Turkish friction with Russia and Iran: Tiff or rift, and does it even matter?
Turkish reset? Turkey, Russia and Iran have stayed somewhat unified in recent years, bound by the diplomacy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, shared opposition (if for different reasons) to US policy in Syria, and Ankara’s and Tehran’s mutual antagonism toward Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (again for different reasons). The magnetic pull of those common interests seems to be waning, though, and one reason may be that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recognizes that his only protector in Washington, outgoing President Donald Trump, is leaving next month. A sign of more challenging days ahead is the Trump administration, on its way out, implementing congressional sanctions for Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, as Jared Szuba reports.
Here are six signs of some possible changes in Turkish policy with regard to Iran, Russia and the United States, and what it might mean for a Biden administration:
- A poem in Azerbaijan: Erdogan visited Azerbaijan last week on a triumphant tour. The Azerbaijani military could not have reclaimed territory lost to Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh without Turkish military support. The war was popular in Turkey and a marker for Erdogan’s assertive posture in the region. In Baku on Dec. 10, Erdogan indulged himself with a poem, briefly opening a new source of friction with Tehran with stanzas speaking to the separation “by force” of Iranian Azeris from Azerbaijan. That precipitated a diplomatic flurry among the countries’ foreign ministers to clear up the “misunderstanding,” ending with Iran President Hassan Rouhani considering the “matter closed.”
- Arrests in Turkey: The Turkish intelligence service arrested 11 people suspected of involvement in the abduction of Iranian dissident Habib Chaab. The suspects may be linked to both the Iranian government and drug trafficker Naji Sharifi Zindasti, who has lived in Turkey since Iran sentenced him to death in 2007. Speculation is that Zindasti may have worked out a pardon in return for kidnapping and sending Chaab to Iran, as we report here.
- A fault line in Syria: Turkey may be considering an assault on the Kurdish-controlled town of Ain al-Issa in northwest Syria. Russia is trying to prevent a Turkish move by brokering a deal with the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to allow a greater role for the Syrian government and military, according to Fehim Tastekin. The Iran-Turkey-Russia grouping in Syria has held together despite divergent interests, but it could be fraying. Former US Syria Envoy James Jeffrey told Jared Szuba that Turkey’s role in Syria has been a mixed bag, at best, as “Ankara’s hostility toward the SDF was just one troublesome corner of a complex policy structure in which Washington sought to harness the interests of both Turkey and Israel to roll back Iran and deal the Assad regime and Russia an unwinnable hand in Syria’s civil war.”
- Drones for Ukraine: “Ukrainian news media is abuzz with speculation that the Ukrainian army may be planning to reclaim the country’s eastern Donbass region controlled by Russia-backed separatists,” writes Fehim Tastekin, “using the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones believed to have been a game changer in the Azeri-Armenian war.” The deepening of Turkey-Ukraine defense ties has alarmed Moscow and may be payback, Tastekin writes, “for Russian efforts to undermine Turkey’s agenda in the wars in Libya and Syria, where Ankara and Moscow support rival groups.”
- Reconciliation with Saudi Arabia: Erdogan has sought to repair ties with Saudi Arabia, badly frayed by a series of events including the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey. Riyadh has responded with an unofficial boycott of Turkish goods in the region. Turkey has deepened ties to Qatar, itself the target of an embargo by the Kingdom, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain since 2017. Ankara and Doha also share an affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood, which the other embargo countries consider terrorists. In signs of a thaw, Erdogan worked the phones with King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud to thank the kingdom for its assistance following the earthquake in Izmir, and with Bahrain King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to convey condolences on the passing of the prime minister. After the Erdogan call with Salman, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said Saudi-Turkish relations are "good and amicable." Ankara still holds leverage over Riyadh regarding the Khashoggi murder; it can turn up or lower the temperature on the investigation, depending on how it plays in Washington. Meanwhile, Erdogan considers his problems more with the UAE than the kingdom, as Abu Dhabi has taken opposite sides in the Libya war, as Pinar Trembly reports.
- A reset with Israel (and Washington): Amberin Zaman broke the story here on Turkey’s naming a “new ambassador to Israel in line with efforts to normalize relations with the Jewish state and score brownie points with the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden,” adding here that “the very public airing of the [Chaab] story first leaked by a Turkish official to The Washington Post, suggests Turkey is keen to telegraph that it's taking robust action against Iran as it seeks to build bridges to the incoming Joe Biden administration. More unusually, Turkey’s MIT, whose boss, Hakan Fidan, has been accused by Israel of ratting out its local assets in Iran to the clerical regime, is presented as having taken the lead. This, in turn, fits with Turkey’s recent efforts to reach out to Israel — which have been greeted with a big shrug and a yawn.”
- Our take: Former national security adviser John Bolton referred to the Trump-Erdogan relationship as a “bromance” and it’s unlikely Erdogan and Biden will share the same connection. In January 2020, Biden called Erdogan an “autocrat” and said that he should “pay a price.” Erdogan said he is “no stranger to Biden,” adding that “we have known each other closely since the Obama era. He even had come all the way to my home and visited me at my home when I was ill,” while pointing out that he “doesn’t approve of US steps regarding the east of the Euphrates in Syria and Turkey’s weapons procurement.” No doubt Erdogan is seeking opportunities to right US-Turkey ties and will want to get off on the right foot with Biden. And the friction with Russia and Iran has always been just below the surface. Nonetheless, Erdogan, Putin and Rouhani find a way to leave their baggage at the door to manage these differences. The many issues that make up the baggage in US-Turkey relations are more likely to be unpacked in a Biden administration. Biden is himself a skilled diplomat, and the US and Turkey have compelling reasons to find common ground where it can be found, while giving up the notion of US-Turkish “alliance,” which as Philip Gordon points out is mostly nostalgia.
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