Turkey’s new sultan drives Uncle Sam, Ivan and Ali up the wall

Turkey’s display of strategic autonomy during its intervention in Syria has unnerved the U.S., Russia and Iran. Ankara can give three days’ notice to cancel access for the US to the Incirlik base. As the military balance changes, Iranian forces and Hezbollah have to get used to a superior military power with boots on the ground in Syria. Although Moscow has urged Ankara to undertake course correction, the future directions of the Turkish intervention in Syria remain unclear.

Like a slow motion movie, Turkey’s military intervention in Syria appears to have slowed down. The time-manipulation allows the startled viewers’ emotional and cognitive processing and initial arousal response to calm down.

A member of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) patrols in the border town of Jarablus

A member of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) patrols in the border town of Jarablus, Syria, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Clearly, the US has been outmaneuvered. Washington all along wanted Turkey to be ‘proactive’ against the Islamic State (IS) but not this way. Washington faces a stark choice between its NATO ally or Syrian Kurds.

The alliance with Turkey by far outweighs and the logical thing would be to throw the Syrian Kurds under the bus.

Last week, the influential Washington-based neoconservative think-tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies brought out a report with a forward penned by former American ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman – Covering the Bases: Reassessing U.S. Military Deployments in Turkey After the July 2016 Attempted Coup d’Etat.

It examined the options available for Pentagon for relocating its base in Incirlik.

The report lists Turkey’s diabolic support for IS (and Hamas) and assesses the factors at work – fractures in the US-Turkey security relationship; plummeting trust; Turkey’s instability and unpredictability; security threats to estimated 3,000 US military personnel and sensitive hardware based in Turkey; and, “fundamental questions about Turkey’s basic foreign policy orientation.”

Edelman estimates: “The best outcome would clearly be for the U.S. to remain in Incirlik for reasons that include the effectiveness of the campaign against IS and the on-going need for U.S. extended nuclear deterrence in Europe. Yet, suggesting that the U.S. has alternatives may serve an important purpose. It can help Turkish officials recognize the importance of the U.S. connection to Turkey”.

It cannot be a coincidence that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday in an interview that the allegations that Turkey is turning its back on the West by normalizing relations with Russia lack basis and that its relationship with Russia is “not an alternative to its partnership and alliance with the West.”

Indeed, the future directions of the Turkish intervention in Syria remain unclear – except that it is for the long haul. Turkey’s display of strategic autonomy has unnerved the three main protagonists – US, Russia and Iran.

In a series of statements, US conveyed that Turkish operations against Kurds are “unacceptable”. France has also echoed similar views.

On Wednesday, Moscow and Tehran calibrated their ‘distance’ from the Turkish intervention. But their accent markedly varied.

Tehran was implicitly critical of Turkish intentions; whereas, Moscow didn’t cast aspersions on Turkish motivations.

Tehran said Turkey’s act of violating Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is “unacceptable”; whereas, Moscow wouldn’t make an issue of it. (Ankara had notified Damascus about its intervention using Russian channel.)

Tehran warned that Turkey’s “military presence on Syrian soil will further complicate the regional situation”, and explicitly demanded that Ankara should “immediately stop military actions.”

Moscow, on the other hand, urged Ankara to undertake course correction – one, “coordinate” with Damascus; two, adopt a “selective approach in choosing targets… for avoiding strikes on the sites of deployment of opposition and ethnic groups, including Syrian Kurds”, and, three, avoid unilateralism.

A sense of unease

Unlike Iran, Russia gave a measured response. In fact, on Sunday, Moscow decreed the lifting of the ban on chartered flights to Turkey carrying tourists; on Wednesday, Gazprom chief Aleksey Miller arrived in Istanbul to discuss resumption of work on the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project.

Again, Turkey’s Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci disclosed that the two countries have resumed talks on Free Trade Agreement, are discussing creation of a joint investment fund and working out use of national currencies in bilateral trade.

On Wednesday during a phone conversation, Cavusoglu agreed with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to meet very shortly.

Evidently, Moscow takes a holistic view. The most critical factor for Russia will be Turkey’s role in the western alliance system. Turkey may play off Russia and US against each other, but the “unknown unknown” here is the nature of intelligence Putin would have shared with Erdogan regarding the July 15 coup attempt, and how far the latter feels indebted to the Kremlin.

Moscow weighs in that repair of Turkey-US relationship will take time and the extradition of Fetullah Gulen remains an Albatross on American neck. On the other hand, Moscow has had to reconcile with the idea of Turkish jets reappearing in Syrian skies and Turkish boots on the ground in northern Syria.

If Turkey manages to create a 3000-4000 sq. kilometre ‘buffer zone’ in Syria, the necessary underpinning for the EU-Turkey ‘one in, one out’ deal on Syrian refugees becomes available.

To be sure, Ankara’s display of strategic autonomy is already showing results. Both Obama and Putin plan to meet Erdogan during the G20 summit in Hangzhou (September 4-5). And the EU and NATO are scrambling, too.

European Union President Martin Schulz arrived in Turkey on Sept 1 and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini will follow next week. The NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will visit Turkey on Sept. 8.

Evidently, Washington and Brussels are closely coordinating. Incirlik’s role is particularly important. Indeed, in the event of the US being asked to vacate Incirlik – against its will, of course – there will be serious discontinuity in the NATO alliance and US-Turkey relations.

Curiously, there is no mechanism to expel a NATO member. Under the 1980 Defence and Economic Cooperation Agreement between the US and Turkey, Incirlik is defined as an “air operations and support base” to be used for “joint defense measures” between the two countries.

The DECA expressly disallows the US from using Incirlik for its own purposes. Turkey’s approval is necessary even with regard to the use of the base by the US for NATO missions. Turkey can give three days’ notice to cancel access for the US to the Incirlik base.

The fact remains that Turkey views with suspicion the activities of the US and the NATO out of Incirlik base, from where only the Turkish Air Force stationed alongside the western forces had plotted the coup attempt.

Embittered straggler

For the present, though, Iran seems to be the odd man out. The Iranian forces and Hezbollah have to get used to a superior military power with boots on the ground in Syria. The military balance changes.

The impact on Aleppo remains to be seen. Turkey has dispatched hundreds of rebel fighters in the past week and may carve out a ‘buffer zone’ from where it can breach the siege of Aleppo.

In political and diplomatic terms, too, neither Russia nor Turkey shares Iran’s view of the Syrian conflict in terms of the ‘axis of resistance’. Turkey doesn’t seem to be interested in a regional axis to address the Kurdistan question, either, as Tehran would have hoped for.

Iran’s diplomatic options are severely limited in the absence of a constructive engagement with the US. Tehran risks getting left behind as an embittered straggler dependent on Russia’s cooperation.

Russia and Turkey are far better placed. Putin is due to meet Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Salman in Hangzhou. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister is currently visiting Israel. As for Turkey, its alliance with Qatar is flourishing and on Wednesday Erdogan signed the decree normalizing Israel ties.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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