US-Turkish relations in the grip of Erdogan's personal ambitions

Over the past 16 years, relationship between the United States and Turkey has evolved from an exemplary alliance into something usually called relations of frenemies, a mixture of friendship and hostility.

It all began very well. In 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey. New political force positioned itself as a moderate Islamist movement and at the same time committed to the ideals of democracy. Washington saw in it a suitable partner and built new Turkish allies and NATO partners into its foreign policy doctrine of democratization of the Middle East.

Good relations of such prominent representatives of the AKP as Abdullah Gül, Bulent Arınç and Recep Erdogan with the West were then taken for granted. After all, the success of the AKP meant not only strengthening the role of Islam in Turkish politics, but also the triumph of democracy, which was able to take root in Muslim-majority society. American diplomats of the Bush era viewed Turkey as a model for development of the entire Middle East region. Views of Barack Obama’s administration were not fundamentally different. In 2009, the 44th President of the United States, speaking in the Turkish parliament, notoriously noted success of Turkish people in building democracy at home.

Sovereign globalism:
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Relations between Washington and Ankara were also well developed in the foreign affairs realm. The Americans were pleased with the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. Especially important was the fact of military-political and economic cooperation with Tel Aviv of precisely the pro-Islamic government of Turkey, since it could set an example for other Islamist parties and movements in the Middle East. After the beginning of the “Arab spring”, USA hoped that the Turkish pro-Islamic elite would take custody of the forces that came to power as a result of the revolutionary changes in the region.

Against this background, within Turkey itself, processes began, due to which American-Turkish relations today have turned into a tangle of intractable contradictions. In 2002–2008, the AKP conducted a series of democratic reforms. In the foreign policy arena, the party representatives declared their commitment to the ideals and values ​​of the European Union, which Ankara has been striving to join for over 40 years. In the United States, it was believed that this was a sign of the readiness of Turkish society to switch to a pluralistic and liberal model of democracy. Few Western observers understood then that the Turkish authorities were using democratic methods to establish an authoritarian regime.

Within Turkey, the liberal and secular opposition was ready to support the authorities in dismantling the so-called The “guardianship system” (Turkish: vesayet sistemi) of the military-bureaucratic class, which overthrew civilian governments several times, finding that they threaten its interests and lead the country “not there”. At the same time, the destruction of alternative centers of power, even if they were anti-democratic, took place in the conditions of the unreadiness of society to subordinate the state to its will.

The Justice and Development Party, having enlisted the approval of Western countries, convinced a significant part of the Turks of the need for reform, while achieving by 2010–2011 a noticeable weakening of the military, the courts and the parliament. In the fight against non-systemic political circles, the government attracted the same non-systemic forces that hoped to get a piece in the subsequent division of power. A vivid example of such an alliance is the collaboration of the AKP with the religious movement of the preacher Fethullah Gulen, aka “Hizmet” movement, whose supporters began to receive significant privileges from the government.

At the same time, the personal power of one of the founders of the Justice and Development Party, Recep Erdogan, was strengthened. In many ways, the charisma of this politician was the key to the victory of the AKP in the elections of 2002, 2007, 2011, and 2015. For 16 years, Erdogan’s party has never lost a majority in parliament, giving him vital opportunity to change the country to his taste.

As Erdogan and the AKP strengthened their positions in Turkey, its foreign policy became increasingly independent and did not coincide with US interests. Awareness of this fact came to the American leadership in 2010. At that time, Ankara allowed the Turkish Islamist Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Aid to organize a provocative attempt to break through the blockade of Palestinian Gaza, directly challenging Israel’s national security interests.

Turkey’s value for Russia is
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Washington broke up with Ankara and on the Iranian issue. After the United States imposed unilateral sanctions against Tehran in 2010, companies with offices in the States were prohibited from doing business with Iranian residents. However, the Turkish state bank Halkbank in 2012–2013, under the direct instructions of the country's leadership, participated in an international scheme to circumvent American sanctions in favor of Iran. Until 2013, the Americans did not have evidence that Halkbank, having access to the American banking network, helped the Iranians to receive foreign currency. In 2016, a lawsuit began in the United States against a high-ranking leader of the Turkish State Bank: the data were provided by supporters of Gulen, who by then already openly feuded with the Erdogan government. Now in Ankara fear

The conflict between Erdogan and Gülen - just recently an ally of the AKP in the fight against the secular Kemalist elite - became the starting point in the rapid deterioration of US-Turkish relations. Having dealt with direct competitors, Erdogan set about eliminating the influence network of the Gülen organization in Turkey. The danger for the AKP was represented primarily by supporters of Gülen in the bureaucracy, the army and the courts. The open struggle of Gulen and Erdogan began with an anti-corruption police investigation against Erdogan’s supporters in late 2013, which began with the suggestion of the Gulenists. And she reached her climax in July 2016, when supporters of an Islamic preacher decided on a military coup in the country.

