The shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey yesterday underscores yet again just how many proxy wars are going on in the region and just how old enmities are resurfacing, despite increases in trade and investment over recent years.
For example, only a few weeks ago the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was photographed chatting to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Russia is Turkey’s No.2 trading partner. Trade has increased to more than $32.7bn annually, according to the Russian government, and a deal was signed with Russia to help build a $20bn nuclear plant in Turkey.
However, old hatreds and the history of this region concerns the constant Russian push to the South and the constant Turkish/Ottoman push to the East. Every few generations, these two major powers clash – and the battle for Syria is no exception. Although the line spun by the Europeans and Americans (particularly since the Paris bombing) is that there is a common enemy in Isil, this is not the case.
The war in Syria is a patchwork of various different mini-wars, with many of the main supposed allies actually locked into a generational war with each other. So, for example, the Russians support Assad – who the Turks can’t stand. The Turks worry about the Kurds, who the Russians are happy to arm. The Turks (or, at least, this Turkish government) looks on as Isil fighters have infiltrated Syria through Turkey’s borders, largely because Isil is a threat to Hezbollah – who are supported by Turkey’s enemy, Iran. And guess who is Iran’s mate on the global stage? Russia!
These crucial alliances and simmering hatreds are misunderstood by many in the West, because we don’t learn about the history – and particularly the economic history – of this region, which for millennia was the centre of the world.
Nowhere will you see these patterns more evident than in Istanbul, which is one of the world’s great cities. Last year, I spent a little while in the Turkish capital – and the experience allowed me to appreciate that yesterday’s Turkish downing of a Russian plane wasn’t an accident.
Istanbul has been at the centre of the world for close to 2,000 years, stretching down the ages from the Roman Eastern Empire to the centre of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were eventually deposed and replaced by Ataturk and his extraordinary secular vision in the early 20th century. He fashioned the new Republic out of the twin ingredients of international science and Turkish nationalism.
Over the years the city has been home to Jews, Greeks, Slavs, Armenians and Georgians, as well as the Muslim Turk population. It has been one of the three great Muslim Caliphates, the centre of the flourishing sophistication of the Christian Orthodox Church at a time when Rome was home to barbarians, and it was also the site of Judaism’s finest synagogues.
You can see the imprint of all these great tribes in the architecture, the places of worship and the markets. You can feel the 19th century European aspirations of the Ottoman merchant class in the wide, French-designed boulevards – but its narrow, higgledy-piggledly lanes tell you this isn’t Paris, London or Berlin. It smells of the Orient, yet large parts look like the West. This is the echo of all who have passed through, set up home and then moved on again. Most of the Greeks, Jews and Armenians left in the 20th century.
However, one constant has been the Bosphorus Strait, linking the Black Sea, Russia and the Mediterranean.
For thousands of years this was the single most important trading route in the world and, even today, it still feels like this. Every day, massive Russian cargo ships plough through it, heading from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. This is where East meets West, and it is critically important.
Is it any surprise that this is where Winston Churchill chose to attack Ataturk in 1915?
One hundred years ago, the Irish were the first troops who landed in Gallipoli. To put the futility and slaughter in context, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Munster Fusiliers were the first to attack the Turks from the SS River Clyde. Of the first 200 men to leave the ship, 149 were killed and 30 wounded immediately.
But the Turks remember that the British were in cahoots with the Russians against the last remnants of the Ottoman Empire.
The Turks also remember earlier in the 19th century, when Russian troops attacked the Ottoman Empire and secured major lands north of the Black Sea, in what is now modern-day Ukraine, and huge tracts of territory by the Caspian Sea. They remember that Britain looked the other way.
And, worse still, the British Empire allied itself with Persia – the Ottoman’s enemy – rather than supporting Istanbul in its fight against Imperial Russia.
All this may seem in the distant past, but it forms the geopolitical framing for the disaster that is Syria. The Cold War simply solidified alliances that are much older and continue to play a pivotal, and sometimes unheralded, role in our recent history.
For example, people here seem to forget the famous Cuban Missile Crisis was actually solved by Turkey. Turkey is also NATO’s biggest army, despite being quite far away from the North Atlantic. It has been America’s bulwark against Russia for over half a century, yet still has one of the most vibrant communist parties in the world.
In short, the world – and particularly, the world that is loosely described as Asia Minor – is complex, fragile and fragmented. Almost 12 million people have been displaced already by war. Two of the main states – Iraq and Syria – are failed states and will never again be rebuilt.
Isil has emerged out of that stateless vacuum – but it is by no means the major protagonist.
We are dealing with a massive, intricate, geopolitical game of chess – whereby remote leaders move pawns around to garner some strategic advantage and innocent people get killed.