Turkey’s tilt East is no threat to western powers

Russian president Vladimir Putin with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Russia on Tuesday. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP Photo
Russian president Vladimir Putin with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Russia on Tuesday. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP Photo

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Moscow this week – the first international trip he has undertaken since the failed coup attempt of July 15. In policy circles in some western capitals, there has been speculation whether Ankara is shifting out of the western axis and closer to Russia’s orbit. However, the situation is far more complicated than that. As far as Ankara is concerned, the western axis is less relevant to its own interests than it used to be – but Russia isn’t seen as a replacement. Rather, Ankara’s regional designs are evolving altogether – and the catastrophe that was July 15 only appears to have encouraged that dynamic along.

For years, Ankara has been pursuing a larger regional role, and that intensified after the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in 2011. In the regional flux that emerged, Ankara saw a role for Turkey that had hitherto been absent – and it went after it accordingly. That was exemplified in relations with Egypt, with Libya, with Syria and elsewhere. While changes in those countries have not gone quite the way Ankara envisaged, the efforts have not ceased. Rather, Ankara is now adapting – and the Russian encounter appears to be a part of that strategy.

In contrast, the western role in the region has been downgraded. American president Barack Obama has made no secret of wanting to be less entangled with the region, and a power vacuum has been keenly felt. Different regional powers have tried to fill it. Turkey sees itself, quite naturally, as capable of playing a larger role. It would be a mistake, however, to see that as equivalent to rejecting a close relationship with the West.

It is easy to come to that conclusion because in the past month Ankara has been sending rather negative signals to western capitals. The narrative Ankara is promoting is that the West in general betrayed its own values and failed to thoroughly back a democratically elected government against an attempted military coup.

Ankara has a point, though it is a flawed one. Certainly, the West failed, generally speaking, to thoroughly reassure Ankara that it rejected the coup, by failing to quickly send emissaries of a sufficiently lofty stature to Turkey. One has to remember that Turkey is an integral part of Nato and the Council of Europe. At the same time, that’s not to say that the West backed the coup. Britain, for example, sent a senior minister very shortly after the coup attempt, and genuine criticisms of Ankara’s post-coup crackdown should not be viewed as necessarily supportive of the coup attempt itself.

Nevertheless, the Turkish public and many of the political elite believe that the West betrayed them. Ankara is partly responding to that pressure, and partly leveraging it. Ankara will continue to make demands of western capitals with regards to the Gulen movement, which it accuses of planning the coup – and this will probably continue to be a stumbling block between Ankara and most western capitals, unless further evidence is provided proving that movement’s complicity in the coup attempt.

Moscow is not a political ally of Turkey, and despite the warm rhetoric displayed this week, Ankara knows it. Ankara’s Syria policy is in direct contradiction to Moscow’s. Ankara sees a Syrian future with Bashar Al Assad at the helm to be out of the question, while Russia support’s Assad and is bombing armed rebels supported by Turkey in Syria. However, the deterioration of relations really took place after a Russian plane was downed when it violated Turkish airspace. Sanctions implemented by Moscow were detrimental to Turkish interests and Ankara has now cemented a reconciliation with Moscow, which was in the works even before the coup attempt.

But Moscow doesn’t just want reconciliation – it wants Turkish cooperation in its vision for Syria. Moscow is likely to be disappointed in this regard – Ankara has exhibited no signs of wanting to substantially change its Syria policy to match Moscow’s. On the contrary, Turkish reportedly supported rebel forces in their breaking of the siege of Aleppo – a siege that was supported by Russia, and which could have led to an even further and immense humanitarian catastrophe in that city. The Syria question is a massive stumbling block for Turkish-Russian cooperation – even more than what Ankara sees as the lack of western cooperation post July 15.

But with the withdrawal of western involvement in the region, Ankara no doubt sees added antagonism with Russia to be of little benefit, and the visit to Moscow appears to be a successful effort to minimise that tension.

Russia may see itself as neutralising Turkey in terms of its regional ambitions somewhat – but the more accurate representation is probably in the other direction. Ankara wants to minimise confrontation with Russia – and will pursue its different foreign policy agendas in the Arab world accordingly.

The West probably doesn’t need to worry about Russia displacing the western-Turkish relationship – but it may need to be concerned about that same relationship deteriorating as the result of other factors. Russia, in this regard, is a sideshow – a lack of a cohesive and constructive western engagement with Turkey, and the wider region, is far more pertinent to consider.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Published: August 11, 2016 04:00 AM

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