The US and Turkey did not succeed in establishing a partnership in the Middle East able to accommodate different regional views and interest. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not help, and only, for a short time in 2011, did the Arab Spring bring the two countries a little closer as the US hoped that the “Turkish Model” could be adopted by the rising regional Islamists.
During the Soviet era, the Cold War made the Turkish army “the strongest and most reliable protector of the European civilization”, as President Eisenhower said once. Only the Soviet threat enabled the two countries to keep their alliance strong during turbulent times like the Cyprus crisis in the first half of the 60’s, then Turkey’s military intervention in Cyprus in 1974 – despite President Nixon’s warning.
Now, it is not clear yet if the degree of Russia’s present challenges to the US led regional order, and the rise of Jihadi terrorism, can replace the USSR threats in keeping the two countries, the US and Turkey, in the same boat, even while both look in different directions. However, signs of flexibility in both sides towards their mutual relations are surfacing. Those are signs of a mature attempt to adapt to new realities. Moreover, the failure of political Islamists to keep power may have compelled Erdogan to focus on his periphery rather than the whole region.
Since the failed coup in Ankara, we do not see the “Eurasians”, who prefer ties to Russia and Iran, facing the NATO-US defenders, in Ankara anymore. We see only Erdogan. And it is with Erdogan that the Americans have to deal for the next 12 years or so. While the Turkish President is consolidating his power, it is worth a while to look at what could be expected from Ankara now.
What tops the agenda of the Turkish President at present is the US support to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its Peoples Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. The Syrian crisis has turned from a project to further Turkish posture in the Middle East into a security nightmare for the Turks.
If the issue of the PKK in Syria is not addressed in a straight forward manner, it will keep the possibilities of abrupt changes in Ankara’s relations with the US opened. The Turks say that they are not anti-Kurd per se, but they are anti-PKK separatism. They support this claim by citing their strong ties with the Kurdish KRG in Iraq and its President Massoud Barzani. They can live with something similar to the KRG in Syria but not led by the KPP, which certainly, and regardless of any promises, will use its areas as a springboard to threaten Turkey. If Erdogan is put in a corner in this regard, he may take drastic decisions. This will be an opportunity to the Russians.
While it is obvious that Russia is not the USSR, the dynamics underlying US-Turkish relation has several regional and global dimensions. But the independent variable, in our context here, is still Russia-US relations. It is likely that the vote in Turkey will not play any considerable role in defining US-Turkish relations in the near future. But in the longer course, this will be defined by the degree of success, or failure, the US and Russia achieve in reaching a global modus operandi.
While Lavrov was meeting with Zarif and Mallem in Moscow in April 14, Secretary of Defense James Mattis met his Turkish counterpart Fikri Isik. Two weeks prior to Mattis-Isik meeting in Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Ankara. The central issue in both officials’ meetings were the Turkish project to establishment “stabilization zones” in Syria, in which Turkey can play a role, hence keeping the security of its southern borders.
In retrospect, this may look odd, as Secretary Tillerson was working with the Russians on a different approach to the Syrian crisis. But in reality, the two projects are not contradictive. From a Turkish perspective, the crisis of Syria in general is relatively different than the crisis of north Syria. Due to PKK expansion, north Syria is the most direct threat to Turkey’s national security.
But even the “stabilization zones” do not provide Turkey with a definitive solution to its problem. It does not address the core problem of the PKK. Once ISIL is defeated, the PKK land grab will be the time bomb that makes the next crisis certain.
Turkey is very important to Russia as well. It is the “checking point” on the Russian road west. But Moscow finds it wise to wait and see where and when the Americans will make their move. This will not last if there is a joint understanding between the two countries in regard to Syria.
If the two major powers continue their divergence, Turkey may be sucked into the Eurasians vision. If they reach a deal, Turkey would have lost the bulk of its maneuverability margin. Until then, if this ever happens, Incirlik will remain where it is. The US may be looking at other alternatives, but it is understood that this is merely a contingency plan.
This places the way the US will go in Syria at the front of the elements related to future Turkish policies post the referendum. If the project of stabilization zones gains traction, this will mean forming a kind of local forces to protect those zones. This is Turkey’s opportunity to guarantee that there are friendly forces taking care of the other side of its borders and repelling PKK units.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu bluntly expressed what is currently in the minds of Turkish official in this regard. “Residential areas need to be established there. The U.S. says the same thing. Second, local forces that will be deployed to provide protection here need to be trained and equipped. We will evaluate reducing the number of troops or withdrawing entirely only after local forces are fully able to control this area,” Çavuşoğlu said.
This sums up Turkey’s aspirations in Syria. The old objective of placing a friendly regime in Damascus has been dropped few months ago now. All Turkey wants at present is what is related directly to its own national security. This was an important turning point, though we believe that there is no total and clean break yet, due to the complexity of the Syrian crisis and the presence of many armed groups that are close to Ankara.
One other central element in the post-referendum Turkish policies is that of Ankara’s relations with the EU. We believe that the EU failed to handle its ties with Turkey in any sensitive or focused manner. Clearly, a portion of Erdogan’s verbal attacks on the EU during the campaign could be understood from an electoral point of view. But the bitter feelings in both sides are profound and real.
The EU mismanagement of its relations with Turkey should be debated within the EU first. Holland, Austria and Germany took very questionable positions in the referendum without thinking of the post-referendum problems. It is expected now that Erdogan will drop Turkey’s half a century old demand to join the Union.
Dropping the demand is, in essence, symbolic. Trade and investments are too important for the two sides to be touched. But Turkey will make it harder for the Europeans to depend upon its position in any issue, geostrategic or economic.
As we see, all those issues concerning Turkey’s policies after the referendum have existed before the referendum. The difference now is that Erdogan will have a larger margin to decide quickly. But in any case, the right approach now is to try to shape his future policies as much as possible. He is needed by all, particularly by those who say they hate him. Emotions aside, Turkey is strategically too important to be written off, and there are important issues that depends on a Turkish positive role.
Turkey is changing, but its objectives are not necessarily different now than a week ago. For a country to seek defending its security and dignity, no blame should be addressed.
And Turkey’s objectives are quite achievable, without upsetting any other Western plans. It just needs a realistic approach from Ankara as from the rest.
April 20 2017