The Turkish gambit:
Is Ankara going over to the other side?
How much has Ankara bonded with Russia?
Under President Erdogan, the country’s prickly and authoritarian leader, a NATO pillar at the crossroads of East and West looks increasingly ready to throw aside its Western allies and seek a new role with its northern neighbour and former enemy, Russia.
Relations between Turkey and the West are at an alltime low. The Turks and the Americans, after an acrimonious quarrel about embassy staffing, have resumed issuing visas after briefly stopping their citizens from visiting each other’s country. Now the Turkish army has launched an all-out assault on the Syrian Kurds, who have been key American allies in the fight against Islamic State terrorists. Turkish generals gave a warning that if US troops and advisers were working with the Kurds they could become targets and risked getting killed in the attacks.
Relations with Western Europe are hardly any better. This week the Netherlands announced that it would not be sending an ambassador back to Ankara, as a mark of frustration and anger at the Turkish campaign against the Dutch that has lasted for almost a year. And the Ger-
WHILE ERDOGAN'S ANGRY DENUNCIATIONS OF THE WEST APPEAL TO HIS CORE SUPPORTERS, BUSINESSMEN AND THE MILITARY ARE
WORRIED. THE MILITARY KNOW THAT IF TURKEY LEAVES NATO OR IS EXPELLED, THEIR OWN POWER AND INFLUENCE WOULD BE COMPLETELY CRUSHED BY ERDOGAN'S ISLAMIST SUPPORTERS
mans, still smarting from being insulted by President Erdogan who last year said Germany’s behaviour today was like that of the Nazis, are finding their relations grow chillier by the month.
By contrast, Turkey is getting an increasingly warm welcome in Moscow. After a bitter quarrel three years ago when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian jet fighter said to have crossed into Turkish air space, the two sides put aside their differences. Mr. Erdogan offered a qualified apology as well as compensation and President Putin lifted the punitive sanctions that he had slapped on Turkey, which included a ban on all Turkish agricultural imports as well as forbidding Russian tourists to visit their favourite Turkish holiday resorts.
Since then, relations have improved rapidly. Mr. Erdogan has reversed his previous insistence that President Assad must leave power in Syria, and last year attended a peace conference on Syria in Kazakhstan, where he was joined by the Russian and Iranian leaders. Turkey now supports Moscow in allowing Mr. Assad to remain in power and has withdrawn support from some of the rebel groups.
Perhaps the biggest coup for Moscow was the conclusion of a massive arms deal with Turkey in December, under which Moscow would sell Turkey surface-to-air missile batteries worth some $2.5 billion. This is the first time that Russia has concluded a big military sale to a NATO member. Turkey’s allies are worried that, because this system cannot be integrated into NATO’s military architecture, Ankara will now be reliant on Moscow for its own defence, and will therefore have to align its policies more closely with Russia.
Syria is the issue that has brought Ankara closer to Moscow. When the civil war began seven years ago, Turkey was adamant that Assad would have to go. It offered arms, shelter and support to the so-called moderate rebels, and turned a blind eye to the arms flowing across its borders to the more extreme Isis rebels in eastern Syria. But the success of the YPG Kurds in northern Syria – a group that Turkey insists is closely linked to the banned PKK Kurdish separatists – began to alarm Ankara. The Syrian Kurds, backed by American weapons, were the only effective force that was in the field fighting against Isis. The YPG expanded its area of control so that it effectively was the main force in all the territory along the southern Turkish border.
For Turkey, the YPG success was more alarming that the threat of ISIS. It was determined to clear them from the border areas, and push their forces back to the east of the Euphrates river. Now that the US-led coalition of forces, including YPG, have liberated Mosul and other towns of the so-called “caliphate” set up by ISIS, the Turks are determined to re-establish their influence in the area. But this has brought them into direct conflict with the US forces, who remain in northern Syria and insist they must stay there to ensure that Isis fighters do not regroup and re-emerge as a threat. And the Americans have no intention of abandoning the YPG Kurds who played such a big role in the victory over Isis.
Matters have come to a head this week. The Turks decided to send their army across the border to wrest control of the territory in northern Syria now controlled by the YPG Kurds and their Arab allies. Two towns in particular, Afrin and Manbij, are the flashpoints. The Turkish military is trying to capture both towns, but has faced stiff resistance. Ankara has been infuriated by continued US support for the YPG and is openly hostile to any continued US military presence in the area.
Several officials in Washington argue that the US, having beaten ISIS, should now withdraw. The Trump administration, however, is fearful that if the Americans go, the Iranians will move in and re-establish a corridor of Iranian influence all the way from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to the borders of Lebanon. The Iranians would then be free to resupply the Iran-back Hezbollah militias, enemies of the Israelis and key supporters of Assad. And so Washington has decided that the US forces, a mixture
of regular troops, military advisers and intelligence officials advising the Arab enemies of Assad, should remain as a “stabilisation force”.
That suits neither the Turks, nor the Russians. Moscow does not want to see a permanent US presence reestablished in a region that was virtually abandoned by Washington during the Obama presidency. And with Russian encouragement, Syrian government forces have begun to attack the US-led coalition. It has proved a bloody confrontation. This past week the coalition repulsed a Syrian attack, leaving at least 100 pro-regime fighters dead. The real danger now is of an escalation in fighting and a direct Russia-America confrontation.
Erdogan is all the readier to support the Russians in this confrontation because he is still angry at what he saw as Western support for the Turkish military rebels who tried to stage a coup against him in July 2016. Since then he has demanded the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the Islamist Turkish cleric who was once a close ally of Erdogan but quarreled and fled into exile in America. Erdogan has accused him of masterminding the coup. But the US has refused all requests for his extradition.
Erdogan has also been angered by the growing chorus of criticism in the West at the harsh government crackdown after the coup that has led to more than 50,000 people being dismissed or arrested. These include not only military officials, but also judges, com- munity leaders and journalists, all accused of supporting Gulen.
His growing authoritarian style and suppression of the opposition and free speech has convinced most European leaders that Turkey should never be admitted as a member of the European Union, despite more than a decade of accession negotiations. This means that Erdogan has nothing to lose by quarrelling with his NATO allies. And he picked quarrels with both the Netherlands and Germany a year ago by trying to send ministers to get Turks abroad to support his referendum to change the Turkish constitution and give himself more power.
But while his angry denunciations of the West appeal to his core supporters, businessmen and the military are worried. The businessmen fear a sharp drop in foreign investment and an end to growth. And the military know that if Turkey leaves NATO or is expelled, their own power and influence would be completely crushed by Erdogan’s Islamist supporters.
Russia is playing a careful game in trying to woo Turkey. Putin does not realistically expect Turkey to leave NATO. But he knows that the more difficult and unreliable an ally Ankara becomes for the West, the more Russia can achieve its aims of remaining the dominant power in the Middle East and reducing the West’s power to challenge Russia’s behaviour around the world. For both sides, the future of Turkey is of crucial importance.
Turkey is getting an increasingly warm welcome in Moscow. After a bitter quarrel three years ago when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian jet fighter said to have crossed into Turkish air space, the two sides put aside their differences