Writing Armageddon

Writing Armageddon
Furious writing or writing furiously?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Russo-Turkish Crisis and conflict dynamics

Over the last few days the brewing Russo-Turkish conflict over events in Syria took a deadly turn. Turkish air-defenses shot down aRussian SU-24, that was conducting bombing runs in the Turkmen inhabited parts of northern Syria. Russia claims it was hitting ISIS(DAESH) targets, while Turkey has long claimed that the attacks hit anti-Assad Turkmen rebels. The two pilots bailed out of their burning aircraft, but one seems to have been shot dead by the Turkmens (technically a crime under international law) while the other has been rescued.

This military interstate dispute (MID) was bound to happen due to the opposition between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia over the policy each pursues in Syria, and due to the proximity of Russian military operations to Turkey. Many have voiced the fear of escalation that might lead to war.
Peace Science would indicate that such fears are premature, and the likelihood of war happening very small. However, dependent on how the two sides manage the consequences of this crisis the likelihood of further military conflict might increase and the two states might further ascend on the steps to war.

Using the Steps to War framework developed by Sense and Vasquez (2008), we can start with the reasons why we should not expect this MID to escalate to war. First off all, as my colleague Gennady Rudkevich pointed out, the likelihood of a single MID escalating to war in the 1946-2001 period is not that high. While we cannot be completely certain that the dynamics of interstate conflict have not changed radically in the post-2001 period, the indicators are that this finding should hold for the 2001-2010 period. Even if they changed, it would be hard to argue that they became more war-fostering than those of the 1816-1945 period. And as I will show even in that period the probability of a MID escalating to war, right out of the bat, is very low.

As Dr. Rudkevich points out the basic probability of a MID escalating to war within 5 years in the post-World War II period is about 10%.  Even in the war prone 1816-1945 period the base probability of any MID escalating to war within 5 years was very low. It varied from 16.5%  to 7% depending on the type of issue at stake. In the 1945-1991 period the variation was between 17.8% and 3.4%, and in the 1991-2001 period from 7% to 1%. Thus we can see that the probability of the Russo-Turkish MID leading to war in the next 5 years is very low, even if we assume that the 2001-2015 period has conflict dynamics as war-prone as the 1816-1945 period (all of this info is taken from Senese andVasquez, 2008).

That this probability is small is not that weird as military conflict between states is actually a very rare thing (non-withstanding that the media presents a picture of continuous war for various reasons, and that some states are fightacholics. And yet there are certain conditions of international relations that if present can increase this probability to near certainty.

 In the Senese and Vasquez Steps to War framework, itself the culmination of decades of research by multiple scholars that use statistical and qualitative methods to study peace and conflict, these conditions are contiguity (two states sharing a border), outside alliances( the states in the dispute having different allies), alliances with each other (the two states being allied to each other), a condition of enduring rivalry (a political environment in which two states regularly use force against each other), a condition of strategic rivalry (a political environment in which two states openly consider each other as opponents and threats), mutual military buildups (a condition in which two states are increasing their military expenditures in tandem), and recurring MIDs. The most deadly though is the presence of a Territorial Issue (a condition in which one state claims parts of the territory of another).

These different conditions have different influences on the probability of a MID escalating to War, depending on the period of history of international relations we are talking about. The following table partly summarizes these, based on tables presented in Senese and Vasquez (2008).

Effect of Factors on Likelihood of MID escalation to War
Factor
1816-1945
1945-1989
1990-2000
Territorial Dispute
Increase
Increase
Increase
Contiguity
Not Increase
Not Increase
Not Increase
Enduring Rivalry
Increase
Increase
Unclear
Mutual Military Buildups(Arms Races)
Increase
Increase (especially for Territorial Disputes)
Unclear
Common Alliance
No effect
No effect
Slight Increase
Different Alliance
Increase
Decrease
Increase
Prior MIDs
Increase
Increase
Increase

Factors also interact with each other, increasing or decreasing the likelihood of war escalation when present together. For example, in the 1816-1945 period the co-presence of territorial disputes, prior MIDs, and alliance between the disputants, and alliances with other states, multiply or add to each other’s effect.  In the post-Cold War period the most dangerous combinations are Prior MIDs with Territorial Disputes, and alliance connections between the two disputants and with states outside the dyad.

