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NURAY MERT >Turkey’s dangerous liaisons

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I am actually glad that Turkey made up with Russia, since it helps to ease the Syrian tragedy, and because it is a better foreign strategy to seek diplomatic solutions rather than follow the politics of enmity. 

Nevertheless, I am rather cautious about the latest meeting between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, since both sides could agree on some matters by ignoring other major disagreements like the future of the Bashar al-Assad regime, the regional role of Iran and, last but not least, the Syrian Kurdish forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG). It seems like an attempt to rescue a marriage by avoiding any discussion on contradictory views on a newborn child and each other’s in-laws. First of all, one side regards the newborn as illegitimate and second, neither side likes each other’s in-laws. The child is the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria and the in-laws are NATO, the al-Assad regime and Iran. 

Moreover, despite the two parties’ differences on the definition of the problem, they have avoided mentioning the difference. While Erdoğan and Putin agree on “fighting against terrorism,” the former refers not only to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but also the PYD and YPG and even the Gülenist group as “terrorists,” whereas Putin refers not only to ISIL but also all radical Islamist groups. Besides, they both avoid touching upon other controversial issues like Ukraine and Crimea. Let alone avoiding discussion on the Syrian Kurdish issue, Turkey accuses its old Western allies of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but turns a blind eye to the attitude of Russia, which does not even acknowledge the PKK as a “terrorist organization.”

The other issue which complicates the Turkey-Russia alliance is Turkey’s desire to revive the Sunni alliance against Iran and to contribute to Donald Trump’s new Mideast efforts to reconcile Israel and Sunni countries against “the Iranian threat.” Turkey’s choice to work with the Islamist opposition in Central Asian republics, even though Russia sees them as a threat, is another matter. Finally, it is either a stroke of diplomatic mastery, or sheer confusion of the mind and the politics of panic that have led Turkey in different directions. I hope the latter is the case and the rulers of Turkey manage to find their way out of this mess. 

Nonetheless, Turkey’s relations with Europe are more straightforward, but in the wrong way. Erdoğan and his party’s politicians recently likened Germany’s politics to those of the Nazi era after German authorities refused to permit pro-government rallies. It is debatable as to whether banning foreign politicians from staging rallies in European countries is contrary to “freedom of thought and expression” as the governing party claims. But it seems that it was rather the overconfidence of Turkey’s rulers that led them not to avoid confrontation with Germany and other European countries. Turkey’s rulers must be thinking that Germany cannot afford to react properly without risking the refugee deal. Nevertheless, regardless of the immediate consequences, it has turned out to be “another brick in the wall” concerning Turkey’s alienation from the European Union and the West in general and Western disenchantment with Turkey. 

As for relations with the United States, “ambivalence” would be the operative word. The rulers of Turkey still have high expectations about Trump, deeming him an anti-establishment man, and have refrained from reacting even to his anti-Muslim politics and support for settlements in Israel. Despite the U.S. decision to act with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria and the de facto U.S.-Russian agreement to keep Turkey away from Manbij, Turkey has restricted its reaction to minor complaints. If one reason behind Turkey’s rulers’ restraint is Trump’s negative policy on Iran, another reason is the hope of reaching an agreement with Trump on the Gülenists. 

Despite this, Turkey’s expectations are so high that one cannot help but think that it has already reached the point of diminishing returns.

March/13/2017

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