Russia on the doorstep

Vladimir Putin’s conversion of western Syria into a Russian protectorate rekindles a Russo-Turkish contest that harks back centuries.

Russian military official Sergei Kuralenko briefs, via video link, foreign military attachés in Moscow on Russia’s suspension of air strikes in a ‘green zone’ in Syria in line with a cessation of hostilities plan, February 27 (photo credit: SHIN BET,REUTERS)
Russian military official Sergei Kuralenko briefs, via video link, foreign military attachés in Moscow on Russia’s suspension of air strikes in a ‘green zone’ in Syria in line with a cessation of hostilities plan, February 27
(photo credit: SHIN BET,REUTERS)
“RUSSIA TREATED me well,” said an aging Catherine the Great in thanking the nation which she joined as a foreigner “with three or four dresses” before inheriting, and ruling with an iron fist, her assassinated husband Peter III’s empire.
In what now can be seen as shedding light on Russia’s current Middle Eastern game, the German-born empress then added, “But I paid back my debt – with Azov, Ukraine and Crimea,” mapping the vast conquests that were part of her adopted country’s expansion during her 34-year-rule.
Driven by a search for the furs without which humans would not survive its winters, Russia’s expansion initially pointed east, as its hunters crossed the Urals, settled Siberia, and, by the 17th century, camped at the doorstep of China.
That existential need to look east was later coupled by a commercial urge and cultural resolve to turn west ‒ a quest that led to the creation of St. Petersburg and the construction of a merchant fleet and navy with which Russia soon cast its shadow over the Baltic Sea.
With its feet thus planted in the Far East and opposite Scandinavia, Russia looked south where it saw what it sees there to this day: Turkey, the Middle East and a confusion of religious memories, ethnic fraternity and strategic dreams.
The Russian-Turkish confrontation, which produced 12 wars since the 16th century, was frequently animated by Russia’s concern for fellow Slavs, such as the Serbs and Bulgarians; and also for Eastern Christianity, whose Russian-backed interests in the Holy Land sparked the bloody Crimean War (1853-1856).
Yet, these ethnic and religious motivations paled compared to the geographic compulsion for a harbor in warm waters, not strangled by ice in winter. Expanding at a time when Europeans to their west were conquering the high seas, Russia remained essentially continental, and its leaders strove to offset this disadvantage.
That is why the czars craved the Black Sea, which, until the 18th century, was effectively an Ottoman lake. Russia, therefore, consistently pushed the Turks south, from the days of Peter the Great in the 17th century until Catherine annexed Crimea in 1783 from the local Muslim khanate, which was an Ottoman vassal.
The peninsula that penetrates the Black Sea 280 kilometers from Turkish shores became the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, a naval force that exists there to this day. In the fleet’s first battle, in 1853, Russian warships struck and annihilated a squadron of Ottoman ships anchored in Sinop harbor 700 kilometers east of Istanbul.
That is how, in the words of historian Herbert Fisher, the czars came to “regard the Turk as the power that stood between Russia and the sun,” and to assume that “the friends of the Turks were their enemies; the enemies of the Turks were their friends.”
These are the kinds of memories the Russians now bring with them as they return to the Middle East following a 40 year-long retreat into the geopolitical wilderness.
As President Vladimir Putin sees his role in history, it is to restore Russia’s imperial status in the international system ‒ an aim that begins in Czarist Russia’s southern fl ank. That is why he annexed Crimea and that is why he set out to repatriate Ukraine’s ethnic Russians.
Most importantly, however, this aim is about restoring Russia’s access to warm waters. That is why, last year, Putin signed a deal with Cyprus that allows the Russian navy to anchor in Cypriot ports. In this regard, there is no difference between him and the USSR, which made the Syrian port of Tartus a Soviet naval base as part of its arms deals with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez.
That was also Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s aim when, following the Six Day War in 1967, he resupplied Egypt’s battered military, partly in return for access to its Mediterranean ports, a concession Abdel Nasser made against the advice of his friend Josip Tito of Yugoslavia.
THE WARMTH Putin sought, and found, with the Greek Cypriots was not only in their waters, but also their hearts.
The czars, for centuries, have seen themselves as the Third Rome ‒ heirs to the Byzantine Empire that was crushed by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and protectors of the remnants of that civilization. To Cyprus, which Turkey invaded in 1974 and partly occupies to this day, Russia’s naval presence is a priceless counterweight.
Many non-Russians find all this history exotic. Not the Turks.
Seen from Istanbul, the Russian thrust that began with Peter the Great’s arrival at the Black Sea was ultimately driven by a deep yearning for the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, which the Turks conquered in 1453 and renamed Istanbul. This way, went the suspicion, Russia would have both its warm water and also liberate Orthodox Christianity’s original bastion.
These, then, are the memories, suspicions and strategies at play as Russia’s halfyear- long intervention in the Syrian civil war unfolds.
However, the Russian geostrategic attitude toward the Syrian civil war, now openly offensive, was originally defensive.
Like everyone else, Moscow was caught off guard when the Arab civil wars broke out. In March 2011, when demonstrators swarmed in Damascus and NATO began bombing Libya, Russia felt strategically threatened. Its immediate response was to prevent a rerun of the Libyan scenario in Syria.
That meant granting Moscow’s loyal proxy Assad the foreign backing Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi lacked, and at the same time preventing Western interference of the sort that unleashed NATO’s bombers on Libya. Last fall, with Assad’s survival reasonably secured, this defensive plan gave way to offense.
Until then, Moscow gave Assad much needed arms and diplomatic backing, but had stopped short of pressing triggers for him. This changed in September, when Russian jets began bombing Assad’s enemies, soon delivering him gains on the ground.
