Coup-stricken Erdogan rethinks friends and foes

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Aslan

Dhu al-Qa'dah 29, 1437 2016-09-01

Main Stories

by Ahmet Aslan (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 7, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1437)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets with his Turkish counterpart, President Erdogan, at the Constantine Palace in St. Petersburg, 8-9-2016. The resumption of Russian tourism to Turkey is important to Erdogan, whose country, according to a Russian estimate, lost $840 million in the first six months of this year because Russians stopped coming. So is the end of the tomato and citrus embargo. Russia will be happy to build a nuclear plant in Turkey, as previously agreed, and it welcomes progress on Turkish Stream, a pipeline project to supply Russian natural gas to southern Europe via Turkey. However, despite renewed economic exchanges, the real question is whether the two ambitious rulers have enough of a platform on which to build a new alliance in the Syrian war that would effectively destroy Turkey’s affiliation with NATO.

July’s failed coup attempt in Turkey has exposed more than the coup plotters. Turkish President Recept Tayip Erdogan has realized that Western rulers and Nato members are not his real friends. Russia and Iran are.

Few people in Turkey found US Vice President Joe Biden’s assertions of America’s non-involvement in the July 15 failed coup attempt convincing. Biden was in Ankara on August 24 to try and patch up relations that had nosedived in the aftermath of the coup attempt. “The people of Turkey do not have a better friend than the United States of America,” he said at a press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

Biden’s visit coincided with Turkish forces launching an attack on Jarablus, Syria, ostensibly to fight ISIS terrorists but in actual fact to curtail Kurdish forces in the region whom Turkey considers as mortal enemies. Turkey fears Kurdish autonomy even more so than the ISIS wolves that have carried out several bomb attacks inside Turkey including the August 15 suicide bombing at a wedding in Gazientep.

For Ankara, Kurds remain the principal problem. Advances made by the Syrian Democratic Force (YPG) — a US-backed Kurdish militia supported by American Special Forces inside Syria — in Manbij and now advancing on Jarablus is considered a mortal threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity. The YPG is known to have links with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a terrorist group banned in Turkey. Ankara has made clear it will not allow the Kurds in Syria to link up with the Kurds in Turkey signaling a long stay in Syria. Ankara’s anti-Kurdish policy in Syria puts it at odds with the US, adding one more point of friction between the NATO allies.

Since the failed coup, more evidence has emerged to reinforce Turkish belief that the US was tacitly or actively involved in the coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP government. Further, the US refusal to hand over Fethullah Gulen, leader of the Gulenist cult, to Turkish authorities despite an extradition agreement between the two countries has only heightened Turkey’s anger. Ankara accuses Gulen of being the mastermind behind the coup.

Aside from frustrating Erdogan, failure to hand over Gulen shows that the US is protecting its ally Gulen and was complicit in the coup plot. Erdogan expressed frustration with the US stating that “sooner or later the US has to make a decision; Turkey or FETO [Fethullah Terrorist Organisation].” Washington refuses to extradite Gulen claiming there is “lack of evidence” about his culpability.

However, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, who is perhaps Erdogan’s closest confidante together with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, rebuffed the US claim about “lack of evidence” and made Turkey’s expectation clear in relation to the extradition request. “I am certain that the CIA has much more evidence than Turkey that Fethullah Gulen planned and organized the coup… To say that [the US] has no knowledge of his involvement amounts to ridiculing soundness of mind of the entire world and the Turkish nation.”

It is now obvious to Erdogan and his aides that the US is not a reliable ally, claims to the contrary notwithstanding. He has, therefore, started looking for more reliable allies that would help him counter hostile US actions against Turkey. There are two important countries whose support is crucial in this time of crisis: Russia and Iran. However, due to a reckless foreign policy, Turkey has isolated itself in the region over the last few years. Thanks to the unexpected fallout from the Syria conflict, Turkey’s relations with Russia had turned sour and were deteriorating with Iran.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, left, shakes hands with Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif ahead of an official meeting in Ankara, 8-12-2016. Despite what Turkey has been doing in Syria, Islamic Iran’s steadfast support for Turkey’s elected government during the failed US-coup attempt has opened up a new avenue of cooperation that, it is hoped, will get Erdogan to see a brighter light in the East, more so than in the West.

However, it must be acknowledged that even before removing the Ahmet Davutoglu government, Erdogan had realized the looming danger of alienating regional powers, especially Russia and Iran. The new government led by Yildirim made a number of statements about Turkey’s willingness to rectify strained relations with Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Yildirim also lamented the “senseless conflict” in Syria that has been shedding the blood of Muslim brothers for a long time. Further, Turkey took a number of measures to restore relations between the two countries including apologizing for the downing of the Russian plane over Syria last November. These were serious signals that indicated a drastic change in Turkey’s destructive policy in Syria.