In their precise Barometer of the Risk of War, Sense and Vasquez give the highest Predicted Probability of War to the combination of Territorial Disputes, Outside Alliances, Enduring Rivalry, and multiple prior MIDs, with a 90% chance of war. Are these conditions present in the Turkish-Russian pair when the MID took place or within the last 20 years?

The answer is mixed. Using a set of data sources, we can list which factors are present or not in the Turkish-Russian dyad.

Factor
Presence
Source
Prior MIDs
The last Turkish-Russian MID in the data took place in 2000
Enduring Rivalry
10 Prior Russo-Turkish Disputes have taken place in the 1993-2000 period. Not enough for an enduring rivalry.
Strategic Rivalry
No
Thompson and Dreyer 2011
Outside Alliances
Yes
Territorial Dispute-Issue
No (there is a Maritime Issue but those do not tend to be as war-prone as Territorial Disputes-Issues)

We can thus see that despite the presence of some factors that foster conflict in Turkish-Russian relationships, the most dangerous ones which are Territorial Disputes/Issue, and a recent history of repeated prior conflicts are not strongly present. We could thus say that per the Risk Barometer of War in Sense and Vasquez, this is a low risk dyad, with a probability of war under 10%.
However, how the two administrations handle the consequences of this crisis can exacerbate the situation, and produce those very factors that could make the dyad an at risk dyad. This is where domestic politics becomes paramount. We can never completely know the motivations of leaders when they make decisions. However we can entertain some possibilities and evaluate how likely they are to happen.

On the side of Turkey, we do know that President Erdogan would like to revise the constitution and change the political system from Parliamentary Democracy to Presidential Democracy. The strong showing of AKP in the recent polls in Turkey, in the aftermath of renewed violence between PKK and the Turkish state, gave him a solid majority in Parliament but not enough of a margin to change the constitution. The crisis may be an opportunity to persuade the nationalist MHP party to support the constitutional change, in order to strengthen Turkey domestically for a long struggle with Russia. MHP has been opposed to Russian action in Syria, and has been demonstrating against Russian strikes on Turkmen areas. So this is an area of common agreement between MHP and CHP. A robust Russian response, with maybe open and increased strikes against the Turkmen, might be the final nail needed to solidify a parliamentary bloc that gives President Erdogan the presidential system he considers necessary for Turkey.

On the other hand Russia might react not with intense military activity but economic sanctions. If these were really strident they could prove deadly to the winning coalition that underpins AKP rule in Turkey. Russia and Turkey are major economic partners and the inter-dependence between them is key to Turkish economic growth. That growth has helped dampen the conflicts within AKP’s winning coalition, especially between the commercially oriented moderate islamist nouveau middle class, and the more nationalist and islamist working class and lower middle class. A worsening of the economy might fracture this balance and lead to defections that weaken AKP and President Erdogan.

It is unlikely that President Putin will go for the jugular.  Russia is also reeling from the sanctions imposed on it by Western Powers over the Ukraine crisis, and may not be able to afford alienating too much one of its remaining trading partners. Largely symbolic actions on the tourism sector do not threaten the economic stability that underpins AKP success. Of course Russia can increase support to the Kurds of Syria, but that is something that could permit the two states to insulate the crisis and their struggle to a proxy conflict within Syria, as opposed to an inter-state conflict outside it.



So we have reasons not to expect strong domestic pressures to escalate the crisis. There might be some symbolic action, but in all possibility in the end this will be resolved by back channel diplomacy and actions to save “face” for both sides. Undoubtedly though we may see an attempt by president Erdogan to coopt MHP, and any Russian increase in activity against the Turkmen in Syria will foster this outcome. But once the President of Turkey gets what he wants, he may very well forsake his opportunistic MHP allies and sacrifice them for better relations with Russia. Russia could always give Erdogan “face” by using this crisis as an opportunity to include Turkey more robustly in the discussions of the future of Syria. This might seem contradictory considering their diverging goals, but in the long-run there are bargains that can be made that satisfy both powers in Syria. Of course all this is probabilistic, and there is always a non-zero probability of escalation. But the data indicates a controlled situation still.


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