Russian-Turkish Relations Cool Over Energy, Syria

Turkey supports the Syrian rebels and tries to decrease its dependence on Russian gas.

Russia and Turkey support opposite camps in Syria’s civil war but have so far managed to keep the divide from affecting their bilateral relationship at large. That may be about to change.

Last week, Turkey forced a Syrian commercial airliner en route from Moscow to land in its territory because it suspected the plane to be carrying Russian-made munitions. “By forcing down an airliner flying from Moscow and publicly accusing Russia of ferrying military equipment to Damascus, Turkey’s prime minister Tayyip Erdoğan has taken what may prove to be the biggest gamble yet in his Syria policy,” according to Reuters.

Western nations that support the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad have long suspected Russia of supplying the regime with weapons. Russia maintains a naval facility in the Syrian port town of Tartus and has repeatedly blocked United Nations Security Council resolutions that would have called on Assad to step down.

Turkey can ill afford to sour relations with the Russians because they provide nearly two-thirds of its gas supplies. Russia controls a natural gas export route through Turkey into Bulgaria and plans to build its South Stream pipeline through Turkish waters to compete with the proposed Nabucco pipeline in the area and maintain its dominant position in the European gas market. Russia is also set to help Turkey build its first nuclear power plant.

Before the uprising against Assad’s regime started last year, Turkey saw its neighbor as critical to its energy policy. Syria already hosts the Arab Gas Pipeline that transports Egyptian natural gas to the port city of Baniyas. An extension was planned into Turkey to connect the pipeline with Nabucco.

But then, in July of last year, Iran announced a $10 billion gas pipeline deal with Iraq and Syria to transport gas from its South Pars field to the Mediterranean — bypassing Turkey.

Turkish relations with Iraq and Iran have deteriorated further over Ankara’s support of the Kurds in northern Iraq, the fact that it shelters Iraq’s fugitive vice president Tariq al-Hashimi and its opposition to Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s only Arab ally.

Last December and in September of this year, the Turks finalized agreements with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan respectively for the construction of the Trans Caspian Pipeline which is supposed to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan through Azerbaijan and Georgia into Turkey where it could be either consumed or exported to Europe. It marks a shift in Turkish energy policy which previously opposed the Trans Caspian project in favor of Blue Stream which now carries Russian gas across the Black Sea into Turkey.

Increased gas imports from Caucasus and Central Asian republics would lessen Turkey’s dependence on Iran and Russia and boost its profile as a major transit nation for European energy supplies. It could even herald a general pan-Turkic economic and strategic expansion into the former Soviet sphere — another affront to the Kremlin.