Erdogan the latest addition to a growing list of disillusioned US allies

Sami Hamdi Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Erdogan’s visit to Russia has drawn much debate and discussion, centering around whether it is a humbling realisation of the realities of the region after years of the former’s bravado over Syria and shooting down a Russian jet, or a political ploy to put pressure on the US following the attempted coup.

Rarely are these matters black and white, and the same can be said for this visit.

There is no doubt that the attempted coup has emboldened Erdogan. He has made full use of the anti-coup sentiment, conducting an overhaul of the Turkish state, removing journalists, academics, army officials, and civil servants, finally dispelling the sceptre of Ataturk’s extreme secularism that had led to alienation of the Kurds, Anatolia, and generally practising Muslims.

However, the coup has also brought home some very harsh realities for the Turkish leader that demand a shift in political trajectory and a need to leverage against the global superpowers.

Disillusionment with the US

Erdogan was swift to accuse the US of at least being supportive of the coup. Indeed, the delay in announcing their support for Erdogan during the tense hours in which the coup was underway suggested that the US were more indifferent or supportive as opposed to against the attempted ousting of a democratically elected leader in the only genuine and functional democracy in the Middle East. Only when it became clear that the coup had failed did John Kerry swiftly state American support for the Turkish government. By then the damage had been done.

The disappointment, and anger, of the Turkish government cannot be understated. Since coming to power, the AKP have positioned Turkey as a key ally of the US in the region, providing land for military bases such as Incirlik, permitting US military exercises in the Black sea despite Russian protests, and conducting a foreign policy based on mutual interest. The mood in Ankara is that in return, the US has backstabbed a loyal ally.

In all fairness, the US’s reluctance to openly back Erdogan is rooted in more than what AKP supporters believe to be an aversion to Islamist politics. Erdogan is not openly hostile to Israel and relations have been restored between the two nations. Rather, the US’s disapproval of Erdogan stems from his inability to ‘toe the line’ on key issues, including Syria. Erdogan has been an ardent opponent of proposals to keep Assad in power, something the Obama administration believe must be an option on the table when discussing a solution to the conflict.

Moreover, Turkey has been a vital supporter of the Syrian revolutionaries logistically and militarily, refusing to apply the politicised criteria of ‘moderate opposition’ which has resulted in a number of key gains against the Syrian government forces. The US believe this has exacerbated the terrorist threat. Erdogan believes that the US are using the ‘moderate rebel’ line in a bid to sabotage the revolution and carve out a new Kurdish state amidst the chaos.

Erdogan’s suspicions are not unfounded. In 2014, he insisted on the establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Syria, ostensibly to provide a safe zone for refugees. In reality, Erdogan was uneasy over the growing power of the YPG operating in the area who were seizing territory just across the border at a time when the domestic peace process with the Kurds had stalled. In essence, Erdogan sought assurances that the chaos in Syria would not be a prelude to the establishment of a Kurdish state.

The US failed to grant assurances and allowed a media campaign against the Turkish leader to gather momentum as he came under heavy criticism for not intervening in Kobane which was under siege from ISIS. To the world, the narrative was that Turkey was complicit in the rise of ISIS. To Erdogan, the whole fiasco was a trap to embroil Turkey into a war on terrorism it could not possibly win, plunging the country into a domestic security crisis that would undermine the regime, lead to popular discontent, and thereby strengthening the nationalist Kurd position. To Erdogan, non-intervention would weaken the YPG and put a spanner in the Kurdish dream for independence.

Some commentators have suggested that the US is more concerned with Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style. However, such analysis is delusional at best and fails to take into account some of the US’s vital allies who are nearly all authoritarian regimes without a semblance of democracy.

Therefore, it follows that the impact of Erdogan’s antics against the opposition on the relationship with the US is negligible at best. Rather, it becomes an issue for the US only in so far as a strong Erdogan with popular support means a strong nation incapable of being divided. This places the US in a difficult predicament with the Kurds to whom it has promised support for greater autonomy with the ultimate aim of independence in return for sustained support in key areas, notably in Iraq.

