Stuck between Washington and Moscow
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Although Turkey is a NATO member, its history and geography has always forced it to make balanced calculations in foreign policy. Ankara has to do these calculations in a much more subtle way these days. On the one hand, it faces the risk of expanding the American arms embargo, and on the other, Russia’s threat to send millions of new refugees from Idlib to the Turkish border.

Turkish-American relations have never progressed steadily since Turkey’s entry into NATO in 1952, on the contrary, they have always followed a fluctuating course. In the past 70 years, there have been periods when the United States imposed a military embargo against Turkey, and periods when relations were excellent and even described as “strategic cooperation”.

As of October 2014, the word that can best describe Turkish-American relations may be ‘insecurity’. Moreover, it is a state of perpetual insecurity.

From Washington’s point of view, the reason for this distrust is Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missile defense systems from Russia. A NATO member’s purchase of strategic weapons systems from Russia, which is described as an “enemy” in the Alliance’s official documents, both discredited the Trans-Atlantic alliance and was a blow to the American arms industry, as it is the world’s number one arms dealer.

The truth of the matter is that the S-400 crisis was the result, not the cause, of the negative picture in Turkish-American relations.

Turkey’s southern borders are surrounded by countries with ballistic missiles capable of hitting all Turkish cities, including Istanbul. Turkish leaders have been expressing the need for a missile defense system for the country’s air defense for at least 30 years. The first country that Turkey applied to meet this need was the United States of America. Ankara negotiated for at least six years to purchase Patriot missile defense systems from Washington. But the result was a failure. The American administration did not agree to sell the Patriot systems to Turkey.

In the six years of negotiations, Turkey has experienced two more major disappointments from Washington. The first of these was that in October 2014, the American administration started to supply weapons and ammunition to the YPG, the armed wing of the PKK in Syria, which Turkey has been fighting since 1984.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been on the United States’ list of terrorist organizations since 1997. The American administration decided to use the YPG, which is the arm of this organization in Syria, as the boots on the ground in its fight against ISIS (ISIS) in Syria, and started to arm the organization as of October 2014. In order to cover up the situation of giving weapons to a terrorist organization, it changed the name of this structure and started to call it the SDG (Syria Democratic Forces-SDG).

There is a saying in Turkish: A wolf does not cease to be a wolf when it takes on the skin of a sheep. The United States of America, which declared that it came to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria “to fight terrorism”, has now started to cooperate with a terrorist organization on the Syrian field. He was getting support from another terrorist organization against a terrorist organization.

Turkey suddenly faced the fact that it was being armed by America, an ally of the PKK/YPG, which has been in armed rebellion against its territorial integrity for 40 years.

The first major break in Ankara-Washington relations was here.


Two years later, the second major break occurred. On July 15, 2016, a religious organization whose leader is in the United States attempted a military coup to overthrow the elected government in Turkey. F-16s, used by pilots belonging to this organization, which had infiltrated the state for many years, bombed the Parliament building and police stations in Ankara. Soldiers belonging to this organization opened fire on the people on the roads and bridges. More than 250 people died and thousands were injured. The impact input was barely suppressed.

The leader of this coup attempt was Fethullah Gülen, who has been living in Pennsylvania in the United States since 1999 and introduced himself as a cleric.

Soldiers had attempted coups in Turkey before. Turkey’s historical knowledge is this: A military coup attempt cannot be made in Turkey without the knowledge and approval of the United States. For this reason, after the coup in Ankara, arrows were turned to America. Turkey’s Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, did not hesitate to openly state that America was behind the coup. President Erdogan has never made such an accusation against America directly, but he asked the American administration to extradite Fethullah Gulen to Turkey. This demand has been ignored by the United States for five years.

It is known that the foreign policy pursued by Turkey in Syria, the Caucasus and the Eastern Mediterranean is not in harmony with the policies of the United States. It is known that many decision makers in America do not like Erdogan and consider him out of line.

In Ankara’s prevailing opinion, this coup attempt was essentially an American response to Turkey’s autonomous foreign policy adopted during Erdogan’s reign.

As a result, the July 15 coup and the “American connection” in the coup became the second major break in relations. America continues to actively support both the PKK and the Gülen organization.

For Turkey, as long as the support for these two organizations continues, it is not possible to return to the “good old days” with the United States. “Relations with America are not a good omen,” Turkish President Erdogan was saying in New York, where he went to attend United Nations meetings.

These are the main lines of the picture that compels Erdogan to Vladimir Putin.

Turkey’s close relations with Russia are a result of America’s preferences regarding Turkey. Turkey’s crisis of trust and crisis with America inevitably brings Russia forward as a breathing tube for Ankara. We know that the support Turkey could not get from the United States in the Syrian field, as seen in Turkey’s Afrin military operation, was able to get from Russia.

Putin bets Turkey will strain EU and NATO relations in his favor

Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan are the two most senior leaders on the world political scene. Moreover, they understand each other’s language in terms of their attitudes and styles. The reason why the diplomacy of the leaders rather than institutional diplomatic relations has dominated Ankara-Moscow relations for almost 20 years is partly because the characters of the two leaders are close.

Russia’s sale of S-400 systems to Turkey, which could not buy Patriot missile defense systems from the United States, took Ankara-Moscow relations one step further. However, this does not mean that everything is going well with the Russians. Turkey has differences of opinion with Russia in Syria, Libya and the Black Sea (Ukraine-Crimea), which are not easy to resolve.

The issue that bothers Turkey the most in Ankara-Moscow relations these days is Idlib. Turkey, which currently hosts close to five million Syrian refugees, cannot tolerate a new influx of refugees. However, the Russians have increased their air raids towards Idlib, which has turned into “the world’s largest foreign fighters dump” as described in the UN reports, in recent weeks. These are the moves that brought Turkey’s heart to its mouth. As such, the balance of Idlib is Russia’s most important trump card against Turkey. This was one of the two reasons for Erdogan’s visit to Sochi. (The other was the invitation of Erdogan, who could not meet with US President Joe Biden in New York, where he was for United Nations meetings two weeks ago, to Putin’s summer palace in Sochi. Putin is a leader who likes symbolic moves in foreign policy.)

It can be predicted that the Russians will carefully use their Idlib trump card. They do not want to use this trump card to anger Turkey, perhaps to lose it. Because it cooperates with Turkey in many fields from defense industry to natural trade and energy transmission lines.

But what probably pleases Putin most is the long-standing distrust between NATO’s two major military powers. The Russian leader will do his best to deepen this rift in NATO.

Gürkan Zengin is freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey. He was the director of news of CNN Turk TV between 2007-2009 and Al Jazeera Turk web site between 2011-2017.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Cover Page’s editorial stance.


Gurkan Zengin

Source: Cover Page