By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
For centuries, European and then American policy has been to keep Turkey and Russia separate and even hostile to one another. Wars were fought for this purpose as far back as the 17th century; then later the Crimean War and the feeding frenzy over the remnants of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War. But is this all about to change, as Europe and the US watch from the sidelines as Turkey and Russia draw ever closer?
Vladimir Putin no doubt surveys the current scene from his Sochi dacha with a sense of calm satisfaction. Over the last four years, the situation on Russia’s southwestern front has become so promising for Putin that even he might admit, albeit in private, that matters could hardly have transpired better.
The lynchpin in this new alignment is the revived Russia-Turkey axis, cemented by Putin’s personal relationship with his counterpart in Ankara, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He too may be quietly smiling from his new 1,000-room palace on the edge of Turkey’s capital.
Things looked so much different almost exactly four years ago. With tensions already high over Syria, where the two leaders backed differing sides, a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 somewhere over the Turkish-Syrian border. Putin’s fiery reaction hardly appeared to be the harbinger of friendship; more a possible declaration of war. The S-400, Russia’s most formidable anti-aircraft missile system, was deployed at the Russian airbase in Syria at Hmeimim. Putin swiftly moved to restrict Turkish imports.
Yet war did not follow and Putin played his hand adroitly. Erdogan patched up the relationship as he knew he had to, but also realized that actually the two leaders had certain common agendas. The Astana process was where this reached fruition. Russia, Turkey and Iran devised a mechanism that excluded the US and EU powers, and permitted them, as the countries with military might on the ground, to carve up Syria according to their interests alone. Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria in October ended with another deal with Russia that includes joint military patrols close to the border. Turkey got Russian agreement on restricting the powers of Kurdish armed groups in Syria, while Moscow engineered the return of Syrian government “control” to the third of the country once controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The US ended up with close to zero. The Kurdish groups felt betrayed, but could not counter the powerful Russian-Turkish alliance without Washington’s backing.
Erdogan could be pushed even closer to Putin as a result of tensions with the EU. The latter has instigated sanctions against Turkey as a result of it drilling off the coast of EU member Cyprus. The Turkish president has responded with a chilling threat: Claiming that he will release or attempt to repatriate about 1,200 Daesh prisoners into the EU. Already attempts are being made to fly seven German nationals back there and to deport a mix of Irish, French and Danish nationals. This is clearly to demonstrate that this could be the thin edge of a very dangerous wedge. “These gates will open and these (Daesh) members who have started to be sent to you will continue to be sent. Then you can take care of your own problem,” he said. The farce was best summarized when a former Daesh fighter was deported by Turkey and left in limbo in the buffer zone between the Turkish and Greek borders. Both countries refuse to accept him.
The hypocrisy is rank. Turkey turned a blind eye to extremist fighters crossing its borders into Syria for years — people who either joined Daesh or groups close to Al-Qaeda. Only when Daesh turned on Turkey in 2015 did the policy change and the border sealed. As long as the threat was not inside Turkey itself, Erdogan was content to play fast and loose with Islamist extremism. Some point fingers at Turkey, asking how come Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was killed only 5 kilometers from the Turkish border and if it was possible that, with all the Turkish assets inside Idlib, the authorities were not aware of his whereabouts. Evidence is circumstantial but the rumor mill is in full swing.
Erdogan may be up to his old tricks again regarding Daesh fighters, but he has a strong point. The EU should be taking back their nationals and sharing the burden not just of Daesh fighters, but also of hosting Syrian refugees. But weaponizing either these extremists or refugees for political gain is not the actions of a true statesman.
Putin’s vision is slowly coming true. Erdogan’s increasing dissatisfaction with Europe and his on-off relationship with the Trump White House can only benefit Russia. Who knows, Putin might even step in to broker some truce between these disputing parties in the months ahead? But he also sees his Turkish partner willfully modeling his rule on the Kremlin, becoming increasingly as autocratic as Putin himself.
This is a historic achievement. For centuries, Russia has craved influence over Turkey owing to its strategic position and its access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Putin has pushed this agenda for ages; in 2004 he became the first Russian president to visit Turkey since 1972. His quest is nearly complete.
Uncoupling Turkey from NATO and into a military alliance with Russia would be Putin’s crowning glory. Turkey boasts NATO’s second-largest armed forces. Already, by agreeing to purchase Russia’s S-400, Turkey faces censure and US sanctions if it does not “get rid” of the system. It has been ejected from the F-35 fighter program. President Donald Trump seems to believe that threats and sanctions will be enough to keep Turkey in line, but this is far from certain.
Middle East powers should be wary. As flaky as the Trump White House is, this will not always be the case. Both Putin and Erdogan see the region through the narrow lens of personal empowerment and self-interest. Putin is more than capable of ruthlessly discarding Assad in Syria for a Russian-backed alternative if it suits him. Erdogan could turn on any party that does not support his antipathy to Kurdish rights and ambitions. Moreover, neither Russia nor Turkey bring the heavy financial backing and investment that the US and China can. If a day comes when Turkey has to stop playing the two superpowers off against each other and make a choice, it should think twice before ditching the US.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech