‘The Turks don’t rush to break down walls with their foreheads: if it didn’t work, they retreat and look for retours’
Viktor Nadein-Rayevsky on what the clinch in Idlib would end with
The conflict in the province of Idlib where Turkish armed forces that controlled this area began to clash with the Syrian army backed by Russian aviation is escalating in Syria. President of Turkey Recep Erdoğan characterised the situation in Idlib with the word “war”, while some experts forecast a throwback in Russian-Turkish relationships to the point in the 2015-2016s when they suddenly got worse due to a Russian bomber downed by Turkey. Will the sides come to an agreement soon? If so, on what? Leading researcher of the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, expert in Turkic studies Viktor Nadein-Rayevsky talked about this in an interview with Realnoe Vremya.
“All misfortunes of today’s Syria focused precisely on Idlib”
Mr Nadein-Rayevsky, can we say that Idlib is the only obstacle to complete peace in Syria?
Of course, Idlib impedes peace from establishing — constant shelling of the Syria army that got to both Aleppo and the Russian military base in Latakia came from precisely Idlib, moreover, all misfortunes of today’s Syria focused precisely on Idlib. And if order isn’t put there, it is useless to talk about peace in Syria. Moreover, when there is a political process (while Syria has approached it) and when different political forces, which are though not always friendly to each other, with different concepts of further development are ready to come to the table and talk about the country’s future, in this situation Idlib is like a bone in the throat.
If everything in this region happened as it was once agreed in Sochi, the conflict wouldn’t have aggravated (Editor’s Note: according to agreements as of 2018, Turkey committed itself to shift part of the Syrian opposition it backs up 20 km far from the front line and separate the opposition from radical Islamists a fight against whom was in the region). In 2018, according to these agreements, the Turks got a chance of saving not only their accomplices in Idlib (Turkomans, some moderate Islamists) but also people: yes, rebels’ families turned out among residents of the province who total over three million there, but Russia gave an opportunity to save them.
But the Turks had been messing Russia about for two years and have been doing it frankly — they didn’t manage to perform their task. They thought that with the help of Turkomans and moderate Islamists (who are ready to agree understanding the hopelessness of their situation), they can subdue all inner life of this enclave. But this purpose they had to bring members of former Jabhat al-Nusra and members of other groups, which total over ten, to order. The Turks even tried to establish their order, there was an attempt at making different groups obey truce, but this failed. Unrestrained rebels, extremist rebels managed to seize almost all the territory having driven out pro-Turkish forces and put the Turks at risk. Though they didn’t disturb the Turks because the Turkish troops were a defence umbrella from Syrian troops and the Russian Aerospace Forces.
The Turks even tried to establish their own order, there was an attempt at making different groups obey truce, but this failed
Then the rebels kept to actively firing Syrian troops to take control of the situation and spread it to all Syria. Former Jabhat al-Nusra isn’t going to give up there, neither does it need peace. Such people aren’t taught to work, they know just how to grab a rifle and lay mines. Of course, there are ideologists among these Islamists who consider that it is necessary to establish a worldwide caliphate and live by Sharia laws having expelled representatives of other religions and ethnicities from Syria like Christians, Kurds, they are intending to force some to adopt Islam.
Does it mean that purely the Syrian armed opposition isn’t a problem to achieve peace?
The opposition was ready to negotiate, and precisely due to this readiness world leaders hoped that the Turks would manage to take the situation under control. But they didn’t because there were too many Islamic radicals urging to kill same Christians among those who turned out in Idlib. They called themselves Muslims, but how can they be Muslims? Islam, and the Quran in particular, has always protected and protects Christians because Prophet Muhammad respected Christians because they hid him, and he instructed his descendants not to touch either Christians or Jews. And radical Islamists in Syria don’t know how to read, and if they can, as a rule, they don’t read the Quran.
“It is Pan-Turkism”
Why is Turkish administration adhering to its principles so much when it comes to its control over Idlib though it didn’t achieve control there?
Everything is clear here: the Turks are a “thing in itself”. Firstly, they have an imperial syndrome, and this is especially plain to see among politicians who have a concept of Neo-Ottomanism. Neo-Ottomanism officially isn’t a target of the Turkish government, but it has always been kept this in mind since the 90s when former head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu wrote about it in his book.
Secondly, moderate Islam that Erdoğan pursues is developed in Turkey too. It might seem they wanted to compare themselves with the German party Christian Social Union, quite a European party, but the difference between moderate and not moderate Islam turned out very thin, which influenced Erdoğan’s views. The latter managed to bring together those who were ready to live in the civilised state but also follow their religion — go to mosques and so on, and he attracted many people with such a stance. But the case is that Erdoğan’s these Islamic positions gradually tightened, and religious positions for him as well as many Turks turned out key than the same Neo-Ottomanism. In this situation, those who wanted to create the worldwide caliphate began to come together around him, can such people be called moderate? I doubt it very much.
It is typical Pan-Turkism. What security? Security is rubbish and Turkish propaganda, that’s it
Pan-Turkism is, finally, the third factor. Turkey refused it for some time, but the Turks have never forgotten this idea completely. What does it mean? It means the creation of Great Turan — a huge state from the Adriatic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. But as time went by, Turkey began to understand that the idea was impossible. People of Turkic origin are mainly on the territory of Russia where 28 Turkic ethnicities live — Tatars, Bashkirs, Caucasians and other ethnicities, and in former USSR republics. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Turks began to actively talk with Turkic ethnicities of the former USSR, but it turned out that their idea of the Turkic world was a myth. They thought they could speak the Turkish language in the former USSR, but far from it — peoples with their languages, cultures lived there, and not all of them were even Muslim — take the same Yakuts, Chuvashs or Tuva people.
