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JUNE 2023

Erdogan the Ropewalker

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Erdogan the Ropewalker

Originally appeared at A-specto, translated by Borislav exclusively for SouthFront

On March 31, 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, delivered a lecture at “Brookings” in Washington, during his visit to the United States and shortly before the summit on nuclear security. In the general stream of clichés, charges against Assad and gestures accompanying his speech, Erdogan suddenly said: “Unfortunately after November 24, we are experiencing a difficult period in relations with Russia. After the collapse of the USSR relations between the two countries were developing successfully, but even before the incident with the plane, they began to deteriorate. This happened as a result of the policy that the Russian leadership led in recent years. Despite the sharp reaction of Moscow (after the downing of the Russian SU-24M), which is difficult to explain, regional problems require resumption of our cooperation as the Russian Federation and Turkey are very important countries in this geographic region. We hope that the Russian colleagues will understand and properly assess the need for cooperation”.

In fact, Erdogan’s statement is not so unexpected. It was done after Barack Obama refused an official meeting with the Turkish President, although subsequently the American leader showed mercy and exchanged a few words with Erdogan on the sidelines of the forum on nuclear security and the conflict in Syria.

Ankara was unpleasantly surprised by the reception it got from Washington. All this was completely contrary to its plans to play the Russian-American card. Fundamentally, the Turkish statesmen tend to think in stereotypes. And in this case, Turkey also bet on one of them, deciding that they can get dividends by balancing between Moscow and Washington, relying on the argument that the US and Russia have insurmountable contradictions. Actually this is not the first time that the stereotypical thinking of the Turkish leaders played a bad joke on them. With the “genius” move that led to the downing of the Russian SU-24M, Erdogan had hoped to achieve two objectives. As it became known later, the pilot Erdogan sent to down the Russian fighter, is a supporter of Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan intended that this would discredit his dangerous opponent Gulen, in the eyes of the Americans.

On the other hand, Erdogan hoped that with the downing of the Russian aircraft, he would demonstrate to Washington his determination to put Russia into military conflict with Turkey, and thus showcase his loyalty to Washington and get support to solve the Kurdish problem. The arrogant and dangerous move by the Turkish president caused exactly the opposite of its intended effect. Erdogan put NATO in a very delicate situation with his hints that this operation could have occurred with the knowledge of the leadership of the Alliance. Relations between Turkey and Russia froze. The Americans did not see things like Erdogan and US policy towards the Kurds did not undergo any change.

Unhappy with this, the emotionally unbalanced Turkish president voiced displeasure in mid-February, stating that US policy towards the Kurds will “lead to rivers of blood.” With this speech, Erdogan had planned to demonstrate his status as a regional leader, leading policy independent of the United States. But in response, President Obama in an interview with The Atlantic, said that so far he had an impression of the Turkish leader as a “moderate Muslim politician who can help overcome the rift between East and West,” but that he now sees him as “a misfit authoritarian leader who refuses to use his army to secure stability in Syria.” That was a clear signal to Erdogan, that the US does not intend to bow to Turkey, but will rather rely on dialogue with Putin to resolve the conflict in the Middle East.

True to its habit to sit on two chairs, Ankara decided to resume the Russian card, the signal for which came from Erdogan’s speech at “Brookings”. The Turkish President’s words were backed up by practical actions. The same day it became known that in a cafe in Izmir, Alparslan Celik was arrested, along with 14 supporters of his. He is the man responsible for the murder of Russian pilot Oleg Peshkov. According to the newspaper Hurriyet, in the raid were found considerable quantities of arms and ammunition. Erdogan’s speech and the arrest of Celik can be regarded as an attempt by Ankara to jump into the last carriage of a speed gaining train, after losing the game again. This was supposed to be a signal to the US that even if they stopped cherishing Turkey, Russia would not refuse to resume relations with it.

In December 2015 the Russian ambassador in Ankara – Andrei Karlov, set three conditions for normalizing relations: an official apology from Turkey and a trial for all persons involved in the murder of Russian pilot Oleg Peshkov; payment of compensation for any damage caused to Russia, including the payment of compensation to the families of all Russian military casualties in the incident of November 24 2015. It’s not yet clear whether the Turkish President is ready to fulfill these conditions to improve relations. In the current situation, Erdogan curtsied to Russia and gave a signal that he can agree to fulfill the terms that Putin gave. Some Russian politicians believe that if Turkey meets the conditions set by Russia, Putin will give the green light for settling Russian-Turkish relations.

They say this would show America that it is theoretically possible to normalize relations between Russia and Turkey. These politicians also suggest that Americans not only did not soften their position towards Turkey, but will even enhance pressure toward it. In this regard, the greater Erdogan’s troubles are, the better for Russia. None of the Russian politicians however, say what will be the specific benefits to Russia. But it is certain that in case this happens, the fragile partnership between the US and Russia, built with much labor, will fail. Erdogan’s foreign policy, which initially provoked an upsurge of patriotic sentiment in the country has already lost its luster, and his wrong moves collapsed his rating.

If Ankara had earlier hoped to get some pieces of Syria, and impose control over the Syrian Kurds, such a possibility is completely unreal now. Turkey fell into a very complicated situation. On the one hand, the Turkish leader’s hands are tied and he is internationally isolated since he began to pursue a policy that is contrary to US strategy in the region. On the other hand, his foreign policy errors affected domestic politics with the activation of pro-American minded Turkish opposition parties. And also with almost daily terrorist attacks. In Turkey, there are already rumors of a military coup against the President. The Kurdish problem is particularly acute.

The established Kurdish federation on the territory of Syria, albeit illegitimate, and the conflict between the Kurds and Turkish government troops, which has taken the form of a civil war, make the creation of a Kurdish autonomous state in the territories of Syria, Iraq and Turkey much more realistic. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has publicly stated that he would welcome the participation of the Syrian Kurds in the Geneva process. The “Islamic State” has occupied territories inhabited by Kurds in Iraq and Syria, but after those territories are freed, Baghdad may recognize Iraqi Kurdistan as a fully independent state and Bashar Assad may give autonomy to the Syrian Kurds. If things develop in such a way, the creation of a Kurdish confederation is inevitable.

Due to the fact that both the US and Russia support the Kurds, it becomes impossible for Erdogan to solve the problem by resorting to military force. Sooner or later, the question of Kurdish independence will be asked in Turkey itself. Today, no one can predict what will be Erdogan’s policy by the end of this year or the next one or two years. Everyone is just wondering for how long will today’s Turkish leader stay in power. Some talk about a few more years, while others are sure that by the end of this year he will be replaced. With a politician like Erdogan, its difficult to predict how things will develop in the future. What is clear is that he will do everything possible and impossible, to keep his power.

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