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Opinion: Russia and Turkey still fighting a battle for the ages

The confrontation between Russia and Turkey can be traced back to the countries' imperial times. Both sides crave respect. This has determined their course, and will further damage the Middle East, Kersten Knipp writes.

Phantom pain is a treacherous phenomenon. One of its main characteristics is its unpredictability. Sometimes it occurs immediately after a limb is lost; sometimes not until quite a while later. And it can take a very long time to go away.

If you extrapolate the phantom pain of individuals to a pain felt by whole societies, you get some idea how long it can endure in the collective subconscious. The current confrontation between Russia and Turkey, two former great powers, is proof of this - and it seems that phantom pain is capable of driving those who suffer from it practically insane.

Take Russia, for example, where President Vladimir Putin once described the disintegration of the USSR as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. Russian imperialism collapsed in 1991, and its satellite states drifted off in all directions. Since then, Russia has just been Russia - not an empire any more. The president feels the pain to this day.

And it's a pain he shares with the heir of another former great power: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The losses he mourns are from even longer ago - almost 100 years, when the Ottoman Empire, one of the losers of World War I, was pruned back by the victorious powers to a fraction of its previous size. It has lost its former greatness, but its former spirit lives on. "We are moved by the spirit that founded the Ottoman Empire," Erdogan said in 2012.

High stakes

Can it be ruled out that the phantom pain felt by both these heads of state is actually dictating their actions? The shooting down of the Russian fighter jet a few days ago leads one to suspect precisely that - all the more so the fact that it took place in an area of historical tensions. Russia and Turkey used to be archrivals, and Iran, Afghanistan, the Balkans and the Black Sea region were the prize they fought over.

What we're seeing now is the sequel to this. Russia is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran on a course of military expansion, while Turkey is on the defensive: It wants to at least maintain its borders from the 1920s - not see the Kurds reduce the old Ottoman inheritance still further with the foundation of their own state.

There's a great deal at stake for both sides, which is why Turkey has now gone on the offensive. It can't be a coincidence that the proxy war between Russia and Turkey is especially concentrated on the Bayirbucak region in northwest Syria. From the Greater Turkish perspective, the Turkmen people living there constitute a geostrategic bridgehead to Istanbul. Bashar al-Assad's regime wants to prevent precisely such a sphere of Turkish influence in remaining rump Syria once the war is over. This is why it's battling the Turkmen living (and fighting) there as hard as it can under covering fire from Russia. If Russia's plans work out, the country should be the one that ultimately has more influence in the region.

In other words: Postcolonialism is the precursor to more colonialism. The victims in all this are still the Syrian people, who are fleeing both Assad's firebombs and the knives of the "Islamic State." With its attacks in recent weeks, IS has given dramatic proof that it wants to be a state with no boundaries whatsoever. With this IS provides us with a cynical reminder that colonialism is a risky undertaking - in both the modern and the postmodern age.

All we can hope is that the existing pain will soon overshadow the phantom variety. The news may then get around that we do not have the capacity to revive the "Great Game" of the 19th century. It might also get around that it is even more important to form a common front against terrorism - both that of Syria's dictator, and that of IS.

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