The failed coup seems to have greatly accelerated Turkey’s rapprochement with regional countries. It was not a coincidence that Erdogan had his first phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin the day after the coup attempt. And the first country that Erdogan visited was Russia. On August 9, Erdogan arrived in St. Petersburg to meet Putin. The visit was considered a turning point in Turkey’s foreign policy both politically and economically.

There were two dimensions to the meeting: the first concentrated on discussing economic issues. According to reports, Turkey provided a stunning $8 billion voluntary incentive for the nuclear power plant that Russia is currently building in Turkey. Erdogan’s move was a significant gesture to win Putin’s heart. The two leaders also pledged to increase their current trade volume to $100 billion. And they agreed on the Turkish stream project and cooperation in defense projects.

The second part of the meeting related to conflict in Syria that has been at the center of tensions between the two countries. The coup-stricken Erdogan was eager to reach agreement on Syria and restore peace. The two countries agreed to establish a direct line between their armed forces in order to avoid “accidents” similar to that of the downing of the Russian jet. Turkey also promised to launch an investigation into the plane shooting as well as killing of the Russian pilot who was allegedly killed by a Turkish national fighting alongside the Syrian rebels.

It helped Turkey that the pilots of the Turkish F-16 who shot down the Russian jet were also involved in the coup attempt. They are members of the Gulenist cult. It is possible that the Turkish delegation accompanying Erdogan on his Russian visit used the argument that downing of the Russian jet was part of the Gulenist plot to discredit Turkey’s reputation and undermine Turkish-Russian relations. The pro-government media made extensive use of this argument domestically. The delegation also agreed to establish a three-member committee between the two countries comprising a diplomat, an intelligence officer, and a military officer. The sole purpose of the committee would be to discuss cooperation on Syria.

Following Erdogan’s visit, the Turkish side assembled a delegation and sent it to Russia for its first meeting. According to Viktor Vodolatski, Vice President of Defense Committee of the Russian State Duma, in the first meeting the Russia envoy requested closure of the Turkish-Syrian border to rebels, “In Tuesday’s [August 9] meeting [referring to Erdogan’s visit to Russia] we discussed ways of bringing peace to Syria… Naturally, closure of the Turkish-Syrian border, in order to stop the transfer of militants and weapons [to Syria] was brought up. It is necessary that foreign aid provided for militants needs to be stopped. To do this, we can provide Turkey with satellite images of the border points where weapons and militants are transferred [to Syria].”

Putin wants to take advantage of a cornered Turkey and end the Syrian conflict. Currently the bulk of foreign aid to rebels is smuggled through Turkey. If it is stopped, the rebels would be unable to continue their bloody campaign against the Syrian government. There are important signs that Turkey may eventually comply with this request. Ankara has realized the gravity of its reckless Syria policy and considers the conflict the cause of many problems facing Turkey. On August 17, Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesperson Numan Kurtulmus openly admitted, “Many things that have afflicted us is a result of our Syria policy. Neither us or others could come up with effective policies.” It is, therefore, probable that soon they will have to give in to Russian demands and seal the border.

It is not only Russia that Turkey has been working closely with on Syria; Ankara has also eagerly pursued agreement with Iran. Tehran’s unflinching support for the AKP government during the night of the failed coup has helped pave the way for cooperation on Syria. On several occasions Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has praised his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif for his support. Cavusoglu noted that Zarif did not sleep all night and phoned him a number of times to ask for updates regarding the coup attempt.

This was followed by President Hassan Rouhani’s phone call that Erdogan greatly appreciated. He realized that the Western leaders he was counting on had abandoned him. This is also what Rouhani told him during the phone conversation, “The coup attempt is an opportunity to distinguish friends from foes.” President Rouhani’s remarks made more sense after the revelation that Saudi Arabia and the UAE knew about the plot as early as May. Qatar’s Defense Minister Khalid bin Muhammed al-Attiya tweeted soon after the failed coup that he had credible evidence that Saudi Arabia and UAE officials knew about the plot since May but failed to inform Turkey. The comment was later deleted from his account. When Yildirim was asked about this, he replied with a Turkish saying, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” thus tacitly endorsing the rumor. Perhaps Yildirim did not want to spark a row with the Saudis, so later a statement was issued by his office that denied he had suggested involvement of Saudi Arabia in the coup.

Meanwhile Iranian Foreign Minsiter Zarif’s visit to Ankara on August 12 could not have come at a better time. He held crucial talks with his Turkish counterpart, the Prime Minister and President to help resolve the Syrian conflict and to establish good relations between Turkey, Iran, and Russia. The talks led to a general agreement “on fundamental principles to protect the territorial integrity of Syria and the formation of a broad-based national government. Ansari [Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari] said that while these are general agreements, they can be ‘the beginning steps of resolving the Syria crisis.’”

After the 15 July coup attempt it seems Turkey is moving away from the US-Saudi axis and realigning itself with the Russia-Iran axis. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ibrahim Rahimpour explained well the reasons why Turkey is seriously thinking of joining such an axis, “Neither Arab nor Western countries could give Erdogan the support that Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani can give.”

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