The Turk­ish gam­bit:

Is Ankara go­ing over to the other side?

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Michael Binyon, Lon­don

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-



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

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