US or Russia: Which is a better ally for Turkey?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated last week that former US President Barack Obama “lied to Turkey” on the issue of Syrian Kurdish fighters in Manbij, and Donald Trump “follows the same path.” Erdogan’s statement came ahead of an official visit to Turkey by Trump’s close colleagues, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who will bid to calm the tension between the two allies. Ahead of their visit, Turkish officials have expressed Ankara’s willingness to rebuild a trust-based relationship with the US, but have underlined its expectations of seeing concrete measures taken by its ally. Now the question is whether the visit will succeed in smoothing the thorny relations between the two countries and help regain the confidence that has been lost, particularly due to the Syrian-Kurdish issue.
With Turkey’s military operation in the northwest Syrian region of Afrin — code-named Operation Olive Branch — Ankara has shown that it no longer trusts US promises, instead taking the matter into its own hands to preserve its national security. Needless to say, Turkey would not have launched the military campaign in Afrin if the US administration had kept its promises to cut off supplies of weapons and support to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.
On Jan. 26, Erdogan’s spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin received a phone call from McMaster, who reportedly stated that the US would halt arms shipments to the Kurdish group. However, this was not the first time the US had promised to stop arming the Kurdish militias. In late November, Trump told Erdogan that his administration would stop supplying weapons. But, just a few days later, a US military arms convoy was seen crossing the Iraq-Syria border en route to Kurdish units in the Raqqa region. Thus, it was neither the first nor seems to be the last broken promise by the US. Because, on Wednesday, news circulated that the YPG had sent reinforcements from Manbij, where the US Army is present, to Afrin to fight against Turkey.
Ankara’s relations with both Moscow and Washington boast opportunities for cooperation and a risk of souring, particularly in light of the list of promises on Syria the two powers have broken recently.
As prominent author and human rights activist Charlotte Bunch says: “America is like an unfaithful love who promises us more than we got.” So will McMaster be able to convince Turkish officials of the sincerity of the second pledge by the US? Nobody knows. However, if one thing is clear, it is that the issues between the US and Turkey are not solely limited to the Kurdish group.
This could be read from a survey published in late November, which found that 65 percent of the Turkish public regards the US as a hostile nation. Only 2 percent of Turks consider America a friendly country. However, this is not the first time that the people of Turkey have considered the US an insincere ally. During the course of Turkish-American relations, the countries have experienced several crises: Such as the notorious Lyndon B. Johnson letter of 1964, the US arms embargo of 1975-78, and the dispute in 2003 over the deployment of US forces to Turkey to open a northern front in the war in Iraq. But none of these crises caused such deep mistrust between both sides and created such anti-Americanism in Turkey as now.
Simultaneously, there is increasing cooperation between Turkey and Russia. Moscow was a traditional enemy of Turkey during the Cold War and particularly after the Arab uprisings, as the two nations found themselves on opposite sides in the Syrian crisis. But today Ankara and Moscow manage to keep their differences aside and cooperate on issues that could maximize their gains in Syria. It seems that Turkey is not following its traditional foreign policy path of relying on one global power, usually the US, to balance against another, most often Russia. Rather it is following pragmatic and realistic policies based on temporary cooperation, such as the establishment of “de-escalation zones” and providing a favorable setting for the success of the Geneva peace talks.
However, the question should be asked: Is Russia a more reliable partner for Turkey than the US? This is hardly the case. Turkey was reassured by the Russians that members of terrorist groups would not attend the recent Sochi talks, but Mihrac Ural was present. And recently a Turkish military convoy was targeted by a car bomb in Idlib; there were reports pointing at Iran or the Assad regime as the perpetrators, but also questioning Russia’s role in the incident. Upon all these developments, Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin — along with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — agreed to hold a trilateral meeting on Syria in Istanbul.
In brief, given the complexity of the roles of the actors on the ground and the list of broken promises by both great powers, it is hard to say whether Russia or the US could be a reliable partner for Turkey. Ankara’s relations with both Moscow and Washington have potential opportunities for cooperation, while also having potential risk of straining. There have always been ups and downs in these relationships — but the most important point is what Turkey gains when they are up and what they lose when they are down.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.
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