Herbert London: The Turkish-Russian Detente

Aug 24, 2016

The world is spinning on its axis very quickly. Conditions that seem to define world affairs yesterday are hopelessly out of date today. There was a time only a couple of years ago when President Obama called Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan his closest friend on the world stage. Erdogan was perceived as a loyal member of NATO and an enemy of Russian’s imperial ambitions in the Middle East. Moreover, Erdogan was devoted to the ouster of Syrian president Bashar Assad, a stance that put him in direct opposition to the Russian strategy. In fact, tensions reached the point of actual conflict when a Russian fighter jet was shot down by Turkish forces near the Syrian border.

However, the ice cold relationship between the two states has begun to thaw after the attempted coup against Erdogan. During this recent period of “good feelings” Erdogan told Russian media outlets that Putin is the ”most significant” factor in resolving the Syria conflict, a statement that blatantly ignored the role of the United States.

Obviously the Turkish relationship to the U.S. has undergone change since the Obama administration has refused to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish preacher residing in Pennsylvania, who Erdogan believes was the moving force behind the attempted coup.

Erdogan has come to the obvious conclusion that reliance on the U.S. as an ally is foolhardy. Far better to deal with the malevolent Russians than the unreliable Americans. Second, Turkey’s role in NATO is now ambiguous; State Department spokesmen have openly questioned having Erdogan as an ally in the alliance. On this matter, Erdogan appears to agree.

Not only has the European Union consistently blocked Turkey’s membership, it has also challenged Turkey over the issue of migrants. Arguably the most significant bone of contention is the drum beat of Western criticism over the state of Turkish democracy or lack thereof. Erdogan is now engaged in ideological cleansing, a function of the failed coup. He remains adamantly persuaded that criticism from the U.S. and European capitals is a form of intervention and a challenge to Turkish sovereignty.

Russia has no such complaint. In fact, the possibility of discounted Russian gas availability and future deals may offset the tension over Assad’s presidency. Whatever the motives may be, the Turkish rapprochement with Russia raises worrisome possibilities for the United States. Will Turkey continue to be a valued ally of the U.S. and the defender of NATO’s underbelly?  Will the newly established ties to Turkey lead to the formation of a military alliance that dominates the eastern Mediterranean?

Erdogan has the reputation of being erratic; one might even say he is pathologically schizophrenic. He wants one foot in the Western camp of moderation and one foot in the radical camp of militant Islam. At the moment, he has unconstrained anger at the West, an anger that has driven him to the Russian negotiating table. However, the history with Russia is fraught with intrigue and competition. Putin may be able to take advantage of Erdogan’s present emotional state, but if recent history is any guide, this is not a firm basis on which to formulate policy.

For the U.S., there is little more we can do then wait and see how conditions unfold. But it is also time to review American policy toward Turkey from 2002, when Erdogan was first elected to the presidency. Should this review occur, officials will ponder over the poor judgment of those responsible for the Turkish desk in the U.S. State Department.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

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