Rethinking Europe, Global HotSpots

Driving Turkey into the Arms of Russia?

The convergence of Russian-Turkish interests is likely only of a temporary nature.

Credit: danielo Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The Trump administration decision to sanction two key Turkish officials in retaliation for the continued detention of an American cleric is seen as driving Turkey into Russia’s hands.
  • The US needs a holistic and integrated approach towards the Eastern Mediterranean that will stabilize Europe and shift the regional balance in the Middle East back towards the US.
  • The convergence of Russian-Turkish interests is likely only of a temporary nature.
  • Mr. Erdogan should be careful to put too much stock into his Russia connections. How quickly a Turkey-Russia alliance can unravel was made plain in 2015 when the two countries had a fallout over the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter jet.

The Trump administration decision to sanction two key Turkish officials in retaliation for the continued detention of an American cleric is seen as driving Turkey, a longstanding NATO ally, into Russia’s hands.

This would further undermine U.S. influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, a key part of the world, and give Russia, Iran, China and an increasingly anti-American, Eurasia-focused Turkey the upper hand. Absent the Trump Administration’s single-minded focus on support of Israel, even a U.S. abandonment of the region appears possible.

A report published this week by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said:

The United States needs a holistic and integrated approach towards the Eastern Mediterranean that will stabilize Europe and shift the regional balance in the Middle East back towards the United States. Resolving the Syrian conflict is essential for Eastern Mediterranean stabilization, and developing an appropriate policy approach toward an increasingly antagonistic and anti-democratic Turkey is the key to solving the Syria puzzle and re-anchoring the region toward the Euro-Atlantic community.

In its report, the think tank also argued that the United States has a strategic interest in reasserting itself in the Eastern Mediterranean as a means of preserving European unity and security; stabilizing the Middle East; countering projection of power by Russia, Iran and China, and confronting challenges by numerous non-state actors.

Overblown concerns?

But just how real is the concern that Turkey will opt for Russia as a new partner?

Despite steps such as Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile system, a convergence of Russian-Turkish interest is likely to be problematic at best. The two nations are likely to diverge again once Syria moves to regain control, of Idlib.

The northwestern Syrian border region with Turkey is the dumping ground for rebels and jihadists that were evacuated from areas elsewhere retaken by Syrian military forces. It includes the jihadists that hail from the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Potential flashpoints

Idlib is but one potential flashpoint in Turkish-Russian relations. Both Russia and Syria see the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia viewed by Turkey as a terrorist extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as important to resolving Idlib. YPG representatives have been travelling to Moscow, where the group was allowed to open an office in 2016.

Syrian Kurdish representatives have met in recent weeks with the government of president Bashar al-Assad to negotiate the future of Kurdish areas that Turkey wants to wrest from Kurdish nationalist control. They reportedly reached agreement on sharing oil revenues from two Kurdish-operated oil fields.

Turkey’s pocket books could be hit much harsher still by a Russian-backed resolution of a three-decade-old dispute over the rights of Caspian Sea littoral states – Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Set to be signed on August 12, it paves the way for construction of an oil pipeline to Europe that could undermine Turkish hopes of becoming an alternative energy corridor bypassing Russia.

Moreover, Russia this month began delivering arms to Armenia. Its borders with Turkey and Iran are guarded by Russian troops. This is significant against the backdrop of reports that Turkey was planning to establish a military base in Nakhichevan, a landlocked autonomous region that is separated from Azerbaijan by a strip of Armenian territory.

Russian officials fear that Turkish and Azerbaijani military moves in Nakhichevan could fuel Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Conclusion

All in all, Mr. Erdogan should be very careful to put too much stock into his Russia connections. How quickly a presumed Turkey-Russia alliance can unravel was made plain in November 2015, when the two countries had a real fallout over the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter jet.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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