Turkey’s days of peace with all neighbors now long gone
Turkey occupies some much sought-after geopolitical real estate at the crossroads of the Orient and the Occident. It has been a transit nation for goods and ideologies for centuries. It was even able to use that to become one of the world’s great powers during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Fewer cities have more history that matters to the whole of civilization than Istanbul, formerly Constantinople.
But Turkey’s proximity to so many powers — Europe, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Caspian region — yields its own dangers and potential for conflict. Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu wrote a doctrine during his time as foreign minister — it stipulated that Turkey should be on good terms with all of its neighbors. That was after the US invasion of Iraq, but before Syria had erupted into civil war.
Turkey is a member of NATO but it has an uneasy relationship with the alliance because of the still-smoldering conflict over Cyprus, because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan never tires of telling Europe that he will send Syrian refugees in its direction, and because he has built a strong relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He bought Russia’s S-400 air defense system, which quickly got Turkey kicked out of NATO’s F-35 jet fighter program, both as a recipient of the aircraft and as manufacturer of more than 900 parts in its supply chain.
Last month, the two presidents opened the controversial TurkStream pipeline, which will bring gas from Russia to Southeast Europe, circumventing the Ukraine — to the chagrin of US President Donald Trump and his administration.
But all is not rosy in the relationship between the two strongmen. They stand on opposite sides on many issues, most markedly Syria and Libya. While Russia supports President Bashar Assad and Libyan Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, Turkey backs the Syrian opposition and the UN-supported Libyan government of Fayez Al-Sarraj. They also find themselves being friends with the opposite sides in the Gulf when it comes to Qatar.
When five Turkish soldiers and three civilians were killed by Assad’s forces in the rebel-held province of Idlib on Monday, something had to give. Idlib is a big problem for Turkey. The province houses about 3 million people who were displaced from other parts of Syria by the ongoing conflict. They live in camps and ramshackle residences. Many of them have the intention to move north to Turkey, which already accommodates 3.6 million Syrian refugees and refuses to take in any more.
Erdogan, never lost for words, fiercely attacked Putin after the incident, accusing Russia of “turning a blind eye.” He also visited Kiev and stood shoulder to shoulder with President Volodymyr Zelensky, hailing “Glory to the Ukraine.” That certainly irked Putin, who felt offended and betrayed.
Since then, the two leaders have talked on the phone and promised to coordinate more closely on Idlib. That may be the case, but the situation remains fraught and tense. The withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria also rendered the situation more volatile. Turkey cannot afford to alienate Russia, which has played its cards well in the various conflicts afflicting the Middle East. Its influence in the region has gone from strength to strength. Erdogan may bemoan that Gazprom charges Turkey more for its gas than it does Germany, but TurkStream’s capacity is less than a third of that of Nord Stream 1 and 2 combined — and discounts do come with volume.
Erdogan cannot afford to alienate Russia, which has played its cards well in the various conflicts afflicting the Middle East.
It is true that the Astana peace process, where Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed on safe zones in Syria, has not worked. However, looking at it from the Russian perspective, it was probably always only a temporary measure because Putin wanted to see Assad’s power reinstated over the whole of the country.
When waltzing with an elephant, one needs strong allies. Erdogan’s repeated threats to reopen Turkey’s borders to Europe for refugees, the purchase of Russian weaponry, and the opening of TurkStream have done little to remedy his already strained relationship with the West, which accuses him of violating civil liberties and the freedom of the press. The Turkish president also remembers what happened when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that had encroached on Turkish airspace on the border with Syria in 2015. It had devastating effects on both trade and tourism with Russia, which is an important partner for Ankara.
Foreign policy choices always come at a price. They are also driven by ever-shifting geopolitical and economic realities, especially in a region as fraught with conflict as the Middle East. Turkey will have to live with its choices. From a Turkish perspective, Erdogan may have had no choice but to find an accommodation of sorts with Russia, which is an emerging regional power. Long gone are the days of Davutoglu, when it seemed easier to get along with all of one’s neighbors equally well.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources