In spite of still being on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict with Russia acting as a key member of Syria’s anti-terrorist coalition and Turkey continuing to occupy parts of Syria along with its terrorist proxy group FSA, there are increasing signs that at a wider geo-political level Turkey is moving closer to Russia–slowly but surely.
Simultaneous and indeed related to this, America seems to be placing less and less value on its historic alliance with Turkey which retains the second biggest army in NATO which Turkey joined in 1952.
Turkey’s geo-political re-positioning is due to what is best described as a ‘push-pull factor’.
On the one hand the west is working hard to push Turkey away, while on the other Russia’s door remains both open and hospitable.
Barack Obama had infamously poor relations with Turkish strong-man President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Obama administration’s lukewarm condemnation of 2016’s attempted coup in Turkey along with America’s unapologetic sheltering of Fethullah Gülen, a wanted criminal in Turkey, did nothing to ease tensions.
Donald Trump’s recent hosting of Erdogan in Washington was widely thought to be a disaster. While the public statements of the two leaders looked strained and insincere, it later emerged that Donald Trump was deeply inhospitable to the Turkish leader, something all the more magnified as Trump generally likes to be a good host when in the company of those he respects of values.
But the most important element in the relationship is America’s continued backing of Kurdish forces in Syria. America has just delivered yet another heavy payload of weapons to the Kurdish YPG dominated SDF operating in northern Syria.
According to a Kurdish source,
“As part of the fight against Daesh (ISIS), the US sent us weapons and armoured vehicles.
Among the weapons received, there are missiles with thermal guidance, which can be used against enemy tanks. In this batch there were no tanks because the US had already sent them earlier”.
The Kurdish source continued,
“It (the US arms) will be used during the operation in Raqqa. We intend to enter the city in June, so our forces are in great need of heavy weapons. The US has already sent us weapons but it is not enough. It is necessary for us to have them in large quantities”.
If America continues to arm the Kurds and it looks as though America will, this could well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in respect of Turkey’s relationship to the United States. Turkey considers the Kurdish forces in both Syria and Iraq as well as the Turkish based PKK to be terrorists and enemies of Turkey. America is therefore apologetically arming Turkey’s primary regional foe.
Europe’s relationship with Turkey is little better. Germany may be on the verge of stopping flying its jets out of Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, which is also used by the US and UK.
Germany has complained that German politicians have not been granted access to the base in order to inspect German forces there. Turkey has done little to alleviate German tensions. There is no love lost between Turkey and an EU which once promised Turkey EU membership that was always totally unrealistic from any logical point of view. The EU was simply leading Turkey on and Turkey finds this deeply insulting.
Moreover, many key European powers are engaged in a frankly childish ideological war with Erdgoan even since the Turkish sponsored political rallies in Europe prior to the Turkish Presidential Powers Referendum in April were cancelled in countries like Netherlands.
As the US and EU powers push Turkey away, Russia continues to welcome Turkey in a respectful and honest manner.
Turkey and Russia are historic enemies and indeed some would say still are in respect of alliances in Syria. But from a broader perspective, both Erdogan and the Turkish people, including Erdogan’s opposition are aware that Russia has consistently treated Turkey with respect, even in 2015 when both countries stood on the verge of war over Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military jet near the Turkish-Syria border.
Russian President Vladimir Putin engaged in an important dialogue with Turkey designed to ease tensions and it has largely succeeded. Russia has been able to get Turkey to be a member of the Russian initiated Astana Peace Talks. Iran and Turkey have also started to increase trade. Turkey and Iran’s technically co-equal position in the Astana process has without doubt played some part in easing historical tensions between Iran and Turkey.
Russia and Turkey continue to expand in areas of trade and technological exchange. 2017 also marks a year of Russian-Turkish cultural exchange wherein both countries will host important arts and cultural events.
Where the west’s push of Turkey has been rather aggressive and frankly crude, Russia’s pull has been quiet but steadfast. It is now impossible to ignore. Russia based its policy on respect for Turkey’s status as a powerful and important nation. The west cannot get over its own ideological obsession, let alone its diplomatic incompetence
Turkey’s active participation in China’s One-Belt, One-Road trade initiative, which the US effectively boycotted in all but name, is a further sign that Turkey is increasingly finding itself on the Russian side of the multi-polar global axis.