True, the conditions for an objective investigation of those events have not yet been created in Turkey. There is an opinion that the authorities knew about the plans of the conspirators and hoped to use this incident as a pretext for tightening the screws. Commenting on the actions of the Turkish authorities after the introduction of a state of emergency in the country (mass arrests, closure of opposition media and so on), Barack Obama said that Erdogan was a great disappointment to him. In Washington it was decided that the Turkish leader used the insurgency as a pretext for repressing and expelling dissidents from the army and from government posts. Americans were particularly outraged by the persecution of people in Turkey who were not affiliated with the putsch, as well as biased investigations into more than 50,000 people arrested.

The US’s concern is not only Turkey’s departure from democratic norms. The Americans see that the forces in the republic that somehow felt that the country should be guided by US policy came under attack. Not surprisingly, the demand to extradite Gülen, despite the tons of materials of criminal cases allegedly provided by Ankara to the American officials, still remains unsatisfied.

Erdogan perceives criticism from Washington as a demand to abandon the extensive powers and influence that he has concentrated in his hands all these years. It is clear that as long as Erdogan rules the country completely, he may not worry about his freedom: no one would risk initiating an investigation into his relations with Gülen or the ministers accused of corruption. In these circumstances, Erdogan decided to make bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States the subject of his own bargaining with the US authorities.

In March of this year, the trial of the American pastor Andrew Brunson, who had lived in Izmir for the last 20 years, began. He was arrested in 2016 on charges of espionage and links to terrorists. This incident made the dialogue between Ankara and Washington even more intense. In response to US demands to immediately release their citizen, Erdogan said he was ready to exchange him for Gulen. As a result, Washington imposed sanctions against two Turkish ministers and doubled the import duties on aluminum and steel for Turkey. It struck the Turkish economy and the rate of the lira, which was already going through hard times. But it seems that Erdogan is ready to sacrifice the economic well-being of millions of Turks, just to prove that he will not bend before Trump.

Eurasian vector in Russian-Turkish relations

Erdogan uses the rich traditions of anti-Americanism in the country. According to opinion polls, today the majority of citizens of the republic have a negative attitude towards the United States. The lack of high-quality expertise and open discussion of foreign policy problems leads to the fact that the population does not receive any other information than that which the state propaganda presents to it. And it presents a conflict with the United States as a struggle for the political independence of a country led by a strong-willed national leader.

The Erdogan government uses rapprochement with Moscow as an instrument of influence on Washington. For example, the purchase of the C-400 air defense missile systems, of course, meets the security interests of Turkey, but at the same time sends an unequivocal signal to its Western partners. At the same time, the aircraft of the latest generation, which Ankara intended to buy from the United States, it may never receive. If the Americans break the contract, it will mean that the cooperation of Washington and Ankara in the military-technical sphere is curtailed. If, nevertheless, the cars are handed over to Turkey, this will be a sign that, although Americans don’t like Erdogan, his policy does not harm their interests.

It can be said that, while Erdogan is in power, American-Turkish relations will remain strained, because one of the main causes of the crisis is the authoritarian habits of the Turkish leader and Turkey’s withdrawal from Western standards of democracy. But the desire for undivided power - the core policy of Erdogan. And, it seems, he intends to force the US to accept the fact that Turkey is changing, even if because of this, bilateral relations are degrading even more.

Originally published in Russian: http://www.profile.ru/politika/item/126922-i-ne-drug-i-ne-vrag


Syrian knot: Russia and Turkey clarified future of Idlib

The leaders of Turkey and Russia met again to discuss the Syrian issue. The planned summit was held in Sochi on Monday, September 17. It is hardly surprising the increased contacts between Putin and Erdogan - both leaders act as the main guarantors of a political settlement in the Middle East. Moreover, with the elimination of terrorist centers in southern Syria, the Syrian army is ready to begin sweeping the last zone of de-escalation. A military operation against a terrorist organization with which the people of the former Soviet Union are fighting side by side can end in a far greater catastrophe: the Turkish government does not want to lose control over the Syrian province and is trying in every possible way to convince its Russian partners to come to an agreement.

