Are Turkey and Russia going to clash?

Is the next world war going to start between Turkey and Russia over the crisis in Syria?

Dr. Mordechai Kedar

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The fish restaurants on Istanbul's boardwark, along the shore of the Bosphorus, are a much loved haunt for Istanbul residents looking for a place to relax in the ancient Turkish city. Large seagulls wander fearlessly among the tourists and passersby. Boats and other vessels sailing the waters only meters away from the diners give the impression of calm, but actually, it is here that the Turks witness a most frightening and impressive event, the sight of Russia flexing its muscles as another Russian battleship on its way south to Syria passes by every few hours. 

The Russian ships are large and dangerous-looking. The noise they make causes the plates in the restaurant to tremble - and not just the plates.

From the start of the Civil War in Syria in March 2011, Russia and Turkey have found themselves on opposing sides in the conflict. Russia supports Assad with all its diplomatic might, and lately, its military power, while Turkey does everything in its power to overthrow Assad and his regime. Putin and Erdogan are both strong leaders, feuding atop the ruins of Syria and the bodies of its people.

Up to now, the feud between the two was evident mainly in the logistic help both sides gave, one to Assad and the other to his oppo‎sition, but lately, a most dangerous direct confrontation seems to be developing betrween the two countries. Both are ruled by leaders who are drunk with power and lacking in self control, both cannot separate the personal dimension from the military, political and cultural one. 

Russia is a secular country concerned with guarding its status as a world power, while Turkey is a religious Islamist country to whom the status of Islam as leader of civilization is paramount. Russia has enormous miilitary power, and Turkey - in addition to its large military strength - is also a member of NATO, an organization with a list of longterm grievances against Russia, including Ukraine and the placing of rockets and artillery in Eastern European countries. 

Of late, Western European members of NATO have been accusng Turkey of responsibility for the wave of migrants washing up on European shores, some of whom pass through Turkey. Some European leaders are of the opinion that Erdogan is flooding the continent with migrants on purpose in order to carry out what has begun to be called "migrant jihad." 

However, the Syrian issue is much more serious than all the others put together, because over the past few weeks Russia is directly involved in the Syrian fighting, and its army - particularly its air force - is carrying out large scale wartime activities that have led to a large number of casualties on Turkey's southern border. The Turks, watching the battleships pass through Turkey - that is, the Bosphorus, sometimes known as the Istanbul Straits - know full well that these ships carry deadly weapons that will be used to help Assad, Erdogan's sworn enemy. 

Obama does not want to be involved in the dispute beween Turkey and Russia, because that will force him to admit that there is a problem in the Middle East that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not affect in the least.
Turkish sensitivity to Russia's warlike activities has increased over the last few days, when Russian planes began to bomb Turkmen rebel targets to the east of Latakia, the port city located in the Allawite state that Putin is establishing for himself and Assad. The Turks could not sit idly by knowing that their brothers were being attacked by massive Russian bombs, and decided to act against the Russian bombers.   

This past Tuesday,Turkey downed a Russian Sokay 24 fighter jet which it claimed entered Turkish air space after it was warned not to do so. Russia, however, claims that the plane was downed when it was in Syrian skies and that the incident was a "knife in Russia's back." This is not a random expression, it hints that Russia sees Turkey as part of Islamic State and that the country is using the knife-wielding methods of its protege. After all, Turkey aided Islamic State in many ways over the last two years, from logistics, starting with oil purchases, on to smuggling Jihadists across the border. Maybe Putin was even influenced by the spate of Palestinian Arab knifings when he used that expression.

In addition to its sharp verbal response, Russia is advancing S-300 rocket batteries into northwest Syria. This location will allow Russia to operate against the Turkish air force deep in Turkish territory and endanger NATO air force activity at the Interlaken base.

Moscow has a longstanding  vendetta against this air base, because the U-2 and SR-71 spy and photographing planes would take off from there and circle over the USSR at a height that precluded dealing with them. Only one U-2 crash landed, because of a technical failure that forced its pilot to lose height. Closing the Interlaken air space will be an example of sweet revenge for Russia.

At the same time, Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, cancelled a visit to Turkey that was to have taken place this week, called due to the fear that rising tension between Russia  and Turkey would endanger the trade between the two that equals ten of billions every day.

Erdogan had said that Turkey could find a substitute for Russian gas and would rethink its entire trade strategy with Russia. Erdogan knows that Russia's depressed economic condition makes it fair game for countries to wave economic issues in Putin's face, but his ego may be even more important than Russian economics.

Russia recently limited the movement of Turkish trucks in Russian territory in the central Asian republics, hurting the exports of Turkey, which has has other reasons to doubt Russia's intentions as Russia has a good relationsihp with several Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq who seem to be able to deal with the Jihadist forces of Islamic State, at least on a local level.

At the last UN General Assembly, Putin announced that the only forces fighting Islamic State are the Syrian army and the Kurds. Erdogan sees that announcement as harmful to the Turks and to himself  personally, because in his mind he is also fighting Islamic State, not just the Kurds and Russians whom he hates.

Another bench player on the field of conflict between Russia and Turkey is America. President Obama is in a quandary. On the one hand he worries about Putin suddenly escalating his activities against Turkey, a NATO member who might request protection from its allies, first among them the USA. In the case of a violent dispute between acountry that is a NATO member and one that is not, it is expected that NATO allies will come to the aid of that member both militarily and economically.  

Obama does not want to be involved in the dispute beween Turkey and Russia, because that will force him to admit that there is a problem in the Middle East that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not affect in the least. The heads of the European NATO countries do not want to face Putin in battle either. They did not do so in Ukraine, their eastern neighbor, and they will not do it in Syria, which is neither a neighbor nor European. Besides, Obama does not want to go to war with Putin because Putin is too strong, too resolute and too dangerous. Erdogan is also too impulsive for Obama's taste, whch is why Washington has called on Russia and Turkey to straighten out their differences quietly and calm down the atmosphere.

The problem is that last week, several official Russian organzations announced that they are severing ties with Turkish organizations while travel agencies are cancelling tours booked for Russians to Turkey. This will cause significant economic damage to tourist spots which do quite well on the income from Russian tourism. 

After the Russian passenger plane blew up over the Sinai, Russian tourists were sent to Turkey as an alternate site. If this tourism is afraid to go to Turkey where can it go? to Israel? That would be good news for Eilat's hotel owners, but not good for Israel. It won't take a minute for Israel to be held responsible for creating the conflict between Turkey and Russia so that it could convince Russian tourists to forget travelling to Sinai and Turkey and enjoy Israel's beautiful and pristine beaches.

Conspiracy theory runs rampant in the MIddle East. Even the fish in the Bosphorus and the gulls of Istanbul are party to it.