February 13, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8556 'Observer' Rostovsky: Russia Must Preserve Its Role As Universal Mediator In Syria

February 13, 2020
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 8556

As tensions between Moscow and Ankara escalated further following another deadly exchange between the Turkish army and Assad's army,'s observer Mikhail Rostovsky, who has good ties with the senior Russian leadership, urged Moscow to adhere to its course of universal mediator in Syria and avoid the simplistic but erroneous position of tilting exclusively to the Syrian side. The Soviet Union by breaking relations with Israel in 1967 had forfeited influence in the Middle East and allowed itself to be manipulate by the interests of Hafiz Al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian leader. Rostovsky was certain that Vladimir Putin would not repeat such mistakes although Rostovsky had no illusion about Turkey's malign intentions towards Russia.

Addressing the Turkish parliament on February 12, 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan directly accused Russia for the escalation in Syria: "Russian forces and Iran-backed militias are constantly attacking the civilian people, carrying out massacres, spilling blood." [1]

Both in Russia and in Turkey noticed the shift in Erdogan's statement. Kommersant wrote: "It was for the first time that Mr. Erdogan directly accused Russia of the civilian population's deaths in Idlib and warned that aircraft that attacked populated areas would no longer be able to 'act freely, as before.'[2]

Hurriyet columnist BARÇIN YİNANÇ observed: "President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is always very careful in his criticisms against Russia. His statement on Feb. 12 was certainly an exception.

"When Turkey lost 14 soldiers in Idlib in Syria in the last 10 days under two separate attacks from regime forces,” even the pro-government analysts went only as far as saying that Bashar al-Assad forces cannot take action without the knowledge of Russia.

"Erdoğan, however, exposed openly the direct military role played by Russia and Iran in assisting regime forces attacks on civilians in order to force them to flee and launch an all-out offensive against opposition forces to take back Idlib, their last stronghold.

"This statement came after Erdoğan’s telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This shows that Putin did not pledge to stop regime offensives as a result of which Erdoğan had to come with a strong message that will force Putin to make a decision: Does he want to be the only power to call the shots in Syria’s future? The consequence of that might be military confrontation with Turkey, which ironically currently stands as the most pro-Russian country among NATO members. Or will he accept a compromise solution whereby Turkey will continue to have a say in Syria’s future?" [3]

Russia did not believe that an actual rupture with Ankara was imminent. Kirill Semenov an expert of the Russian International Affairs Council told Kommersant: "Erdogan’s statement, despite warlike rhetoric, already hints that he would not want to bring the situation into direct conflict with Damascus. He makes it clear that he is counting on reaching a new agreement on Idlib with Moscow before the end of February. ”[4]

Also reassuring was the announcement by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that a Turkish delegation will visit Moscow in the near future to negotiate a settlement to the situation in Idlib: "Turkey will continue negotiations with Russia on the Syrian Idlib, but if they fail, it [Turkey] will act as it deems necessary.[5]

As Russia and Turkey traded accusations while attempting to avoid passing the point of no return in their relations, Rostovsky penned an editorial for, titled "How Does One Tame Erdogan: Russia has no allies in the Middle East Only situational partners" that we reprint below:[6]

Rostovsky with Russia's defense minister Sergei Shoigu (Source: Aurora network)

Turkish-Russian Relations Were Traditionally Hostile

"Is my friend’s friend also my friend? As Russia is once again convinced by its own bitter experience, in the Middle East this political arithmetic categorically refuses to work. Syrian President Assad is a sort of friend and strategic partner of Moscow. Turkish President Erdogan is also seemingly an important political ally of the Kremlin. So why, then, recently have military units subordinated to these two of our “friends” periodically come into direct combat clashes with each other? For all its external logic, this question is posed incorrectly. Russia should not consider itself the center of the “political universe” in the Middle East, try to resolve everything and assume upon itself the entire burden of responsibility for the intransigence of its partners. We must constantly remember: for Assad and Erdogan, their current relations with Moscow are just a derivative of their own interests. Remember - and conduct ourselves accordingly.

"When is the leader of Turkey Erdogan being more sincere - when he periodically tosses out compliments to Moscow or when he solemnly and publicly proclaims [in Kiev] 'Glory to Ukraine!',as occurred recently? If we set aside the question of the permissibility of employing the term 'sincerity' regarding politicians of this rank, the answer is obvious to me: of course, the second case [is correct]. Throughout the entire centuries-old history of Russian-Turkish relations, they were only quite rarely truly friendly. Only the period of Lenin’s rule comes to mind. Then the retired de facto Turkish leader, Enver Pasha, lived in Moscow for a year and a half as a "treasured guest" of the Soviet government. But the founding father of the newly born Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal and the Bolsheviks had common enemies namely the British and French and maintained allied relations. This idyll did not last long, however. Kemal quickly reconciled with the West, and completely 'pulled a number' on Enver Pasha: [Enver] was sent to Turkestan to help establish Soviet power in the region, but shifted positions and led a rebellion against the 'yoke of Moscow'.

"The strategic reality is that the long-term strategic interests of Russia and Turkey either do not completely coincide or are in direct conflict with each other. Ankara’s refusal to recognize Crimea as Russian has a false bottom: deep in their heart, the Turkish political elite still considers this region to be their own. Turkey seeks to dominate the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and is not even averse to gaining political influence in some regions within Russia. The last few years of fairly close cooperation between the two countries is somewhat an historical anomaly. It is quite useful for Russia, but it is still an anomaly. At this particular historical stage, our situational political interests partially coincided and this outweighed all other considerations. But this historical stage will end sooner or later. And something tells me: this will happen sooner than later."

Russia, Unlike 1967, Must Preserve Its Role Of Mediator

"With Assad, things are a little more complicated. As the Turkish president rightly points out, without the support of Russia, the current official leader in Damascus is a nobody. But without Assad's compulsory bestowal of a Syrian bridgehead upon us, it would be extremely difficult for Russia to play the very beneficial role of a universal mediator in the Middle East. The open conflict between Assad and Erdogan creates real problems for our foreign policy. With all the burning desire to say 'a plague on both your houses!', Moscow will not be able to do this. Where is the way out? The solution is that we should play the role of mediator and arbiter, and not anything else. In the Soviet period, we were not able to toe this fine line. The severance of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967 as a 'punishment' for Tel Aviv’s “incorrect” behavior during its conflicts with the Arab world deprived Moscow of freedom of maneuver, reduced the influence of our country in the Middle East and enabled the father of the current Syrian president to manipulate the USSR in his interests.

"For all our co-dependence with Assad, we should not consider ourselves responsible for all his actions. If the Syrian president wants to 'play at war' with an incomparably more powerful Turkey, this is his problem. Despite the fact that our long-term interests do not coincide with Ankara, we must be impeccably honest with Erdogan. Well, if the Turkish president is again in a state of resentment towards Moscow, then we should reacte very calmly. This is not the first time this has happened - it's time to get used to it.

"Of course, the scenario of our optimal behavior described above looks good on paper, but it is extremely difficult to implement. But can it be otherwise in the Middle East? No, it cannot! The region is a most genuine "political cemetery" for good intentions and the most cunning political plans. For those who expect that “everything should be simple,” it’s better in principle to stay out here. I am glad that Putin is definitely not one of these politicians."


[1], February 12, 2020.

[2], February 13, 2020.

[3], February 13, 2020.

[4], February 13, 2020.

[5], February 12, 2020.

[6], February 11, 2020.

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