At the final press conference, the heads of Russia and Turkey paid much attention to the issues of economic and cultural cooperation between the two countries. In the field of their attention were mutual supplies of goods, easing of the visa regime, the construction of the gas pipeline "Turkish flow" and much more. But the main was still the theme of the Syrian settlement and, above all, the search for a solution to the situation around Idlib.

What Turkey expects from
military operation in Idlib?
Until then, the entire political process was taking place at an unfavorable for Ankara key. Until August 2018, the attention of the parties was focused on the actions of the Syrian government in the south of the country, where Damascus, with the support of Russian aviation, succeeded in clearing the Syrian border with Jordan and Israel from international terrorists and at the same time getting evacuated supporters of irreconcilable opposition to Idlib.

With the elimination of hotbeds of instability and the beginning of the transfer of Syrian troops to northern Syria to the borders of the so-called Turkish zone of responsibility, Turkish diplomacy launched an offensive to preserve the existing gains in the remaining de-escalation zone in Idlib.

The refusal of Iran and Russia to discuss at the summit in Tehran the possibility of establishing an official ceasefire with terrorist organizations was a signal to Turkey that sooner or later the anti-terrorist operation in Idlib will be held. In the conditions of diplomatic pressure within the framework of the Astana process, Turkey tried to delay the conduct of active military operations against terrorists on its border.

Fears of Turkey are caused primarily by the fact that the military operation of the Syrian army and Russian aviation can cover the positions of the moderate opposition, which is basically pro-Turkish. Of the 80,000 armed militants in Idlib, about 20,000 are among the terrorists from the Nusry organization, Which is the main target of Damascus, Moscow and Tehran. Another 30-40 thousand people are included in various radical groups, which Turkey is trying to persuade to abandon the support of terrorists and join the ranks of the moderate opposition.

Turkey's international position is weakened by the difficult relations with its Western partners. Neither Europe nor the US, although calling to prevent violence in Idlib, are not ready to uphold the Turkish position that terrorists need to negotiate. A certain pressure on the Turkish government is also provided by the domestic political situation. The stay of more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in the country for more than three years has contributed to the growth of nationalistic and anti-government sentiments, which are further exacerbated by the economic crisis and marked increases in food and services prices.

Turkey's new security concept may
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A part of the ruling elites formed the opinion that Iran, which has recently lost its position in the south of Syria under the pressure of Russia and the international community, is trying in every possible way to slow down Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria. The requirement to conduct a military operation by the most efficient units of the Syrian army with the support of pro-Iranian Shi'ite formations stationed near Idlib contributes to increased tensions between Russia and Turkey, as it weakens the positions of each side. It was in these circumstances that Putin and Erdogan expected that the meeting in Sochi on Monday would bring certain clarity to their position on Idlib and would contribute to the development of a compromise solution.

Actually, this is what really happened. The compromise that Russian and Turkish sides have found in Sochi includes several important and interrelated aspects.

First, we are talking about measures to distinguish between moderate opposition and terrorists. Strengthening of the Turkish observation posts, as well as increasing the perimeter of the safe zone, should ideally remove the threat of terrorist attacks on Russian military bases and Syrian units. Terrorist organizations, separated from the bulk of the civilian population and moderate opposition, may be destroyed in the future in close coordination with the Turkish, Syrian and Russian authorities.

Secondly, it is about stimulating the political process. Here the whole burden falls just on the shoulders of the Turks, who should convince as many of the militants as possible to begin negotiations with the Syrian government. Turkey expressed its commitment to both the Astana mechanism and the inter-Syrian political negotiations.

It should be noted that for Idlib, the issue of Idlib is not limited to considerations of the situation exclusively within the province. Any hostile actions against the terrorist organization inside Idlib can lead to the activation of the network of its supporters and sympathizers within Turkey itself, and this network has already grown noticeably stronger in recent years. The fight against Nusra should have an ideological coloring acceptable for Turkish special conditions.

