Today marks the one year anniversary of a coup in Turkey which briefly threatened to topple the rule of Turkey’s strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In the year that has past, Erdogan’s grip on power has strengthened, even though many of the underlying issues threatening Turkey’s stability remain. These include an increasingly rejuvenated Kurdish nationalist movement, the threat of Salafist terrorism inside Turkey, the threat of provocations from Gulenists and a resurgent secular Kemalist opposition.
There is still no international consensus on who is responsible for the failed coup of 15 July, 2016. Erdgoan continues to blame forces loyal to the exiled cleric Fethullah Gluen, but it is still not clear if this is the case. It could have easily been the disgruntled mid-level Turkish army personnel who executed the coup who also planned it.
What is clear is that while many expected the coup to weaken or even humble Erdogan, the opposite has happened. What has been weakened in the year subsequent o the coup attempt is Turkey’s traditionally strong relationship with the United States.
Here are some things to consider.
1. America Disregards Turkey Without Wooing Turkey’s Enemies
One of the guiding features of contemporary US foreign policy has been a dangerous adherence to the maxim that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.
The United States is not for example filled with ardent Ukrainian nationalists, but instead, the US saw fomenting Ukrainian extremism as a way to make things difficult for Russia.
Likewise, the Albanian lobby in America is negligible, but America steadfastly supports Albanian radicalism in the Balkans as a way of weakening Serbia which is an historic Russian ally, even though the contemporary alliance is more spiritual and fraternal than it is military or financial.
For those thinking that America’s disagreements with Turkey have arisen out of a desire to become closer to Turkey’s traditional enemies, this is not the case, even when appearances might dictate otherwise.
America has not suddenly taken a pro-Greek, pro-Cypriot or pro-Armenian position at the expense of Turkey. The United States continues to support German economic measures from Berlin and Brussels against Athens and shows little real interest in bringing unity to Cyprus. There is also little movement on Armenian issues in Washington.
Unlike Greece, Cyprus and Armenia whose historical enmity towards Turkey has not ebbed, Russia in spite of her history of wars with Turkey cannot be considered an enemy of Turkey in 2017. Some would even call Russia and Turkey allies, although this is clearly a big step too far.
America’s alliance with Kurds in Syria and to an extent also in Iraq is not because of but in spite of Turkey. This is a key difference which must be explored in depth.
2. America’s Kurdish Crucible
If one wanted to upset Turkey, alienate Turkey or prepare to engage with Turkey militarily, forming a military alliance with Kurdish forces on Turkey’s borders would be a good place to start.
This however is not America’s goal. In supporting Kurds in Syria, America has found away to at least publicly claim to oppose ISIS without joining the anti-terrorist coalition, aka the resistance led by Syria. This coalition includes Russia which America under Donald Trump seems happy to work with in certain limited capacities but it also includes the Syrian government, Iran and Hezbollah.
The official position of the US in respect of the government of Syria has hardly changed in any significant way, though at times appears more realistic than under Trump vis-a-vis Obama. By contrast, America’s position vis-a-vis Iran and Hezbollah has if anything become more extreme under Donald Trump.
This leaves America with few options in Syria apart from the jihadists whose cause is becoming increasingly untenable and the Kurds. This process of elimination led America to choose the Kurds and seeing as the Kurds are the most Israel friendly option in the region, this certainly helped America’s decision process (if one can be so charitable as to say that it was a process) as well.
The troubling aspect of the US-Kurdish alliance isn’t that it was created to antagonise Turkey, but instead that it was embarked upon without any consideration for how Ankara might feel.
Of course, when the US puts NATO troops on all sides of Russia’s borders, it is clear that Washington doesn’t care how Moscow might feel about this, but Turkey is a NATO member and a traditional modern US ally.
While the US is not fomenting a would-be ‘Kurdish Maidan’ in Turkey, the fact that they seem so unconcerned with a long time ally being incensed about America’s relationship with Krudish militants makes one wonder if the US is as arrogant in its actions towards supposed allies as it is towards apparent adversaries?
3. No Personal Respect
When President Erdogan accused the Obama administration of having a hand in the failed coup through America’s sheltering of Fethullah Gluen a wanted terrorist in Turkey, Obama and his associates were highly cavalier in their dismissal of the allegations.
One could argue that there may have been an absurd quality to the accusations (though there are even stronger arguments to the contrary), but this is the same Obama administration that invented Russiagate, perhaps the most absurd geo-political allegation in modern history. This theory therefore carries little weight.
Things have not improved under Donald Trump. Erdogan’s recent visit to Washington was marred by a general lack of respectful protocol from the US side and what was visibly a poor personal dialogue between the two Presidents.
This has not sat well with Ankara and the Trump administration has done virtually nothing to ameliorate the situation.
4. EU Rejection
Those who felt that Turkey would ever join the EU were also being fanciful, but even those who were Turkosceptics in respect of Turkey joining the European bloc could never have imagined just how far Brussels-Ankara relations would plummet.
While the low-ebb in Turkey’s relations with Europe do not directly effect the United States, if Turkey was in both the EU and NATO, it would have only helped to draw Turkey closer to Washington which is effectively the strongest unofficial member of the EU and the only power in NATO that really calls the shots.
With Turkey being so visibly rejected by a pro-American bloc of nations on its western doorstep, Turkey is even more isolated from the American sphere of influence.
When it comes to wars fought with Russia, not even Poland has fought more than Turkey, depending on how one counts the number of individual conflicts.
In spite of Lenin and Ataturk enjoying a good personal relationship, Turkey and the USSR’s relationship subsequently declined after the 1930s.
Therefore, the fact that Vladimir Putin is perhaps Erdogan’s closest personal acquaintance in respect of a foreign head of state is historically surprising.
Russia and Turkey still have matters of disagreement in Syria, but the fact that Russia and Turkey continue to increase their trade and their diplomatic cooperation in Syria through the Astana Group, is a fact which literally defies historical expectations.
Russia has shown Turkey respect which both America and the EU seem incapable of doing at this point in history. Furthermore, whereas some Russian leaders would have attacked Turkey militarily after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in 2015, President Putin’s patience on the matter has paid off.
Erdogan subsequently apologised for shooting down the plane and relations became not only patched up but intensified in rapid fashion.
With Turkey about to complete a deal for the purchase of Russia S-400 missile defence systems after America and European producers of similar systems were inflexible in respect of the price, it is clear that Turkey is becoming closer to Russia politically, commercially and diplomatically even as certain areas of geo-strategic differences certainly remain.
In this sense, Russia’s door to Turkey was opened by Vladimir Putin but it was the United States along with its European allies which pushed Turkey through the open door.
America has not yet cared to feel Turkish anger towards Washington but it may well soon find that when a NATO member increasingly sides with Russia’s approach to Middle Eastern affairs in areas ranging from Syria and Iraq to Qatar and Iran, America might begin to feel the results of its childish behaviour towards Turkey.
Turkey is now growing increasingly close not only to Russia but to Iran. As a result Turkey has grown further from Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Arab ally.
The map of alliances in the Middle East is changing and it is as much to do with American incompetence as it is to do with the rising influence of Russia and Iran in the Arab world.