances, exchanging territories mostly in Russia’s favor, sacking cities, engaging in mass killings, uprooting populations and etching in the collective memories of their peoples enduring impressions of rejection, hostility and demonization. In the last few days, part of this heavy and ugly inheritance has been resurrected by Russians and Turks who stormed social media and other parts of the virtual world, exchanging invective and insults, dusting off old stereotypes and reminding each others of their past moments of humiliations and triumphs. It did not help matters that the two autocratic leaders at the helm in Moscow, Vladimir Putin and in Ankara, (which replaced the old Sublime Port in Istanbul) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fancy themselves, act and are seen by some of their supporters as a Tsar and a Sultan conducting quixotic campaigns seeking partial imperial restoration.

Putin’s wrath

The aerial clash between Turkey and Russia, coming after ISIS took its terror to the heart of Paris, Sinai and Beirut, makes the ever-changing and fluid Syrian battlefields more complex, more confusing and very likely to prolong the war and entrench the Assad regime at least for the foreseeable future. For sure the United States and France will continue to talk about the ‘Vienna process’ for a political resolution to the conflict but their immediate priority is to fight ISIS not the Syrian regime, an objective Russia shares partially.(Iran and its Shiite auxiliaries can only welcome such an ISIS-focused campaign by the U.S. and its allies.) The brunt of Russia’s bombing campaign is felt by the moderate Syrian forces fighting the Assad regime, as well as the Chechen militants fighting with al-Nusra and other radical groups. Russia, as Putin and his senior advisors have been saying will attempt to punish Turkey economically and commercially, although this will not be cost free for Russia’s economy, given the significant amount of trade between the two countries. Putin’s aggressive foreign policy moves, from Georgia, to Ukraine to Syria are not usually tempered by economic calculus. Putin’s irredentist ambitions in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and in Central Asia harken back to Tsarist Russia, which also tried over generations of conflict with the Ottoman Empire to enlarge its control and sphere of influence around the Black Sea basin and to move Southward to the warm waters of the Mediterranean.

President Putin has a lot in common with Erdogan. He sees himself as the leader who will reestablish Mother Russia’s standing in the world as a major power

Hisham Melhem

But there will be a military aspect to Putin’s wrath. Already Russia’s air force has been pounding the Turkmen forces believed responsible for killing one of the two Russian pilots who ejected from the doomed warplane, in addition to a Russian Marine killed in the rescue operation. In fact, Russia’s raids on the Turkmen forces, operating reportedly with Ankara’s blessing and arms close to the Turkish borders against the Assad regime, led to Turkish complaints long before the downing of the Russian bomber. After Tuesday’s incident Russia reportedly intensified its bombing raids also against the Free Syrian Army units and other Islamist forces operating in the area, as well as providing air cover for the advancing Assad army.

Russia, while saying officially that it will not go to war with Turkey over the incident, and insisting on an official apology and compensation from Ankara, is trying to intimidate Turkey’s military and by extension the NATO alliance by deploying its most advanced air-defense missile system to a Syrian air base in Latakia, 30 miles south of the Turkish border. With a range of up to 250 miles, the S-400 covers a large swath of Southern Turkey, all of Cyprus and Lebanon, most of Syria and the northern half of Israel. This new system will complicate the American led air campaign against ISIS in Syria, and the Israeli Air Force’s flights and occasional bombings raids in Southern Syria. The U.S. is likely to be forced to revisit its technical ‘deconfliction’ understanding with the Russians to avoid accidents in Syria’s crowded air space.

Conflicting interests and strategies

The tension between Russia and Turkey which will mar their relations for some time to come, even if both Presidents are brought together by French President Francois Hollande who is very eager to cooperate with any power willing to help him fight ISIS. This tension, in addition to France’s immediate objective of ‘destroying’ ISIS, an impossible goal without powerful ground troops, will further complicate and delay the search for the elusive political resolution, which was even bogged down before Tuesday’s clash.

There are serious disagreements among the international and regional powers and the Syrian opposition groups willing to enter into a political process, over the nature of the transitional period to a post-Assad political order, and over the fate of Assad and his cronies during the transition, how to reach and monitor the cease fires, and what to do meanwhile with the hard core militants like al-Nusra Front not to mention ISIS. In the absence of a comprehensive strategy that includes building a coalition of Syrian forces supported politically and materially by the U.S. and its European and regional allies to confront both ISIS and the Syrian regime simultaneously the quest for a political resolution will lead to an endless wilderness. Most civil wars are ended either with a decisive and relatively quick military victory (American and Spanish civil wars) or when the warring parties become exhausted after a protracted conflict were they on their own or with outside parties reach a resolution that reflects the military balance on the ground in which one party emerges as more dominant if not overwhelmingly victorious to impose its writ. Unfortunately the warring parties in Syria are not there yet.