It is this that is the true message behind the million-man march in Istanbul, a show of force to the US that Erdogan is not your ordinary ‘dictator’. Any lack of appreciation for the Turkish leader’s popularity can only be rooted in a failure to appreciate just how brutal and tyrannical the secular alternative, inspired by Ataturk, was. From banning the Kurdish language in schools, the headscarf in public institutions, the call to prayer, the printing of the Qur’an, the sheer audacity of the secular project in suppressing the Turkish and Kurdish identity in the pursuit of the ‘Turk’ citizen is at the heart of the AKP’s sustained electoral success.

What Erdogan wants from Russia

However, to claim that anger towards the US is enough to send Erdogan to Moscow is misguided. Russia has a powerful card that it has already played against Erdogan and which, prior to the coup, began to appear to threaten the very foundations of the government; the nationalist Kurds.

Earlier this year, Russia allowed the Kurdish HDP to set up an office in Moscow before providing air support for the YPG to move into areas ‘relieved’ of Syrian rebels. Kurdish sources also informed the International Interest that the Assad regime was acting as a proxy to facilitate and supply weapons to the PKK. These events coincided with a spike in security disturbances, demonstrating the gravity of Moscow’s wrath at the downing of one of its fighter jets.

Turkey is now claiming that the pilot who downed the jet was a member of the coup, suggesting that the incident was orchestrated to bring about the sudden deterioration in relations between the country.

However, the vociferous nature of Turkey’s defence of the act at the time suggests that this is most likely a simple case of the Turkish government using the coup as a window to restoring relations as opposed to any real sudden discovery regarding the matter. Erdogan needs Russia to withdraw support for the nationalist Kurds in order to force them back to the peace process.

He also does not wish to enter into a full diplomatic row with two of the world’s superpowers at the same time. With the US already threatening Turkey with disbarment from NATO and adopting an increasingly antagonistic tone to Turkey’s request for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan will be keen to leverage warmer relations with Russia and complicate US interests in order to express its anger.

Russia needs Turkey as well

Putin’s sudden U-turn also speaks volumes as to how Moscow perceives its current situation. The economy is stumbling as a result of low oil prices and whilst Putin’s personal popularity remains relatively high, that of his party and other Russian officials remains low, a sign of growing disapproval over domestic policy.

Russia has a number of key economic projects that it seeks to benefit from with Turkey including tourism promotion, the Turkish Stream pipeline and Russian-backed Turkish nuclear plants.

Russia will also welcome Erdogan’s dissatisfaction with the US and will invest this in seeking to bring about a resolution in Syria, a conflict it is keen to withdraw from. Russia has already invested in Saudi dissatisfaction, welcoming a number of delegations in Moscow to discuss the Syria crisis. For the Saudis, the issue has never been Assad, but Iran. If a resolution can promise the lifting of Iran’s influence over Syria, then the Saudis are ready to accept Assad.

Likewise, for Erdogan, it is a myth that his stance on Syria is based on Assad’s treatment of the opposition. In reality, Erdogan is more angry at the ease with which Assad discarded years of very warm ties between the two countries as well as back door mediation attempts at the start of the conflict to bring about the necessary reforms that might have kept Assad in power.

In other words, Russia may trade withdrawal of support for the Kurds for a softening in the Turkish position on Syria in the upcoming Geneva negotiations. Syrian opposition figures have already expressed concern to the International Interest over Erdogan’s visit to Moscow, citing fears that the need for domestic security in Turkey will come at the expense of the revolutionaries in Syria and Turkish indifference to whether Assad remains.

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Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. An experienced geopolitical risk consultant, Sami assists blue-chip clients around the world in monitoring and advising on highly volatile business environments.

Sami has extensive experience in the MENA region having been a television reporter and talk-show host for over 10 years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In his freetime, Sami is a passionate and stubborn Arsenal fan, and loves travelling. Perhaps a bit too much…