Syria, Russia & Foreign Policy
I am currently reading “Les Désorientés”, the latest novel from Amin Maalouf, the French author born in Lebanon in 1949.
I can’t help but draw parallels between his Lebanon of yesterday and the Syria of today. I am contemplating on the lessons we must learn. I am studying the situations between Israel and Syria and Gazza.
I have been to Syria, Israel and Jordan many times during 1989-1990 while I was working for the marketing department for a producer of industrial boilers. I have spent a lot of time in that region, doing many big-scale and profitable business transactions. The business environment over there used to be very similar to ours. We need a working commercial system to make money, unfortunately that isn’t likely to be the case for the next 10 years.
Syria used to be our natural business partner. It was almost our backyard. Sadly, that Syria of the past is no more. Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Deir ez-Zor are in ruins. It is not possible to guess how the new Syria will emerge, how it will develop and become a marketplace again. But in order to avoid war, you have to be ready for it. We, the Turks are not Arabs and therefore not likely to emerge as the leaders of the Muslim world -not that we need to. We must adhere to our policy of “Peace at home, peace in the world”, a principle instilled in us since the early years of the republic, and one that has been put to test many times throughout the years -most notably WW2. Mingling in other countries’ domestic policies gets us into trouble every time. Now the trade has all but ceased, and millions of unemployed, unqualified, uneducated refugees have migrated to Turkey. The well-to-dos didn’t stay in Turkey, though. They moved over to Europe and the US.
There is a large Russian Naval Base situated in Tartus, on the shores of the Mediterranean. This is where Russia receives most of its logistic support in the region. Bashar al-Assad gave this base to Russians because they are working with him. All Russian warships in the Mediterranean are refueled, restocked and getting maintenance and repair here. They will not even negotiate over Tartus -let alone lose it.
There is also the Russian owned Khemeimin Air Base with two 3km asphalt landing strips, to the southeast of Latakia, close to Assad International Airport. It opened in 2015 after the agreement signed between Syria and Russia, and it gives Russians free access indefinitely. The base has 11 types of fifth generation Russian warplanes such as SU-57, SU-25, SU-24, and SU-22, numbering between 37 -50. It also contains many T-90 tanks and S-400 missile systems deployed. Russia has complete military control of the region and it is impossible for anything to slide by them.
Foreign policy is all about national interests. There is no space there for democracy, human rights and humanitarian efforts. It is not our business to bring democracy to other places. We shouldn’t be involved in the domestic affairs of other countries. If we wish to continue our relations with Russia, we have to pay attention to their interests, red-lines and sensibilities. Russia is not merely the superpower on this side of the Atlantic, they are also our neighbors with whom we have very significant economic and social relations. It is not possible to pursue a sound foreign policy in the region without taking Russia’s defense sensitivities. They are not the Soviet Union of the past. They have been cultivating their own version of democracy since 1989. They have an electoral and democratic system in place -whether we like it or not. Market economy is slowly installing itself over there. Russians are not “comrades” anymore. They are businessmen and businesswomen. We don’t see any poorly-made Russian official cars in front of Kremlin. They are all BMWs, and Mercedes-Benz’s and Audis. They can afford to buy the best products out there now. They are content about what they are able to achieve. Plus, they possess superior astronautical and nuclear technologies.
I travelled across Russia, from Moscow all the way to Siberia in 1996. I remember seeing thousands of 10-MWe domestic combustion turbines that were direct copies from the British Rolls-Royce. If there is a need for 100-MWe, we would probably install 2 50-MWe turbines. Russians were installing 10 turbines with 10-MWe capacity instead. When you look at them now, they purchase the very best combustion turbines available. Our own contractors are setting up combined cycle plants all over Russia.
We signed an agreement with Russia for the Akkuyu NPP. We have to get it finished before we lose the little control we have on it. There’s no need to go against the grain. Everyone is doing it, so should we. We must build the best one there is under our control.
It is very dangerous to bypass the market competition and sign state-level agreements for commercial contracts. When the Russians were building the Aswan dam in Egypt, they didn’t have any high-capacity hydraulic turbines. All they had were the low-powered turbines designed for the rivers in Siberia, so they installed those. They did get the job done for a while, but they weren’t the right choice for the desert climate. There were high maintenance and repair costs involved as time passed by.
You can see similar Soviet-era practices in the Russian built industrial zones in Turkey. You see the same types of buildings designed for the harsh cold of Siberia erected in the heat of Iskenderun. Similar examples can be observed in Orhaneli thermal power plant, in the industrial plants of Seydisehir and Petkim Aliaga. It remains to be seen what will happen in Akkuyu. Will the NPP, originally designed for cold winter weather, be able to adapt to the tropical warm climate of Akkuyu and the Mediterranean? How will they able to cool the reactors with warm sea water?
Which Turkish businessperson, today, would buy a Russian-made industrial plant? What “made in Russia” product are you, yourself, using? When was the last time you boarded on a Russian Tupolev-154 plane? If you were to choose, would you prefer to fly aboard a Tupolev instead of an Airbus or a Boeing?
Russian president Vladimir Putin has been to Turkey many times for daily 8-hr visits. I wish he visited us more and we had more senior level tete-a-tetes. Then we could talk more about our common interests, red-lines, and cooperation. Lower level meetings are susceptible to mistranslations, and misdirections. That’s why senior-level face-to-face meetings are important. We have so much to learn from each other. It is essential that we keep all channels of communications open at all times.
Vladimir Putin is a very level-headed and realist president. He has doctorate degrees from the University of St. Petersburg in International Law and Economy. His German is immaculate. He has learned English (though he doesn’t speak it, he obviously understands it). He knows about the world outside, and most importantly he knows what he wants.
These are crucial. WE are living in an age where the US Secretary of State doesn’t even speak any foreign languages. His antecedent, Mike Pompeo, didn’t either.
Our relations with Russia during the Cold War years weren’t great. But now the iron curtain is lifted and the Cold War is over. We currently have thousands of qualified workers in construction projects in Russia. There have been more than 200,000 marriages between Turks and Russians. We have more than 60,000 Russian brides -most of them in and around Antalya in the south. Our Russian grooms are, presumably, on the rise as well. Our Russian brides are the grand-daughters of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky. They are all cultured, well-educated and pretty. Most of the 400 students we have sent over to Russia to study nuclear energy will end up marrying Russians. Russian will be spoken in households. When I look around, I see many Russian brides and grooms within the next generation.
Our natural gas dependency to Russia is all too well-known. It is one of the main reasons for our current deficit. We must also take into account our upcoming dependencies on them in coal and nuclear power. Our energy dependency, which is already unbearable, is still climbing. WE have to put a lid on it, and work towards bringing it down. We have to look for opportunities in other sectors. The world is smaller, freer and more independent -thanks to the internet.
I stayed in Russia for three months in 1976 as part of a United Nations scholarship program. Then, years later, I went there again in 2008 for touristic purposes. The Russians have not changed, but the economic environment has. There is a fairly free market in operation. Black markets are all but over, but the service sector is still lacking. The pressure from the Party cannot be felt anymore. People are drinking beer instead of vodka. The women are still beautiful, the men are business-oriented. And they still manage to maintain a world-class ballet and opera.
When you ask for directions, ten people circle around you and try to explain it to you. If you can’t communicate, they physically take you where you want to go.
We must know ourselves, not meddle in others’ internal affairs, and we must believe in the synergy that we can create. Most importantly let’s not deviate from “Peace at home, peace in the world”. Let us do what we can to stand on our own feet in our region: The Middle East.