Turkish solitaire and tripartite summit in Ankara
In addition to the threat of terrorist attacks inside Turkey, Ankara seeks to avoid the unfavorable development of the situation in the fight against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party. The Syrian branch of this organization closely cooperates with the American troops in the territories of the left bank of the Euphrates. Turkey fears that sooner or later Syrian Kurdish armed organizations, with the support of the United States, will demand autonomy from Damascus, which will be the first step towards the separation of Syrian Kurds. This will inevitably lead to an increase in separatism in the eastern provinces of Turkey itself, where it is already unsettled.

In this light, Turkey's desire to stay in Idlib should be seen as an attempt to maintain a lever of pressure on the Syrian authorities, which can use the Kurdish factor in pressure on the Turks in the future.

Russia's principal position is to eliminate the terrorist threat in Syria and to transfer the armed conflict in the country to the political plane. At the same time, the demands of the Turkish side can be viewed as more or less acceptable for Russian interests.

First of all, maintaining a military Turkish presence in the province strengthens Turkey's responsibility for what is happening in Idlib. The more Turkish soldiers are in Syria in conditions of military-political instability and uncertainty, the less will the Turkish side have to take radical and unpredictable steps against the Syrian government.

In addition, the very desire of Russia to postpone the repeatedly announced military operation at the request of the Turkish side only contributes to strengthening the mechanism of bilateral cooperation. Considering that the request for a postponement came from the country's top leadership, a compromise can bring big dividends in other matters.

Finally, in the long term, Turkey's attempts to blur terrorist organizations, instead of destroying them, can lead to radicalization of the moderate opposition.

An example of the policy of the pro-Turkish Syrian administration in the north of Syria shows that the more moderate supporters in the ranks of the adherents of the introduction of sharia and radical ideas, the more the local population becomes disillusioned with the idea of ​​the Syrian revolution and the practicality of confronting the Syrian government in principle.


Buffer on a front line: what Putin and Erdogan agreed on in Sochi

By Polina Khimshiashvili, Angelica Basisini.

At the second meeting in 10 days on Syria, leaders of Russia and Turkey agreed to avoid a large-scale military operation in Idlib - a security zone will be created instead. Ankara was particularly interested in this decision.

Vladimir Putin hosted Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his Sochi residence Bocharov Ruchey. The main issue on the agenda, as Erdogan stated before leaving for Russia, was situation in the Syrian province of Idlib. The situation in the last major opposition-controlled and terrorist region of Syria, was already discussed by Putin and Erdogan ten days ago in Tehran. Then, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani participated in the negotiations. However, it turned out to be hard for the three leaders to develop a joint solution.

This time the presidents of Russia and Turkey were determined to find a solution, although neither Idlib nor Syria mentioned either the Idlib or the Syria in the open for the press. "There are a lot of questions, and there are also difficult questions," Putin remarked at the beginning of the meeting, adding that he was happy "to look for solutions where they do not exist yet." "It was not only the region, but the whole world that directed our views on our meeting today," Erdogan said in his turn. "The statement with which we will speak here after the meeting in Sochi, I believe, will be a new hope for the region," the Turkish president promised.

talks resulted in signing by the defense ministers of the two countries of a memorandum on stabilizing the situation in the de-escalation zone in Idlib. The parties agreed to create by 15 October along the contact line of the Syrian government army and the opposition a demilitarized zone of 15-20 km depth with the withdrawal of radical militants from there, the presidents said. By October 10, the withdrawal of heavy weapons of all opposition groups should occur. The Turkish patrol and the Russian military police will control the demilitarized zone.

At the end of September last year, Iran, Russia and Turkey agreed on the creation of four zones of de-escalation in Syria. However, a year later the zone of de-escalation was preserved only one - in Idlib and in parts of the territories of neighboring provinces. The rest of the zones went under the control of the Syrian government, which became possible in part because the insurgents who did not want peace moved to Idlib. Syrian President Bashar Assad is now determined to return this territory to control. His army in recent days led a point fire on the positions of the opposition. Russian RuAF supported it, but the massive offensive did not begin - the Turkish president spoke against him. Idlib, according to the agreements, was the control zone of Turkey: on the perimeter of the zone there are observation posts of the Turkish military, most of the inside of the groupings Turkey supported throughout the seven-year war in Syria.

At the talks in Tehran, Erdogan called for not to inflict massive military strikes on the opposition's positions, which, he said, would lead to an imminent humanitarian crisis and the death of thousands of civilians (he estimates that about 3.5 million people live in the region). Then the consent of the presidents of Iran and Russia, Erdogan was not received, in the final communique of the Tehran meeting contained only an appeal for the early dissociation of moderate opposition from the terrorists of the banned in Russia group "Hayat Tahrir ash Sham" (HTS).

