The Bear and Turkey: a strategic tête-à-tête
By Gary Scarrabelotti
The other Paul – a cooler, harder edged Paul – joined me yesterday for lunch over The Oz.
He is not a regular. He seems reticent of joining the usual gang when they gather, tub-thumpingly, at my table.
Anyway, there were just the two of us on this occasion and I was glad. Paul is such a – How can I put it? A Stephen Maturin phrase springs to mind – such a “deep file” that I’m happy the usual crowd failed to gather. I am all ears, then, and just as expected, he delivered himself of some nicely turned counter-conventional observations: this time about the Turkey-Russia relationship.
“The assassination of Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov … seems likely to galvanise closer relations between Ankara and Moscow, rather than derail them.”
I’m delighted. It’s pretty much my own hunch.
At the risk of misrepresenting Paul’s sophisticated argument, here’s my own:
Just as, upon further reflection, the shooting down of a Russian aircraft by the Turkish air force, on 24 November last year, was not in Turkey’s interest, so the shooting down of Russia’s man in Ankara, on 20 December this year, was also not in Turkey’s interest.
The Turks have painful, bitter memories: in wars with Russia, Turkey has been the long run loser. In any case, Turkey’s current top priority project, given its manifest failure to topple the Assad regime, is to create a Turkmen buffer zone along its border with Syria and to deny the Kurds expansion room in the same space. A war with Russia would not merely be a distraction from Project No. 1; it would be a national disaster.
In any case, right now, Russia looks like a more practical ally than the USA. During July’s attempted coup in Turkey, the US was distant, cool and unhelpful. Russia was sympathetic. The US refused to turn over Gulen, who Erdogan blamed for stoking the insurrection. At the same time, Washington seemed to Ankara to be playing a double game with the Kurds, Turkey’s mortal enemy. One moment the Americans seemed have them on a leash; the next, they were flying air support for Kurdish offensives against ISIS along the Turkey-Syria border. A Kurdish mini-state was forming. At this moment, the shifty, “ugly” Americans looked a less desirable partner than a bad-tempered Bear ready to deal.
Erdogan and his government, moreover, now have the same enemy as Russia: namely ISIS and related Islamist radicals.
Erdogan has played a dangerous and dirty game. He has allowed Turkish territory to provide logistical support routes for fighters and material flowing to the Sunni insurgents in both Syria and Iraq. It is hard to say exactly what connections the Erdogan government has had with ISIS, but it is clear that ISIS has been supplied through Turkish territory with the knowledge of the Turkish government and, possibly, to the financial advantage of people close to Erdogan.
If there were any doubt of it before now, the killing of Ambassador Karlov by off duty riot cop, Mevlut Mert Altintas, while shouting support for Islamic revolutionaries ousted from Aleppo, proves that Islamists, who’d embrace a war with Russia, have a foothold in Turkey’s security services.
However faithful to Mahomet Erdogan might be himself, anti-Russian Islamist provocateurs in the Turkish security services are neither in the interest of his own political survival nor in the strategic interest of his country. However much Turkish Sunnis might protest Russia’s (allegedly nefarious) actions in Syria, the civil war there cannot be settled without Turkey securing its southern border. And that cannot now be had without Russian agreement.
Paul summed up the position admirably:
“It is in the perennial nature of geopolitics that governments, for reasons of realpolitik, overlook human rights violations to pursue their interests, including their perceived joint interests.
“Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was on his way to Moscow for a summit with the Russians and Iranians about the war in Syria when Karlov was shot. He did not turn around and go back.”
So, a Russo-Turkish war is off the menu for now. What is also off the menu, for the time being, is an American role in the Syrian settlement. The Obama-Clinton-Kerry policy on Syria has been an abject failure. Kerry was not invited to that Moscow summit.
At least since the end of the Cold War, America has ceased to be a status quo power. It has become a revolutionary factor in international relations.
We have yet to see whether the USA can deal itself back into the game by forming, under the auspices of the future President Trump, a US-Russian alliance against ISIS.
In the meantime, some thoughts about why American failed.
Paul offered something along these lines:
America (and its allies, including Australia) were “confused” by Syrian realities: on one side there was Assad and his security services, accused of being systematic torturers and murderers; on the other, there was the promise of an Islamist alternative committed to shar’ia with no place for “liberal, secular and non-Muslim rebels.” Unlike, however, the morally agonised Americans – We’re the ‘good guys’, right? – the Turks, Russians and Iranians all have a ruthlessly clear view of their interests and objectives.
A reasonable argument, as far as it goes. But why has there been such a lack of clarity in the West, and especially in Washington?
My thought: at least since the end of the Cold War, America has ceased to be a status quo power. It has become a revolutionary factor in international relations. It’s been a regime change power (Iraq), an experimenter in constructing new political orders (Iraq, Afghanistan) and a backer of revolutionary movements (Egypt, Libya, Syria, to name only cases from the Moslem world).
Why would America attempt such things when the results – some of them easily foreseen – have cost America so much in blood, treasure and respect and have often stood in stark contrast to America’s ideals of political liberty and religious freedom?
Vive la révolution!
It’s a huge question and I can only gesture in the direction of a possible answer. But, deep within in the American psyche, and working at cross purposes with its native conservatism, there seems to be a fascination with revolutions, even those led by America’s enemies. It springs, I guess, from America’s self-righteous pride in its own founding revolution.
With the collapse of the USSR, this American impulse has lacked an effective internal check. Thus, long established maxims about prudence and restraint suddenly became so …, well, … boring. And so it came to pass: wars were waged, nations re-invented and revolutions backed.
And then, under Obama, there has been the cultural arm of the grand design: America’s most revolutionary endeavour since it came to birth. Astonishing new agendae were set: ‘gay liberation’, ‘gender liberation’ and same-sex marriage became integral objectives of US foreign policy ….
At my speculations, Paul seemed increasingly discomforted. Politely, but a little awkwardly, I thought, he made his excuses: Had to fly: another article in the works, or some such.
Suddenly I was on my Pat Malone again.
Oh, dear. Maybe I had talked too long.