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2019-07-18

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International Relations
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“Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy was not to attack Turkey, but to win over it.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Putin at a joint press conference after their meeting in Ankara in April 2018. REUTERS  

In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian fighter jet over the Syrian border, ratcheting up tensions between Moscow and Ankara. There were speculations that Russian President Vladimir Putin would retaliate. But Mr. Putin didn’t take any military action against Turkey. Instead, he stayed focussed on his strategic goal of defeating the anti-regime rebels and jihadists and bolstering Syria’s existing state institutions. Mr. Putin’s strategy was not to attack Turkey, but to win over it. He exploited the cracks in the Atlantic alliance, especially in U.S.-Turkey relations. Evolving regional equations also favoured his bet. On July 12, three and a half years after the Russian bomber was downed by the Turks, Ankara received the first batch of the S-400, Russia’s most advanced missile defence systems, despite threats and warnings from the U.S. and NATO.

This is a pivotal moment in the post-Soviet order. Turkey is a NATO member and also hosts a U.S. airbase in Incirlik. Turkey’s strategic location, in the intersection of southern Europe, Central Asia and West Asia, makes it a pricey catch in geopolitical games.

A missile dispute

During the Cold War, Turkey was a key buffer for the Atlantic powers against the Soviet Union. Even after the Soviet Union disintegrated, the U.S. continued to maintain a close alliance with Ankara. But now, a high-tech Russian missile system protects a NATO nation’s airspace. This is an irony as the idea of NATO, a relic of the Cold War, is to check Russia.

The U.S. has raised several technical issues over Turkey acquiring the S-400. It fears the system will gather data from the latest radar-evading American bombers, F-35, for which Turkey has placed an order. In response to Turkey’s decision to go ahead with the S-400 deal, the U.S. has already suspended training programmes for Turkish pilots. Ankara could also attract sanctions from Washington. But beyond these issues, the political point of a NATO member defying NATO and a powerful member of the alliance to buy Russian weaponry is what makes the S-400 deal the hottest post-Soviet weapons agreement.

Why did Turkey defy the U.S., even risking sanctions when its economy is underperforming? A host of factors led President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to redirect foreign policy.

The loss is not just Istanbul

The fissures in U.S.-Turkey ties date back to the 2003 Iraq War when Ankara refused to be a launchpad for the American invasion. During the Syrian crisis, Turkey wanted the U.S. to interfere in Syria on behalf of the rebels and overthrow the Assad regime, but the Obama administration refused to do that. Turkey at that time was betting on the Arab Spring as a foreign policy tool to expand its influence in West Asia and North Africa. The expectation was that the dictatorships in the region would be replaced by Islamist political parties (say, the Muslim Brotherhood which is ideologically aligned with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party). But this bet was counterproductive, especially in Syria.

In the initial years of the Syrian crisis, the porous Syrian-Turkish border was a crucial transit point for rebels and jihadists alike. By the time Turkey started sealing the border, the Islamic State (IS) had established itself as a dominant player in Syria. The IS initially attacked Syrian government forces and rebel groups. But once it started facing the heat on the battlefield, it turned against Turkey, carrying out a host of terror attacks in 2016. Another consequence of Turkey’s failed Syrian bet was the empowerment of Syrian Kurdish rebels, who have close ideological and military ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been fighting the Turkish forces for decades. When Kurds fought the IS in the battlefield, the U.S. started supporting them directly. So Turkey lost all sides in Syria. It failed to topple the Assad regime as the Russians and Iranians came to the regime’s rescue. The porous border policy backfired as jihadists turned against Turkey. Finally, there is an empowered Kurdistan across the border controlled by battle-hardened Kurdish rebels, who Turkey sees as its primary enemies.

Turkish surprise: on ruling party’s losses in local polls

Turkey accepted this new reality. It gave up its demand to topple the Assad regime, and shifted its focus to creating a buffer between its border and Syrian Kurdistan. For this it needs Russian and Syrian help, as the Syrian government also doesn’t want to see the Kurds being empowered any further. But Kurds were the U.S.’s partners in the war against the IS, and over 2,000 U.S. troops are still stationed in Syrian Kurdistan. Here Turkey’s interests directly clash with the U.S.’s.

There were other issues as well. Ankara blames Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric, for the 2016 failed coup bid against Mr. Erdogan, and wants him to be extradited to Turkey. (Turkey also issued an arrest warrant against a former top CIA officer with links to Mr. Gulen.) The U.S. refused to give in to Turkey’s demands. Turkey also wanted to buy the Patriot missile defence system from the U.S., but Washington initially was not keen on selling it to Ankara. As all these issues piled up, Turkey turned to a willing Russia.

For Mr. Putin, Turkey is a big win, a luxury which even his Soviet bosses didn’t have. If it has Turkey on its side, Russia will have seamless access to the Mediterranean Sea from the Black Sea (where it has Naval bases) through the Bosporus Strait. And if Russia wants to deepen its engagement in West Asia in the long term, Turkey’s role would be critical. Mr. Putin has made a few compromises to keep Turkey tilting. He didn’t do anything when Turkey invaded Afrin, a largely Kurdish town on the Syrian side, last year, despite protestations from Damascus. Also, after freeing much of Syria from rebels’ hands, Russia didn’t do the same in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel/jihadist-held enclave where pro-Turkey rebels are also stationed. Instead, Russia initiated talks with Turkey and Iran for truce, and reined in the Syrian government. Step by step, Mr. Putin lured Turkey to his side.

This doesn’t mean that Russia and Turkey have become new regional allies. There are still structural issues between them. In Syria, where both countries continue to back rival sides, the crisis remains unresolved. Turkish national security establishment has historically been aligned with the U.S. Russian and Turkish interests vary in several other countries, from Libya to Israel. But the unmistakable message that Turkey has sent is that the U.S. is no longer an indispensable partner in its national security strategy. Turkey has also told NATO that it’s ready to risk the organisation’s ire over a defence deal with Russia. Turkey is tilting. The U.S. will have to either mend its ways to retain a drifting Turkey or take retaliatory steps against an ally. Either way, it’s a “check” by Mr. Putin on the grand geopolitical chessboard.

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