What was seen as impossible only a couple of month ago has happened. The worst of enemies are now best of friends. Turkey’s sudden amour with Russia underscores that in politics there are only permanent interests – no permanent friends or enemies.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Russia on Tuesday, just weeks after a failed military coup, which Erdogan supporters feel had the blessings of the United States, signals a possible shift in alliances with regard to the Syrian crisis and could even have a major impact on world affairs.
No wonder, the visit received huge media coverage in the United States underlining the US anxiety over what Erdogan got from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Although Putin said that restoring trade ties with Turkey would take time and work, Erdogan seems to be upbeat over the outcome of the visit. For him, the tagline read “from Russia with love”. Incidentally “From Russia With Love” was the title of a 1963 James Bond film, the plot of which revolved around characters and incidents in Turkey.
From reel to reality, Erdogan’s new Russian affair, coming amid his suspicion that the US wanted him removed through a military coup, has raised questions over whether Turkey is preparing to leave the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), whether Turkey will end its antagonism towards Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Putin ally, and whether there will emerge a new security alliance including, among others, Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Yunus Soner, deputy chairman of the Turkish Patriotic Party describes Erdogan’s détente with Russian President Vladimir Putin as a tectonic movement. “This will affect Turkish-Syrian relations, Turkish-Chinese relations, Turkish-Russian relations and Turkish-Iranian relations. This will change the world.”
But Erdogan’s rapport with Russia began weeks before the failed coup on July 15. On June 27, Erdogan, feeling the pinch of the Russian economic sanctions, apologised for the downing of a Russian warplane in November last year and called for Russia and Turkey to mend a bilateral relationship that had become openly hostile over the incident. Angered by the downing of the warplane on the Syria-Turkey border, Russia stopped imports from Turkey and prevented Russian tourists from visiting that country. Then it published what it called satellite pictures showing Turkish oil tankers lining up on the Syrian border to collect oil sold by the terror group ISIS. In April, Russia’s United Nations Ambassador submitted a list of Turkish companies to the United Nations Security Council, claiming his country had collected evidence that these companies were supplying weapons to ISIS. Turkey on the other hand accused Russia of supporting Kurdish separatists fighting for an independent state for Turkey’s Kurds who comprise 20 percent of the population.
Then came the coup; and the 180 degree turn in Turkey-Russia relations.
Russia could not have asked for more. It would be the happiest if Erdogan’s anger against the United States develops into a situation hostile enough to cause a crack in Nato, the cold-war-era relic which the Americans preserve to perpetuate their military dominance of the globe. This is because Russia is uncomfortable with Nato’s eastward expansion all the way to Russia’s western borders.
It would be naïve to assume that Erdogan and his now “dear friend” Putin avoided taking up Syria in their talks in St. Petersburg, the city Peter the Great built and later the capital of imperial Russia.
Turkey, which together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, ignited the Syrian civil war under a smokescreen of an Arab Spring uprising against Assad, now probably feels that its national interest will be better served in an alliance with Russia than its alliance with the US. This is because Washington is arming and training Syrian Kurdish groups to fight ISIS. But these groups are great allies of Kurdish separatists which Turkey has been fighting for decades.
Erdogan and Putin vowed to restore what they called the “axis of friendship”. But for this axis to be meaningful, the two countries cannot go in opposite directions on Syria. Russia would like Turkey to take steps to prevent its territory from being used by anti-Assad rebels, while Turkey would want a policy commitment from Russia not to support Kurdish separatism.
If this is the new axis of friendship, then it may signal Turkey’s withdrawal from the coalition that seeks to topple the Assad regime. The fact that Erdogan in his St. Petersburg statement recalled Putin’s condemnation of the coup no sooner it was launched and the Russian leader’s phone call the day after to express support to him was a swipe aimed at the US and its Western allies who, according to Erdogan supporters, had regretted the failure of the coup.
Adding to Erdogan’s ire was Washington’s reluctance to accommodate his request for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish Islamic scholar who lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan insists that Gulen was behind the coup while Erdogan’s supporters say the Sufi recluse is backed by US intelligence. To extradite Gulen, the Americans sought evidence.
Addressing a post-coup meeting in Ankara, Erdogan said, “Now I ask, does the West give support to terror or not? Is the West on the side of democracy or on the side of coups and terror? Unfortunately, the West gives support to terror and stands on the side of coups….We have not received the support we were expecting from our friends, neither during nor after the coup attempt.”
Erdoğan also lamented that no Western leader had come to Turkey to express condolences and show solidarity with the Turkish people.
Turkey now says it has sent Washington a file containing “evidence” for the extradition of Gulen, but Washington appears to be unmoved.
Can the United States afford to earn more of Erdogan’s wrath? Turkey hosts a key Nato airbase from where US fighter jets operate mission against ISIS targets. Incidentally, one of the July 15 coup leaders was in charge of this airbase located in the Incirlik area of the Turkish city of Adana. Erdogan supporters therefore claim the US had pre-knowledge of the coup.
However, Erdogan cannot afford to take Turkey out of Nato. Neither can the West achieve its geopolitical goals without the help of Turkey. The relationship is symbiotic. Turkey is the biggest troop contributor to Nato after the United States. The West fears that if Turkey is let go of, it will only pave the way for Russia or China to seize on the opportunity and strengthen strategic relations with Turkey which is a doorway to Asia and Europe.
The European Union feels that it needs Erdogan’s support to stem the refugee flow to Europe, while Turkey’s economy is closely linked to Europe, with the EU being Turkey’s number one trade partner.
Given this dependency on the Europe and the West, Erdogan’s détente with Russia may be aimed at extracting concessions from the United States in the form of the extradition of Gulen or full membership of the EU.
So for the time being, the political outcome of the Erdogan-Putin talks is in a state of uncertainty. One has to wait for what happens next to say with some degree of certainty which way Turkey is headed – towards Nato or Russia.