Some observers initially scratched their heads, failing to understand either the Russian tactic or strategy. They are now clear.
The tactic is to grant Assad bridgeheads in three of his country’s four corners from which his troops will slowly advance inland as they set out to restore territories the regime lost to a host of rebel groups over the past five years.
The first of these bridgeheads is Aleppo, now an urban maze of battlefield rubble but originally Syria’s economic heartland. The aerial poundings of recent months have already brought the city under siege by Assad and have since proceeded north toward the Turkish border.
Meanwhile, Russian engineers were spotted on the northern border’s opposite end, in Kamishli, measuring an airstrip they seem intent on upgrading for the use of Putin’s jets. This formula will then be applied in the south, near Dara, where local unrest originally ignited the civil war. Syria’s fourth corner, the southwest, is largely held by Assad’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.
These are the Russian tactics. Its strategy is to consolidate Syria as a Russian protectorate, and its coastal strip as a Russian military outpost.
The Russian Air Force’s activation in Aleppo was preceded by the construction of an air base outside the port city Latakia.
Coupled with the Tartus naval base some 70 kilometers to the south, this creates the basis for a Russian military colony comprising thousands of troops and advisers, whose extraction will happen over Putin’s dead body, and of his successors, too.
That is the geography. Then there is ethnography.
The Syrian coastal plain sprawls at the foothills of the Nasseriya Mountains, which are the stronghold of the Alawite minority from which the Assad clan hails.
Hence, the Russian objective is that Syria emerges from the war the way it entered it – under Alawite rule. With the Alawites eternally indebted to Russia and clutching the Syrian coast, Putin grants Mother Russia a maritime outpost of which the greatest czars could only dream.
From Russia’s viewpoint, then, this is part of a broad vision of imperial restoration, a natural follow-up to the multibilliondollar arms deals Putin signed last year with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, 40 years after Anwar Sadat shed Moscow’s tutelage for Washington’s.
From Assad’s point of view, having the Kremlin sink roots in his land is the best he could salvage out of the mess he has made of his father’s estate. From Turkey’s point of view, this is a nightmare.
The sultans feared Russia even when it lurked more than 500 kilometers beyond the Black Sea.
Antagonism toward Russia is what landed modern Turkey in NATO when it had the Red Army on its borders until the USSR made way for post-Soviet Georgia and Armenia, a remapping that pushed the Russians some 200 kilometers away from the Turks.
LAST FALL, the Turks woke up and found Russia back on their doorstep.
Worse, what began with an air base by the coast that soon may be followed by another, near Iraq, is now animated by Russian assistance for the Turks’ domestic nemesis, the Kurds, who lace the 800-kilometer Turkish-Syrian border from both sides.
As seen from Ankara, it takes no paranoiac to suspect that the Russians are conspiring to dismantle Turkey: First they colluded with its Greek Cypriot enemies; then they backed the Turks’ Syrian enemy Assad; then they parked on the Syrian side of the Turkish border; and then they began colluding with the Kurds who threaten Turkey from within.
Finally, the Russian-led challenge to Turkey is also joined by Iran, which has its own place of honor in Turkey’s historic traumas.
Of the 12 Russo-Turkish wars, two ended inconclusively, one was won by Turkey with the help of Britain and France, and seven were won by Russia.
Of the 12, only once, in 1711, did the Turks deal the Russians a decisive defeat, circling the Russians and Peter the Great himself some 300 kilometers west of Odessa, in what now is Romania. The Turks could have captured Peter and marched on Moscow, but news suddenly arrived that the Caliphate had just been invaded from the east, by the Persians.
Now, as the Turks see things, the Persians are back, again helping the Russians undermine their cause, meddling in Ankara’s backyard while importing Shi’ite warriors from Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan, in addition to Iranian cash, oil, advisers and materiel. Worse, the Turks feel their American allies have abandoned them to Russia’s devices.
This, then, was the backdrop against which the Turkish Air Force downed a Russian bomber in November. The Turks feel threatened, provoked, isolated and insecure as they haven’t felt since the twilight of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.
The Turkish counter-strategy is to create a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border, and at the same time use the entire crisis as leverage in its historic effort to be admitted into the European Union.
Turkey’s impending encroachment on Syrian land has effectively begun, in two ways: Militarily, it is fi ring artillery salvos at Kurdish positions in Syria; and in ostensible humanitarian gestures, it has set up tent cities on Syrian soil for the refugees who come knocking on Turkey’s door.
Diplomatically, at the same time, Turkey is demanding that the unofficial Kurdish autonomy in northeastern Syria end on the east bank of the Euphrates, thus preventing the morphing of the Syrian-Turkish border into a tumor in Turkey’s Kurdish underbelly.
In due course, this may well produce a Turkish protectorate in northern Syria that will rival Russia’s in the west. Chances that Turkey will make Russia retreat are low, and chances are sadly high that, a century after their last war, Turkey and Russia will once again spar.
Yet, the historic clash between Russia and Turkey has actually produced two welcome contributions to mankind. Dismayed by the Crimean War’s mounting fatalities – ultimately half-a-million Russian, Turkish, French and British victims of bullets, bombs, bayonets, and disease – Victorian social reformer Florence Nightingale traveled to the battlefield to treat the wounded, thus pioneering modern nursing and also the modern empowerment of women.
The renewed Turkish-Russia contest is not bound to be nearly as bloody, nor does it have in store anything quite as comforting as a Victorian nurse. It is, however, retrieving from history’s attic a proud Russia’s resolute march and an embattled Turkey’s clenched fist.