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Russia-US reconciliation challenges Turkey’s ambitions in the Arab world

Turkey has gone rogue in both Syria and Iraq. Trump and Putin must speak with one voice against Turkish ambitions in the Arab world.

Of the many nations whose relationship with the United States will be altered due to Donald Trump’s foreign policy shift, the most unpredictable is that of Turkey.

Turkey occupies a peculiar position in NATO and the wider pro-American alliance. Whilst Ottoman Turkey and Imperial Russia were perpetual enemies, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and Tsarist Russian Empire temporarily brought about good relations between Republican Turkey and the Soviet Union.

Republican Turkey was one of the first three states which Lenin engaged in formal relationships with, the others being Iran and Afghanistan.

Ataturk and Lenin enjoyed a good relationship, but by the end of the 2nd World War, relations between Turkey and the USSR deteriorated. When Turkey joined NATO in 1952, the deal was sealed. Yet even so, Turkey – a vast country with own very unique ideas about her place in the world, remained less concerned with the US-Soviet chess game in Europe than its more localised and regional affairs.

Today, with President Erdogan undermining many of Turkey’s Republican values, Ankara’s foreign policy has experienced fits of manic-depression, getting on and falling out with all major regional players as well as geopolitical players.

Putin and Erdogan’s recent agreement to re-open trade channels, share scientific and technological expertise and a vague promise to cooperate on Islamic terrorism has had mixed results, particularly in Syria but also in the related conflict in Iraq.

On the one hand, Russia and Turkey appear to have agreed to not tread on each other’s territory in Syria, both literally and politically. This is based on the pragmatic understanding that both countries have different goals.

Russia wants to eliminate all terrorist groups in Syria and help to stabilise and strengthen the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic. Turkey’s initial goal was to weaken Assad’s government if not overthrow it entirely. This goal was in line with Obama’s policy, though mercifully, apparently not in line with that of President-elect Trump.

As the idea of overthrowing the Syrian government becomes increasingly unlikely if not impossible, Turkey has partly shifted its goals in Syria. Whilst still occasionally aiding its terrorist group de jure, the so-called Free Syrian Army, the end game for Erdogan is to create a successful buffer zone between would be autonomous Kurdish fighters in Syria and the Turkish border.

Should the Kurds establish a self-governing enclave in Syria, this could be used to aid the PKK inside Turkey which for Erdogan, like almost any Turkish leader, would be thoroughly unacceptable.

But when one looks to Iraq, Turkey’s pragmatism, albeit militant pragmatism, goes out the window. Erdogan recently gave a speech implying  that Turkey’s destiny is to restore certain former Ottoman ruled Arab  Vilayets (provinces), back to Turkey. This included the Vilayet of Mosul in what is now northern Iraq.

This threat did not go unnoticed in Baghdad. The Turkish forces illegally fighting in northern Iraq as part of Obama’s duplicitous anti-ISIS coalition have been threatened by Iraq. War between Turkey and Iraq – two US allies – was not part of the Pentagon’s plan, but America has never been as good at controlling Turkey as it likes to believe. This is especially true under the erratic Erdogan who blames the US for this summer’s unsuccessful coup attempt.

War between two US allies could happen if Turkey refuses to back down in Northern Iraq and the battle for Mosul continues to become more of an entrenched stalemate, rather than the easy victory Washington predicted and Baghdad prayed for.

Whilst Erdogan’s accusations of a US inspired coup seem to be a bit fanciful (it was most likely a poorly organised attempt by low to mid-level groups of Turkish Army officers), he is correct in accusing the US of sheltering Fethullah  Gülen, a leader of a heterodox Islamist movement in Turkey which seeks to complete with Erdogan’s own version of anti-Republican political Islam.

In the scheme of things, in Syria, Turkey is now fighting against Kurdish solidarity. While in Iraq, Turkey is fighting to establish influence in the north of the country, much as Iran has established firm support in the Shi’a south, namely in Basra. Iran, however, has not needed military engagement in order to establishment political influence. Anti-Saddam Shi’a rebels in the south had long ties to Iran, and they only strengthened after US and Britain’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Whilst Iranian influence is broadly accepted if not welcomed in the south, Turkish influence will not be welcome in the north, not by Sunni Arabs and certainly not by Kurds. Turkey is fighting in the US coalition in terms of its technical position, but in reality, Turkey has an agenda that is ultimately its own. Ankara has gone rogue in Iraq and to a large degree in Syria too.

What is clear is that based on international law and the principles of Arab dignity, let alone Arab nationalism, Turkey has no business in the Arab world. This pipe-dream of Erdogan’s ought to have been put to rest many years ago.

If Putin and Trump can actually coordinate policy and plans of action in Syria and possibly by extrapolation, agree on Iraq, this leaves Turkey’s ambitions fully exposed. In an ideal world, it isn’t up to America or Russia to tell Turkey how to conduct its own affairs, but it is perfectly reasonable for a joint US-Russia effort to put an end to Turkey’s naked ambitions in the Arab world.

By speaking with one voice, Putin and Trump could put an end to this. The power of US and Russia means that they can, and the lack of stability in the region means that they must.

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