Will Russia and Turkey go to war? Probably not.
The Russians have just surprised the world by announcing that they are pulling their forces out of the war in Syria because they had accomplished their mission.One wonders what Russians think that mission was. Granted, they have suppressed much of the military opposition to Assad on the ground, humiliated the Turks, and bolstered separatist forces in northern Syria, but Assad remains in a difficult position and the multi-faceted Syrian opposition still has control of much of the country.
As the peace talks resume between Assad, the opposition, and the external powers backing each side, it seems as if the Russians are saying, "Okay. We fixed it. Now divide control of your territory and stop destroying the country. Also, if you wondered, Ivan is back in the Middle East."
In other words, this intervention may have been a Russian gambit to implement a settlement through the federalization of the country in three parts: Kurds, Assadists, and the Sunni opposition. The militias of this opposition would be free to wage their own struggle to control the Sunni canton.
If the Syrian peace talks stay more or less on course, what is the need for Russia to maintain a conflict with Turkey?In an interesting analysis of the Russian-Turkish conflict, Anthony Sinner points the possibility of a limited armed conflict between the two powers. The article makes a questionable assumption that the two countries' behavior can be understood by an analysis of the two presidents.
CNBC, March 14, 1016
Two big egosGrudge between Ankara and Moscow deepens in struggle for regional influence
The biggest risk in Russian/Turkish relations is arguably the top-down structure of power in both countries, where conciliation is often equated to weakness and political failure. The fiercely nationalistic, unbending and forceful leadership of Russia and Turkey makes compromise incredibly difficult. Neither President Erdogan nor President Putin forgive or forget.
Turkey's president has proven time again that he is not one to be bullied. During the G-20 Summit in Antalya in mid-November, Erdogan told his Russian counterpart in no uncertain terms that Turkey would not tolerate further incursions into Turkish airspace. Russian jets had for months been testing and probing Turkey and the rest of the NATO alliance. Putin nonetheless brushed off the warning, advising his host to treat Russian attack aircraft which violate Turkish airspace as "guests." The next uninvited guest was shot down.
Nonetheless, Russia's president is likely to continue waving the red rag at the Turkish bull. Earlier this year, Russia announced snap exercises in the South and Central military districts, and mobilized elements of the Caspian flotilla and Black Sea Fleet — a move that was clearly aimed at Turkey.
Provoking war with Turkey could massively back-fire, but such a gamble could pay off especially if the circumstances of the initial clash were ambiguous or unproven. A short scrap which could be painted as a victory for the Motherland, would boost Putin's already high domestic ratings while potentially magnifying divisions in NATO and embarrassing the alliance.
In actual fact, if there is a process that resolves the internal problems inside Turkey itself, it is possible that Putin's on-going confrontation with Turkey, will have served its purpose. Turkey has been humiliated. NATO and the US shown they have their limits in supporting their Turkish "ally". And, most importantly, Russia has reestablished itself as a major actor in the Middle East.
Why break Erdogan's nose if bloodying it has served its purpose?