The Russian military intervention which led to the tension with Turkey, along with ISIS taking its terror to the world made the Syria war the most complex and bewildering civil war in recent memory. Consider the following: Three of the five permanent members of the United Nation Security Council are waging wars against different combatants. The United States and France are bombing ISIS targets and leaders. Russia is in Syria to fight the enemies of the Assad regime, and to put it bluntly to kill Chechen fighters in Syria instead of waiting for them to return to Chechnya in the Russian Federation. The two major non-Arab regional powers; Iran and Turkey are engaged in the war and have been competing for years to shape the future of Syria (and Iraq). Iran is doing so directly by deploying advisors and elite forces and through its Shiite auxiliaries, mainly Hezbollah and by providing arms to the Syrian regime. Iran’s intervention has saved the Assad regime from demise. Turkey has been providing arms to anti-Assad forces, including unfortunately hard core Jihadists, and through its porous borders the worst blood thirsty foreign fighters found their way to join ISIS in Syria. Turkey’s priorities in Syria include preventing the Kurds there from establishing a contiguous autonomous region that could eventually secede, in addition to toppling Assad and playing a major economic role in rebuilding (and influencing) Syria. Both Iran and Turkey have intensified their efforts to shape the future of Iraq by exploiting geography, sectarian and ethnic divisions and the economic interests of various Iraqi groups. The third major non-Arab regional power, Israel has limited its role to occasional military raids into Syria, mostly to interdict and destroy arms shipment to Hezbollah and/or to hit Hezbollah leaders operating close to its borders.

Coalitions without strategies

Both the United States and the Russian Federation are leading competing coalitions in Syria. For more than a year President Obama’s coalition has waged an air campaign against ISIS with limited success. President Putin is essentially leading a coalition that includes Iran, Iraq and what is left of the Syrian regime. After the Paris attack, Putin was hoping to recruit French President Hollande in his own coalition. In fact Putin is projecting Russia (and himself) as the leading international power against terrorism. Ever since Putin’s intervention in Syria, Ukraine has receded as a pressing issue for the European Union which was very busy and burdened by the challenge of the (mostly) Syrian refugee crisis, and where Putin succeeded in creating a rift among European countries about the future of Assad in Syria with German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling publicly for negotiations with the Syrian President. As a wingman in the air war against ISIS, President Hollande, has to decide soon whether to fly behind Obama or Putin.

Once upon a Tsar and a Sultan

Both President Erdogan and Putin are historic, if negative, leaders. Erdogan is the most consequential Turkish leader since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Turkish Republic in 1923. Erdogan, in power since 2003 as Prime Minister and President, has been chipping away at Turkey’s secular polity while reviving its Islamic identity and causing in the process deep political polarization in Turkish society. He has presided over a period of economic growth, during which Turkey ‘returned’ economically and politically to its old Ottoman provinces in the Levant and Mesopotamia. Erdogan’s disturbing and growing autocratic tendencies and practices (hence the Ottoman Sultan label) are causing deep anxieties in Turkish society and polity to the point where serious Turkish analysts are warning that he may be leading the country towards civil strife and dangerous regional entanglements.

President Putin has a lot in common with Erdogan. He sees himself as the leader who will reestablish Mother Russia’s standing in the world as a major power. He has yet to reconcile himself with the collapse of the Soviet Union, although the power he wants to resurrect is that of Orthodox and Slavic Russia. Just as Erdogan is harken back to what was once the seat of the Ottoman Muslim Empire in Istanbul, Putin harks back to Tsarist Russia with its distinct Slavic culture, the same Mother Russia that defeated Napoleon, and later Hitler, (Russian Nationalism defeated the Third Reich, not communism) built the magnificent city of Saint Petersburg and gave the world the Bolshoi, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

This Russia has played a historic role in the ‘Holy Land’ and the greater region south of Russia that is called now the Middle East sees itself as destined once again to play a similar role. It was a brazen act on Putin’s part to exploit the Russian Orthodox Church by getting its leaders to bless his war in Syria as a ‘holy war.’ Ironically both Putin and Erdogan are the implicit claimants of two out of the four Empires, the other two being the Austria-Hungary and German Empires that collapsed after WWI, the bloodiest war in human history until that time. Both the Tsar and the Sultan are watching and trying to shape what was left of the brittle political order that emerged in the Levant and Mesopotamia following the end of the age of Empires that barely survived a century.


Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted “Across the Ocean,” a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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