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Incirlik and the Snowball of Russia’s Strategy in the Middle East

Reports that Turkey is negotiating with Moscow to allow Russian planes to use the air base in Incirlik are exaggerated. The speculation followed statements by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım that “in principle”, Russia can use the base. “Turkey opened Incirlik airbase to fight Daesh [Islamic State] terrorists. It is being used by the US and Qatar. Other nations might also wish to use the airbase, which the Germans are also now using,” Yıldırım told reporters on August 20. Asked if Moscow could share the airfield with coalition forces, Yıldırım said that “If necessary, the Incirlik base can be used.”

However, Ankara denied a Russian informal request to use the base despite Yıldırım’s denials that any such request was submitted to the Turks. “I don’t think they have a need for Incirlik. Because they already have two bases in Syria,” the Prime Minister said.

Media reports implied that a Russian request related to the use of the base was made. A Russian Parliamentarian told a British daily that “It just remains to come to an agreement with Erdoğan that we get the NATO base in Incirlik as [our] primary airbase.” Senator Igor Morozov, a member of the Russian Upper House’s Committee on International Affairs told reporters: “You’ll see, the next base will be Incirlik. This will be one more victory for Putin”, he added.

Another Senator indicated how Moscow sees such a step. Viktor Ozerov told reporters: “It’s not certain that Russia needs Incirlik, but such a decision would be seen as a real willingness on Turkey’s part to cooperate with Russia in the war against terrorism in Syria.”

Whatever the reason of this test balloon, tension between NATO and Russia is rising rapidly. Clearly, this is not helpful to the crisis-ridden Middle East. When mounting global polarization fall on an already polarized Middle East, troubles there will be exacerbated.

Yet, contrary to what Russian propaganda mouthpieces circulate, the ball is squarely in Russia’s court. This is not a result of choice; it is mainly due to a US administration that hides its total strategic shallowness and incompetence under a thin voile of self-claimed prudence.

Russia used the lack of a global strategic vision in Washington to make some very important moves in Ukraine, Syria and Iran. The advance of Russia’s military reach will continue in the next 6 months in a relentless effort to use every minute of Obama’s presidency to further Moscow’s strategic agenda, which is based on a thorough study of US and NATO shortcomings.

The Ukraine conflict revealed that Russia’s military has evolved from the antiquated Soviet doctrines, to a rapid and flexible multitask force. The progress made by Russian military forces during the last ten years is indeed spectacular, as shown by the Ukrainian military theatre. The flexible interchange of roles between supporting the pro-Russia militias and directly deploying Russian military units in Ukraine is a live testimony of the total divorce with the former Soviet focus on heavy armored units and limited speed.

But the significance of Ukraine goes beyond military tactics. It reflects Moscow’s ability to use fully its adversaries’ shortcomings to its advantage. And we may see this again in the Middle East if the US continues the path we have seen during the past 16 years or so.

Russia is present in Iran and Syria. Recently, it has made qualitative shifts in its ties with Tehran and Ankara. Russian strategic experts are openly talking about a future possibility of getting involved in Iraq. Moscow is developing new energy plans in the Caspian region. And new ideas are being circulated in the Moscow related to Central Asia right at this moment.

The chairman of the Russian Duma’s Defense Committee said this week that time has come for Russia, China, India, and Iran to form an anti-terrorism coalition that is not aligned with the “aggressive” NATO. Speaking to journalists in Moscow on August 19, Admiral Vladimir Komoedov said the four nations working together could defeat ISIL in a year. “The Chinese military in Syria is the first step towards putting together a serious military-political coalition dominated by countries that are not aligned with the aggressive NATO bloc,” he said. “The time has come to form such a coalition. It’s not just the powerful military potential of these players but also a serious political influence,” he said, adding that, if Russia, China, India, and Iran pooled their efforts in the Middle East to eliminate the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations, the situation could be resolved within a year. His comments come as China, a longtime seller of arms to Syria, agreed to increase its military and humanitarian involvement in Syria’s civil war.

Conversely, the backlash of Turkey’s failed coup has weakened NATO’s posture in the Middle East. Moreover, Russia is trying to build on its current momentum for leverage in its interactions with Middle Eastern countries. If the general movement is shown in a slow-motion video, we can picture a multi-dimensional expansion of Moscow’s influence and presence all around its natural borders. We will notice as well how the Russians are pushing restlessly to expand this circle of influence and make more options available to themselves in order to gather as many pressuring cards on all players.

And we will see how the Arabs need Moscow to change its policy on Syria, how the Iranians need it to support their role in the region. How the Azeris need it to coordinate natural gas exports, how the EU needs it to lower tension in the Balkan region, and how the Caspian countries need it to push forward with infrastructural and geostrategic projects.

This is a doctrine based on the old strategic school of expanding influence externally in order to benefit internally. Those in the Middle East who witnessed Nasser’s war in Yemen and his intervention in support of the Algerian independence movement understand that a modest domestic economy can benefit enormously from a strategy based on expanding external reach.

There is a high Russian wave going now in all directions. Unless it comes up against any resistance, it will naturally continue to expand. Can it be stopped in Syria? Ukraine? The answer is waiting for the US change of guards.

Structurally, such strategies are more vulnerable so long as they are not based on internal strength. Russia is not as internally strong as it wants others to believe. Yet, such strategies have a snowballing effect: the more they roll, the bigger they become. Will the snowball be stopped in Syria?   

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