Turkey is interested in preventing the full-scale operation of Damascus in Idlib with the help of Russia, as it fears that it will spread to its allies among the moderate opposition, and this, in turn, will seriously damage the image of Ankara, which will be perceived as a weak player among the "troyka" of the Astana process, says Turkey expert and political consultant Timur Akhmetov. In addition, according to the expert, Ankara fears revenge of terrorists within Turkey itself, in which there are many supporters and sympathizers for some extremist groups. For Turkey, Idlib is also important as a subject of bargaining with Damascus on the Kurdish issue, the expert believes. According to him, after losing Idlib, Ankara may lose the leverage of pressure on the Syrian government to deter Kurdish militias controlling the territories to the east of the Euphrates, including along the Syrian-Turkish border.

For Russia, according to Akhmetov, it was important to maintain a positive attitude in relations with Turkey, taking into account the course of the political dialogue between the opposition and the government. Russia's task was to ensure that militants concentrated in the zone of de-escalation did not threaten Russian military bases (in Tartus and Khmeimim), as well as the provinces and the city of Aleppo, Putin recalled after the talks in Sochi.

As explained by Erdogan, representatives of the opposition will remain in the demilitarized zone. According to him, Turkey together with Russia will eliminate all radical groups in this zone. Also, Turkey will strengthen its observation posts in Idlib. In general, the achieved solutions will prevent a humanitarian crisis, the Turkish president is sure.

The Presidents also agreed before the end of 2018 to restore the transit traffic along the M4 Aleppo - Latakia and M5 Aleppo - Hama (both passing through the province of Idlib). The corresponding agreement, according to Putin, is fixed in the accepted memorandum.

Sochi agreements mean that now there will be no military operation in Idlib. This was reported to journalists by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu following the meeting. According to him, the positions set forth in the memorandum will be coordinated with Damascus in the next few hours.

As Anton Mardasov, expert of the Russian Council for International Affairs (RIAC), told RBC, it is not clear who is going to disarm Turkey in the new demilitarization zone: "on the contact line with the Syrian army and its allies there are pro-Turkish opposition groups, while the terrorists of the HTS in mostly located in the rear of the opposition. " "I think that they [the presidents] simply stressed the joint peaceful efforts with such a beautiful decision," he believes.

At the same time, the M5 highway, about the restoration of the movement on which Putin said, is not limited to 15 km, so it is not clear how the safety of movement in the remaining areas will be ensured, Mardasov said. "All the same, the road will still be vulnerable to the mortar fire of radicals interested in disrupting any agreements," the expert said.

In any case, according to Mardasov, the promulgated scenario implies an intensification of the HST's disarmament process and the "dissolution" of some of its detachments in the pro-Turkish opposition. According to the expert, the Sochi agreements allowed Turkey to actually defend its plan for demarcation of the opposition and extremists, presented in Tehran, and Russia managed to avoid participation in a large-scale operation, which she did not want. "The fixing of the agreements implies that the Syrian army should not openly sabotage them, but provocations are still possible, including by pro-government forces," the expert warns.

The result of the Sochi meeting is, albeit modest, but still the victory of Erdogan, who was able to gain time and postpone the military operation in Idlib, said Yury Barmin, a Middle East expert. Nevertheless, he calls the deadlines for the implementation of the agreements "ambitious." Barmin doubts that by October Turkey will be able to create a demilitarized zone in some areas (on the border with Aleppo and in the vicinity of the city of Jisr al-Shugur), where radical groups close to the Al-Qaeda terrorist group (banned in Russia) operate. "At the stage of the withdrawal of heavy weapons in these areas, clashes with extremists may begin," the expert notes.

Barmin also points out the unrealistic scenario of the opening of the M4 and M5 trails, which cross the de-escalation zone in Idlib, but do not enter the new demilitarization zone. "Obviously, for their opening, such security guarantees must be created, which at this stage neither Moscow nor Ankara can give," he summed up.

The Russian side did not take risks and went to a compromise solution with Turkey, while Ankara, because of the threat of escalation of the situation in Idlib, had to assume even more obligations and, accordingly, risks, Akhmetov said. "Ankara's inability to solve the problem of the presence of terrorists in the province is likely to deprive the Turks of all legitimate reasons to resist the military operation of the Syrian government troops," the expert concluded.