Saving Syria vs Getting Rid Of Gulen: What’s More Important For Russia?


Ever since the surprise Russian-Turkish détente and the failed pro-American coup in Turkey, speculation has been rife in some online sectors that Moscow and Ankara have engaged in a ‘trade-off’ of interests with one another, with the chatter being that Erdogan’s dedicated dismantlement of the Gulen network is supposedly more advantageous to Russian grand strategic interests than the defense of the democratically elected and legitimate secular government in Syria. The ‘reasoning’ that’s called upon to back up this claim is that Gulen is allegedly more of a direct threat to Russia and its Central Asian allies (especially those in Kyrgyzstan) than a terrorist takeover in Syria, which apparently explains the ‘empirical evidence’ about why Turkey is going after Gulen but has yet to shut down terrorist infiltration through the Syrian border. As ‘convincing’ as it might sound to foreign policy neophytes and casual observers of international affairs, this is a very inaccurate reading of the situation, albeit one which some well-intentioned people ascribe to. Nevertheless, it’s wrong. 

Caveats And Qualifiers 

It’s a very shortsighted assessment to immediately conclude that Russia might have sold Syria out in exchange for Gulen’s neutralization, since this doesn’t take into account the geostrategic importance that Syria holds for Russia, nor the fact that Turkey’s Eurasian reorientation is a continuous process and not an instantaneous reversal.

One can understand why some pro-Syria supporters and even Syrians themselves would overreact like this because of the intense and incessant pressure that they’ve been under for over the past five years, to say nothing of the emotionally confusing nature of the surprise Russian-Turkish détente, but individuals should realize after they finally calm down that everything that Russia is doing with Turkey is to Syria’s ultimate benefit, not it’s detriment, even if they don’t understand the geostrategic realpolitik nuances at play. 

There’s nothing wrong at all with questioning the wisdom behind Russia’s policies, and constructive discourse is always enlightening and welcomed, but second guessing the intent behind what Moscow is doing is a categorically different matter that well-intentioned dissidents should go at length to explicitly distance themselves from. 

Rejecting The Saudis, Courting The Turks

The first argument which debunks the theory that Russia supposedly ‘traded off’ Syria to Turkey is that Moscow never did so before, even when billions of dollars of economic deals were being offered by Saudi Arabia in an attempt to bribe President Putin. There’s no plausible reason why the Russian leader would change its mind and do so ‘for free’ when he could have instead done so for billions of dollars before instead. Even though the financially profitable and geostrategically decisive Balkan Stream project is slated to be revived  sometime real soon, it would be naïve – and if one may say, purposefully divisive depending on who said it and in which context -- to suggest that Russia would sell Syria out just for the sake of a single pipeline. While supporters of these theories predictably point to Turkey’s continued failure to close the Syrian border as ‘proof’ of the veracity of their claims, they’re either completely unversed in geopolitics or purposely engaging in demagoguery to promote some opaque agenda. 

Turkey’s Eurasian reorientation is a gradual process, and it was never expected to be a rapid snap-of-the-fingers type of pivot. The deep level of Turkey’s institutional and strategic embeddedness in the unipolar community won’t simply go away by decree, even though one could argue that Erdogan’s purges are being done to clean out whatever ‘deep state’ (permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracy) resistance he might receive when this forthcoming moment possibly arrives. Observers should temper their expectations and be patient, since there’s no need to overreact and make oneself emotionally susceptible to the demagoguery being fussed up by some agenda-driven commentators on this issue. It’s not to say that everyone who disagrees with this analysis has some sort of ulterior motive – not at all – but just that those who hold this disposition are exactly the type of audience that anti-Russian troublemakers and other divisive infowar agents try their best to target. 

Gulen vs President Assad

Secondly, it’s essential for interested individuals to recognize that while Gulen is indeed a threatening figure with a widespread and shadowy network, he’s just the figurehead behind this larger movement and ideology. Just like with Baghdadi and Daesh, killing or neutralizing Gulen won’t automatically destroy his organization, which more than likely will continue to survive regardless. Furthermore, it’s impossible to fully dismantle this network while the US aids its acolytes and shelters its leaders. Russia understands this and has already taken proactive measures since 2008 to defend itself from this threat, and one can logically infer that it is also cooperating with its CSTO and SCO allies in helping them to do this, too. Syria, on the other hand, is both a civilization and physical location. It is also an ideology, albeit one of secular inclusiveness and peace, not mild Islamism and terrorist division. 

Similarly, President Assad is also a figurehead for all that he represents, though obviously in the complete opposite manner than Gulen is. Like him, though, the removal of a single individual from the equation wouldn’t destroy the ideas and support networks that he stands for. The Resistance Community will still live on even after President Assad’s Presidency, just as the Gulen network would persevere even without its eponymous founder. The key difference, however, is that the obsessive campaign by foreign forces to violently and unconstitutionally remove President Assad from office has led to widespread death and destruction, while the legally sound initiative to extradite Gulen from his US nest in Pennsylvania would prevent a lot of forthcoming death and destruction in the very unlikely event that he was brought to justice. Clearly, Assad must stay and Gulen must go. Russia would have it no other way, and this is uncompromisable. 

(Special thanks go to Elena Juki Bekic for suggesting that the author address this issue)