Syria and Ukraine wars headed for convergence?

Disturbing reports emerged Dec. 14 that the Russian navy forced a Turkish merchant ship to change course in a brief confrontation in the Black Sea. Russian naval forces were apparently protecting vessles that were towing two oil drilling platforms that are being disputed between Russia-annexed Crimea and Ukraine. Following the annexation of Crimea last year, the Chernomorneftegaz drilling company—a subsidiary of Ukraine's parastatal Naftogaz—was seized by the Crimean regional parliament. Ukraine says it will challenge the seizure before international arbitrators. Chernomorneftegaz's drilling platforms, operating in international waters off the Ukrainian port of Odessa, were being relocated to Russian territorial waters when they were bocked by a Turkish merchant ship. Moscow's Defense Ministry said the incident was "resolved" when a Russian missile cruiser chased the Turkish vessel off. In another incident reported one day earlier, the Defense Ministry said its destroyer Smetlivy "fired warning shots" to deter a Turkish fishing vessel in the Aegean Sea "to avoid a collision." Turkey's military attaché in Moscow was summoned to the Ministry over the incident. (Daily Sabah, Dec. 15; RT, Dec. 14; RT, Dec. 13)

Russian and Turkish warplanes have repeatedly played chicken over the Black Sea in recent months—before Turkey shot down one of Moscow's warplanes over Syria in November, significantly escalating Russo-Turkish tensions.

Amid the sniping and dangerous brinkmanship, both sides happily go on committing horrific atrocities. Russian fighter jets on Dec. 11 targeted rebel-held areas in Syria's Aleppo governorate, causing numerous civilian casualties. One of the air-strikes hit a primary school in the town of Kafr Zeta, killing at least four children according to observers. (ARA News, Dec. 12) The following day, as many as 50 civilians were killed and some 200 injured in Russian air-strikes on Duma, outside Damascus. (MEM, Dec. 14) Russia's aerial assault is preventing aid agencies from delivering assistance—as it widens the humanitarian crisis by bombing residential areas and destroying hospitals. Mercy Corps, one of the largest providers of food aid in northern Syria, has been able to deliver only a fifth of the amount it normally provides since the Russian strikes began. (WP, Dec. 14)

Ankara meanwhile continues to pursue its brutal counterinsurgency campaign in Turkey's Kurdish east. Street-fighting has left several homes demolished in Sur district of Diyarbakır city (Kurdish: Amed) as Kurdish residents defy a curfew. (Firat News Agency, Dec. 13) The Turkish government has ordered all schools closed and teachers to vacate in the towns of Cizre and Silopi—and Kurdish teachers are refusing to obey the order. (Sendika, Dec. 14) According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, a total of 157 have been killed by Turkish security forces attempting to impose curfews in 17 different cities since August. The curfews have affected 1.3 million people. (Roar, Dec. 15) A journalist with the Kurdish-language daily Azadiya Welat was arrested on Dec. 15 in Diyarbakır on charges of being a member of a "terrorist organization." He is among five journalists who have been arrested while covering the fighting in Sur. (Today's Zaman, Dec. 15)

As Russia makes overtures to the Kurds (in Syria if not actually in Turkey), Turkey poses as protector of the Arabs and Turkmen being bombed by Russia in Syria. Turkey similarly poses as protector of the Tatar minority in Crimea—a Turkic people whose Crimean state was a protectorate of the Turkish Ottoman empire until it was lost to Russia in 1774. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consciously cultivated an Ottoman nostalgia fetish.

All these peoples have very legitimate grievances against their respective oppressors, but they are also all being shamelessly manipulated in the Great Power game. The skirmishes in the Black and Aegean seas show the terrifying potential for the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts to converge into a global showdown between Russia and the West.