It’s almost surreal that the US will bend over backwards to insure that the geo-politically weak and deeply inconsequential small states of eastern Europe remain firmly in the US sphere of influence/control, yet are doing almost nothing to prevent Turkey from slipping east.
There are several possible reasons for this.
1. Turkey is too big to control
Unlike the weak Baltic states of Europe with tiny, decreasing populations, Turkey is a massive regional power with a young and growing population.
The Ottoman Empire is gone, but unlike many former colonial European powers, Turkey remains a vibrant and important player on the world stage. One can hate Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman policies while still admitting that Turkey is a deeply important country whether led by secular Kemalists or led by Erdogan and his allies.
Perhaps America’s own declining power means that it is easier to shove Latvia around than Turkey? America may simply be going for the easy game in this respect.
2. Containment via Kurdistan
Kurds in northern Iraq are set to hold a referendum on creating an independent Iraqi Kurdistan this year. Iraq and Turkey both oppose this move. Turkey opposes it because it is hellbent on opposing the creation of any Kurdish state and Iraq because it does not want to lose the oil reserves in Kuridsh majority regions of the country and frankly also doesn’t need another blow to its pride after decades of utter hell.
America’s project to keep Iraq together after the illegal 2003 invasion of the country led by George W. Bush and Tony Blair, would also officially be a failure if the Kurds decided to fully go their own way.
That being said, many in the US think that Kurdish separatism in Iraq is inevitable and because of generally good relations between the US and both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, that the US should and perhaps will ultimately support a Kurdistan in Iraq and perhaps later also even in Syria, though this remains more ambiguous at this time.
With a hostile Kurdistan on Turkey’s borders, Turkey would be either contained by the Kurds or in a constant conflict that could seriously inhibit Turkey’s ability to expand its northern and eastern alliances.
In other-words, why should America worry about Turkey if the Kurds will keep them busy for the foreseeable future?
Often times the simplest explanation is the best. America’s foreign policy has become so ideologically driven and so dogmatic that perhaps they simply are ill-equipped to deal with Erdogan and his nation.
Under Obama’s radical schoolboy government, it was easy to be friendly with a neo-liberal EU and easy to a hate a sovereignty minded moderately conservative Russian Federation.
Turkey was and is neither of these things. Under Erdogan Turkey has become a strongman dictatorship in all but name. Democratic institutions have been weakened severely. Yet in spite of this, Turkey is militarily a ‘good guy’ in American eyes. Erdgoan hates secular Arab governments and funds the same kinds of jihadists that the US does.
At the same time Erdogan is deeply unpredictable. One day he’s a self-styled new European the next day he’s a Sultan to rule over conquered Arab subjects. One day he’s friends with Israel, the next day he’s a holy warrior for Palestine.
One day, he’s using his NATO jets to shoot down Russian planes and the next year he’s sitting happily beside President Putin.
The mechanistic, unthinking, under-educated and overly ideological America diplomatic corps may simply not be able to handle such a man and therefore such a country.
The real answer is probably a combination of these three factors, but one is inclined to lean most heavily on the ‘incompetence option’.
America and the west have pushed Turkey away through a combination of stupidity and blind liberal ideology. Russia has embraced Turkey due to its pragmatic policy of respecting all great nations, even those it profoundly disagrees with in key areas.
A man like Erdogan prides himself on marching to the beat of his own drum, even though the rhythm is often erratic, making it difficult to dance to. But just as Russian ballet dancers mastered the odd rhythms of Stravinsky, so too do Russian diplomats know how to follow the beat of Erdogan’s drum, while America settles for the droning dirge of its own increasingly out of touch ideology.
In this sense America did all the pushing. Russia did some of the pulling and now Erdogan has few options but to work with Russia as best he can. Whether he can work with anyone in the long term however, still very much remains to be seen. Furthermore, there is no danger of Russia abandoning its traditional allies in Orthodox southern Europe to placate Turkey. The west doesn’t know this yet, but Turkey does which is why Erdogan would be wise to stay out of the Balkans and wider Hellenic world.