All this began to make Turks sober, but not all. Famous preacher Fethullah Gülen urged the Turkish youth in 1992 to teach their peers around the world the Turkish language, but people in the former USSR were busy with looting former Soviet property, and people didn’t care about Pan-Turkism.
Does it mean we still have a desire of turkey to personally control this region in Idlib, not to make the borders safer?
Yes, it is typical Pan-Turkism. What security? Security is rubbish and Turkish propaganda, that’s it. The case is that in 1920 the parliament of the Ottoman Empire adopted the so-called National Oath as one of its last decisions, which determined borders of the future Turkish state. Where were these borders? Cyprus, all Syrian territory, Iraqi Mosul and Kirkuk were to be part of Turkey. But according to an agreement with Entente states, the Turks didn’t manage to carry out these plans. England began to rule Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, and France led Syria and Lebanon.
Was Turkey very disappointed?
Of course. But the Turks managed to get some territories. In 1938, they created the state of Hatay on the Syrian territory, but as there were plenty of anti-Turkish protests at the same time, the Turks held a referendum and created a province of İskenderun as part of Turkey. The Syrians, by the way, have never subdued under President Hafez Assad, but his son Bashar Assad changed the strict rhetoric and made peace with the Turks in this issue.
Then, in 1974, the Turkish docked in the north of Cyprus where allegedly 18% of the Turkish population lives, though it was Greeks that turned into Turks and Muslims and seized 40% of the territory of Cyprus. Did the Turks give northern Cyprus and İskenderun back? Far from it. So all those concepts the Turkish foreign policy is based on appeared in Syria too.
Moreover, nobody can tame Turkey but Russia. I will note that a lot is at stake for Erdoğan, including economic relationships with Turkey
“Turkey needs gas, here is Turkish Stream, there is a lack of electrical energy, while Russia is ready to build nuclear power plants in Akkuyu with its money”
As well in Libya, right?
You know, Turks always support theirs, while theirs are the Muslim Brotherhood (an organisation banned in Russia). Why are the relationships between Turkey and Egypt still so bad? Because under the Muslim Brotherhood the authorities in Egypt turned to the wrong side and led the country in the wrong direction, and militaries coped with it. The same happens in Syria — which of these organisations are supported by Turkey? Those that go by the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, which means that they need to be supported, including by armed forces. In Libya, Erdoğan supports the government of Faiz Saraj, while it goes by the Muslim Brotherhood. As you see, little has changed since then.
Can Turkey have a big interest in Libyan oil?
Turkey has never set one goal, it has had a lot of goals. Libya also came under the Ottoman Empire for some time, which is a serious moment. If Libya has a shelf in the Mediterranean Sea, it turns out that the Turks are automatically up for a piece of it, this is why they signed an agreement with Saraj and sent in 2,000-3,000 pro-Turkish rebels from Syria. Plus, I have heard that the Turks are going to send another 5,000 such people, moreover, Turkish special forces are in Libya too. Of course, Turkey’s armed forces are in Libya. Turks always support theirs.
We see Turkey’s categorical mood to protect its interests in Idlib — they are asking Russia to step aside, they are ready to purchase Patriot missile systems. Is it so serious or is the Turks’ adherence to principles just a part of the game?
They won’t buy Patriot easily, though the Turks are good at bargaining. Yes, the Turks don’t make concessions, they adhere to principles, but like everyone in the East, they respect power. Erdoğan has already received some hints these days in Syria — he has been insinuated that it is time to stop, and it has impressed the Turks a bit. Anyway, the Russian Aerospace Forces seriously replied to the disorders in Idlib, though the Turks tried to impede it by creating technical obstacles to aviation, through tanks’ actions against the Syrian army. But I think that the attacks of the Russian Aerospace Forces cooled the Islamists’ hotheads down.
Moreover, nobody can tame Turkey but Russia. I will note that a lot is at stake for Erdoğan, including economic relationships with Turkey. There is huge commerce between our countries, over 7 million Russian tourists were in Turkey last year.
The Turkish economy is in dire need of a rise, it needs gas, here is Turkish Stream, there is a lack of electrical energy, while Russia is ready to build nuclear power plants in Akkuyu with its money. One must be quite a strange person to refuse this
Does Russia mean a lot for Erdoğan?
Erdoğan would like to see Russia that would nod at all his proposals and follow all his whims, but this doesn’t happen. He understands everything and has to work with Russia because he has nobody to rely on. Qatar isn’t a very powerful ally, while with others Erdoğan either endlessly competes like with Saudi Arabia or had a quarrel like with Israel (over Palestinian issue). If we remember Iran, it is Turkey’s century-old opponent. You know, the Turkish economy is in dire need of a rise, it needs gas, here is Turkish Stream, there is a lack of electrical energy, while Russia is ready to build nuclear power plants in Akkuyu with its money. One must be quite a strange person to refuse this.
Does it mean that it won’t be so hard to come to an agreement with Erdoğan on Idlib?
I wouldn’t hurry to say so because the Turks aren’t those people and Erdoğan isn’t that person to accept the bad luck.
But what variants of the solution of the problem can there be in the Idlib issue?
There can be several variants, but the only thing is I see is that the Turks have a desire to come to an agreement because they understood they wouldn’t change the situation. They tried, but it didn’t work. The Turks don’t rush to break down walls with their foreheads: if it didn’t work, they retreat and look for retours.
But a fight against terrorist groups will be held, neither Russia nor Syria will refuse it. Here it is just necessary to go the distance and get rid of the Idlib abscess in Syria’s body.