Turkey and Russia’s marriage of convenience

Erdogan’s shift away from the West towards Putin will mean a reshaping of the Middle East

The Times 21-Dec-16

Erdogan’s shift away from the West towards Putin will mean a reshaping of the Middle East

Shots rang out and two muscular, ambitious powers seemed to bump against each other — but, no, it wasn’t a Franz Ferdinand moment. Rather, the assassination in Turkey of the Russian ambassador this week was probably a botched attempt to sabotage the formation of a game-changing alliance between Moscow and Ankara.

Comparisons with 1914 and the crazy slalom into war were more appropriate a year ago, after Turkey shot up a Russian fighter jet that had nudged into its airspace. Now Turkey, Russia and Iran are, if not exactly the best of friends, positioning themselves as the future partitioning powers of Syria. Their foreign and defence ministers met in Moscow yesterday, sombre because of the gunning down of ambassador Andrei Karlov, but quite electric too; even the dullest of regional diplomats now grasps that the rules are about to be rewritten. Recep Tayyip Erdogan could turn east, away from a begrudging Europe towards Vladimir Putin.

“The atmosphere has become more febrile since the fall of Aleppo,” a Turkish historian says. “People here are upset about the outcome but leaders understand that setbacks have to be turned into opportunity.” For the past five years Erdogan has been helping insurgents against Assad while Russia and Iran have been fighting to keep him in power. Now Assad’s future is less of a priority for the Turkish leader. His priority is to ensure that the Turkish-Syrian border areas do not become a stamping ground for the Kurdish YPG group, which has been trying to link up settlements to form a separate Kurdistan.

Backchannel contacts between Ankara and the Kremlin produced trade-offs on the battlefront: Russia turned a blind eye to Turkish troops fighting the Kurds in the northern Aleppo province while Turkey quietly abandoned the Free Syrian Army units in the city of Aleppo itself. Erdogan’s calculated withdrawal from backing insurgents has underlined their dire situation. Saudi Arabia is concentrating on its war in Yemen, while Qatar cannot really function without Turkish support.

It looks to me as if Erdogan has made or is about to make his choice. There is something inherently attractive for him about a strategic partnership with Russia

Erdogan, then, is playing his part in delivering to Moscow the anti-Assad rebels. Exhausted, the rebels will head westwards to Idlib where they will almost certainly be relentlessly bombed by the Russians, rather than to the north and the protection of the Turks. The assassin in Ankara on Monday called out not only “Don’t forget Aleppo!” but also: “All those who participate in this tyranny will be held to account!” His bullets hit a Russian but the words seemed to be directed as much at the Turkish president.

This won’t put off Erdogan in his intention to embrace Putin. He has already signalled his readiness to join the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation alongside the likes of Russia, China and Kazakhstan. It’s a club that essentially offers an anti-American, anti-western alternative; it aspires to attract those fed up with US global hegemony. Turkey would be an important catch — a Nato member, an EU candidate.

Erdogan could be bluffing to capture the attention of the incoming administration of Donald Trump. Or he could be hedging, reducing his relationship with the West to the bare minimum: channelling ties with the US through Nato and with the EU through a migration deal that he can turn off and on again according to his whim, while putting most of his eggs in Putin’s basket.

It looks to me as if Erdogan has made or is about to make his choice. There is something inherently attractive for him about a strategic partnership with Russia. The relationship transcends the many wars between the Ottoman and Russian empires. In Taksim Square in Istanbul stands a statue of the first Soviet ambassador to Turkey, Semyon Aralov, symbol of how the Bolsheviks and the Turkish nationalists, both suspicious of the West, both with modernising agendas, worked together.

Day by day it is becoming clearer how much closer Erdogan is drawing to Putin than to the West. Trump has declared his respect for Erdogan (“for turning it around”), but it is not at all clear whether the new president will be able to deliver the only thing that the Turkish government wants from the US: the extradition of Erdogan’s arch-rival, the cleric Fethullah Gulen who lives in US exile. Erdogan wants to put him on trial for allegedly plotting the July coup against him. And having purged a third of his military staff, Erdogan’s standing with the Pentagon is not what it once was.

As for the European Union, it is constantly frustrating the Turkish leadership, withholding promised cash because of human rights abuses and the president’s accumulation of autocratic powers. Erdogan responds by saying he will approve any law that reinstates the death penalty — essentially a way of breaking off all ties with the EU. And he mentions with a studied casualness that there are two million Syrians in his country all too willing to travel to the EU.

Trump at least promises a “transactional” leadership style — that the US will strike deals with strongman leaders when they are of mutual interest, but will not impose a Washington-manufactured vision of a liberal world order. That appeals to Putin too. But Putin and Erdogan are sceptics; their reading of the American system is that Trump will become a captive of powerful lobbies. Both are survivors and both could be in power until 2024 — time enough to remake the Middle East and watch as a disillusioned West scurries out of the region. Their cynicism is being rewarded. Along with Iran they have become the only game in town, the Axis of Evil 2.0.

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