The Sultan and the Tsar: Will the imperial ambitions of Russia's Putin and Turkey's Erdogan spark a new World War, asks historian MICHAEL BURLEIGH
By Michael Burleigh
There is no end in sight to the disaster unfolding in the vast refugee camps of Jordan and Turkey, among the 60,000 terrified civilians massing on the Syrian border and on Europe’s corpse-strewn Aegean shoreline.
Far from it. Last week, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad promised to wage war until he had regained every inch of the country. Few believe that plans for an American-backed peace deal can hold. Early indications suggest that the migrant crisis in Europe will be many times worse this year than last.
Entire towns have been laid waste during Syria’s five-year civil war. Up to half a million people on all sides have been killed. Millions are either internally displaced, or worse, languishing in desperate foreign holding centres.
Syria is now the battleground for a proxy war between two regional powers, Russia or Turkey, or more particularly between their ego-fuelled presidents: Recep Erdogan (R) and Vladimir Putin (L)
But all this cannot be blamed only on the murderous advance of Islamic State, Assad’s brutality, or the rebels who wish to depose him. Syria is now the battleground for a proxy war between two regional powers, Russia and Turkey, or more particularly between their ego-fuelled presidents: Recep Erdogan and Vladimir Putin. Or, if you like, between the Sultan and the Tsar.
These two men, driven by their own imperial ambitions, have no intention of seeking peace in Syria, except on their own terms. It is already an international conflict sucking in fighters from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Chechnya and Pakistan, plus Shia from Iraq and Lebanon, and now it threatens to drag in Nato. It is no exaggeration to say the conflict has the potential to become a Third World War.
So it is that the refugees have become a weapon in their own right – a crisis the combatants are relentlessly fuelling in the hope of coercing Western governments into supporting one side or the other.
For its part, Turkey feels it is fighting a battle of survival. It wants to prevent the Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq from joining with its own Kurdish population to create their own state – which would mean the dismemberment of Turkey.
But Erdogan is also keen to see the removal of Assad, with whom Turkey has major complaints about water resources. So Turkey has allowed foreign jihadis (including from Britain) to cross into Syria to fight with the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and IS.
Erdogan has 10,000 troops trying to suppress a Kurdish insurgency led by the Marxist PKK (supported by Assad) in eastern Turkey, which is next to the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. The Turks also want to protect 100,000 ethnic Turkmen in Syria who are also opposed to Assad.
The refugees have become a weapon in their own right – a crisis the combatants are relentlessly fuelling in the hope of coercing Western governments into supporting one side or the other
It is no mere coincidence that Erdogan is a pious Sunni Muslim, while Assad belongs to the Shia Alawite sect.
Russia meanwhile is determined to protect its influence in the region, including access to the Mediterranean naval base of Tartus. So, along with Iran, Putin is directing Assad’s war with airstrikes, which have mainly targeted the so-called ‘moderate’ rebels backed by the West.
The conflict is already dangerously international. The wily Major General Qassem Suleimani, leading Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, has thousands of Hizbollah fighters from Lebanon under his control; as many as 20,000 Afghan Hazara refugees, paid $750 a month, with the promise of naturalization in Iran; Pakistani Shia volunteers; and last but not least Iraqi Shia militias.
As for the Russians, they’ve recruited 400 Cubans to man their latest tanks, including the T-90, which has explosive plates on the hull that detonate incoming anti-tank missiles.
The Syrian war has become like the Spanish civil war of 1936-39 by pulling in committed fighters from abroad. Foreign jihadis are a kind of international brigade for IS and Nusra, while the large numbers of indigenous Islamist rebels are funded from the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia’s brash new defence minister, deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, last week airily promised to send troops to fight IS, though Hizbollah would make mincemeat of them. The Saudis might try to reverse Assad’s advances by giving the rebels more and better weapons, but ManPad shoulder-launched missiles might then down Russian planes.
Erdogan is keen to see the removal of Assad while Russia is determined to protect its influence in the region
And the weaponry is frightening. On Putin’s 63rd birthday, 26 Russian cruise missiles flew nearly a thousand miles from corvettes in the Caspian Sea over Iran to hit Syrian targets. Russia has deployed its latest anti-aircraft missile systems (the S-400) and trialed its latest Su 35 ‘Flanker’ combat fighters as well as older Bear and Blackjack strategic bombers.
All of these planes use ‘dumb’ bombs, including cluster munitions, causing many civilian casualties. The conflict works as a sort of live arms fair for Russia while also dividing the West’s allies.
Most leaders in the region are rushing to pay court in Moscow: Iran’s Rouhani; the Saudis; Israel’s Netanyahu; Egypt’s el-Sisi and King Abdullah II of Jordan included.
They need arms or nuclear energy deals with Russia, or just to ensure the Russian or Syrian airforce does not encroach on their airspace, or allow terrorists to do so. Nato’s one member in the region, Turkey, is being diplomatically isolated, largely through Erdogan’s fault.
Which brings us back to the refugees. Turkey’s president is cynically extorting ‘Turkgeld’ (like the Danegeld the Anglo-Saxons had to pay Vikings) from the EU, in return for stemming the tide of migrants.
Turkey’s president is cynically extorting ‘Turkgeld’ (like the Danegeld the Anglo-Saxons had to pay Vikings) from the EU, in return for stemming the tide of migrants
After the EU offered three billion euros, the Turks said this was just an opening instalment, and by the way, they wanted visa-free travel for all 78 million Turks as well. Prolonging the disruption in Syria, and the refugee crisis, also suits Putin as he calculates that Europe, desperate for peace, could be made to soften its sanctions.
Not that continuing stalemate is the main threat here – the proxy war in Syria is bringing the real risk of escalating into a disastrous, and open, conflagration. Russia’s prime minister Dmitry Medvedev warned of this in an interview on Friday, insouciantly forgetting that Russian forces have also been involved since September
We have already had Turkey shooting down a Russian fighter. The potential for a disastrous increase in hostilities between Sultan Erdogan and Tsar Putin are obvious.
Whether we like it or not Europe lies next to a war that is escalating by the day.
And the growing number of overladen boats crossing the Mediterranean and the Aegean – or sinking with terrible results – will make that all too clear.
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