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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 50 New Delhi December 5, 2015

Old-time NATO the New Dinosaur?

Sunday 6 December 2015, by Mohan K. Tikku

Still recovering from the after-effects of the November 13 terrorist attack in Paris, President Francois Hollande followed his trip to Washington with a visit to Moscow on November 26. The United States, after all, was the traditional ‘Big Daddy’ of the Western alliance. But Russia had to be the new ally. The French President was there to seek Russia’s support in the collective war against the terrorist Islamic State, and President Vladimir Putin was promising it in ample measure.

Does that tell one something about the changing alignments across Europe and beyond? Alignments that had been crafted in the wake of the Cold War more than half-a-century ago? After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Western countries had put in some effort to keep the NATO alliance intact. It is now possible to argue that with the rise of the IS, the Cold War alignments are in for some big-time changes. The shooting down of the Russian fighter Su-24 plane by Turkey on November 24 may have only speeded up the process.

Russia has been emerging as the lead actor in the war against the IS in Syria ever since the Islamic terrorists claimed responsibility for bringing down a Russian passenger plane in Egypt in which 224 passengers and crew, most of them Russian tourists, were killed. Now, Turkey’s action in shooting down the Russian war plane earlier this week has given further reason to Moscow to enlarge its military presence in and around Syria.

Nobody seems to be quite clear as to why Turkey acted in the manner it did in targeting the Russian fighter plane while it was on a bombing mission against IS locations in Syria. Ankara’s explanation that the plane had strayed into Turkish airspace for a few seconds as the provocation sounds unconvincing. Despite President Obama’s rather weak defence saying that Turkey has the right to defend itself, that was a hell of a gamble to take over what might have been a navigational error. That is, unless Turkey had meant it as a provocation while factoring in the NATO’s participation in the event of a conflagration.

It has been suggested that Turkey’s action might have been in retaliation as the Russian bombing had disrupted the clandestine oil supplies that it had been allegedly receiving from the Islamic State. The IS produces around 90,000 barrels of oil per day and that remains a major source of its funding. Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan has furiously rejected that as the reason. Others have speculated that Russian bombing of Turkmen habitations in Syria could be the reason. Or else, it could just be an error of judgement? A miscalculation?

The Turkish action is even harder to explain when one considers the fact that Russia is its major trading partner. It supplies a variety of consumer items to Russia. Most of Turkey’s oil supplies come from Russia; and, Turkish construction companies have been leading beneficiaries from project contracts in Russia.

Rather than giving in to domestic pressure and take any precipitate military action, President Putin has threatened to hit where it could hurt most. He has proposed to apply economic sanctions against Turkey unless Ankara offers an apology and compensation. He has further raised the stakes by suspending military cooperation with Turkey. That for the moment, has put Turkey on the back-foot.

With the increased Russian military presence in the region, the American project seeking to bring about a regime change in Damascus has receded into the background. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad may thus turn out to be an unintended beneficiary of the Turkish action.

On the day the French President was shaking hands in Moscow, Prime Minister David Cameron was telling Parliament in London that Britain too intends to join the military campaign against the IS. Inevitably, they too shall have to talk to the Russians.

That leaves the anti-IS campaign mainly in the hands of Vladimir Putin—and he has been handling it with greater diplomatic finesse than one would associate with a former KGB officer. He has been talking to the various stakeholders in the game, and has got the Iranians on his side. He has even spoken to the Saudis who, though, have been less forthcoming. In any case, the US Government is unlikely to be able to take any major initiatives, or raise the stakes of a conflict, in a presidential election year. That leaves the Syrian crisis and the war against the Islamic State terror firmly in Putin’s hands. And, in the process, threatening to make old-time NATO look like the new dinosaur?

Mohan K. Tikku has been a foreign correspondent based in Colombo. He is also author of Sri Lanka: A Land in Search of Itself.