Erdogan’s Choice

Spearhead Analysis – 21.12.2016

By Hira A. Shafi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

According to Greek mythology, large amounts of blood was spilled in the Balkan peninsula, when Zeus unleashed his wrath against the Titans who controlled the area. The region has served as one of the major battlegrounds throughout recorded history. The contemporary WW I, II  were triggered when annexations of the Balkans came into play. It once again displayed its importance during the Cold War.

As, for its next door neighbour ‘The Middle East’; coined by an American Naval strategist in 1902, intended to be used as a general reference for the area beyond the stronghold of the Ottomans; which is now modern day Turkey, was referred to as ‘Near East’. The official geographical definition of ‘Middle East’ is disputed and Turkey too falls under multiple zones.

The fall of Ottomans,  gave each belligerent a  piece of the Empire which held significance for them, and Turk nationalism led to the creation of an ‘independent Turkey’. The independant Turkey aspired to  serve as a  ‘buffer state’, hence it  attached its identity to modern day:  Middle East, Asia, Europe, East Slavic Regions , all at once.

Its location, somewhat makes it a portal to all worlds, therefore; It’s curse, appears to be that it cannot remain neutral even if it yearns, because the world around it, still remains divided.  

… “But I don’t want to go among mad people” said Alice. “Oh, you can’t help that,we’re all mad here.   I’m mad. You’re mad.” said the Cat….

A conversation between Turkey and the Chesire Cat would most likely be very similar to this.   

The bitterness caused by the Russo-Turkish wars was forgiven when Ataturk and the Bolsheviks formed an alliance, a new dawn of cooperation emerged between the two states.

But, during WWII, Turkey’s choice of neutrality, is what pushed it into breaking its own Non alignment pact. It made the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits accessible to all.  This led  Stalin to claim rights over the former Czar territories , which laid in Turkey, ultimately allowing him to maintain a stronger control on the straits.

Turkey, then decided to join the NATO in 1952 ,out of fear of losing its territory. Nonetheless, the fall of the Soviet Union led to improving ties between the two countries; and under Putin, peaceful, mutually beneficial agreements were worked out.

The end of the cold war also hoped to bring neutrality in the Balkan region, capping of military might and reducing expansionism.

But, the  US-led Iraq invasion seems to have once more,  triggered the paranoia of major global powers. But, the size of the battleground seems to have expanded from Balkan Peninsula; and now also encapsulates The Middle East.

Turkey’s importance in the Balkans:

Unlike Europe and US who have alternative routes via the Atlantic.–for Russia, since the time of the Czars, Balkan region provides it with land and sea routes which connect it to the outside world.

The Black Sea connects it to the Mediterranean Sea and to Europe, Africa & Middle East while the Caspian Sea connects it to the rest of Asia and Middle East. Russia’s alternatives  are the controversial and maybe even costly Pacific and Arctic –but  ambitious  Russia seems to fall prey to the conflict ridden world that surrounds it.

A sea exit from the Black Sea requires Russia to cross paths with Turkey, because of the Turkish straits. Nearly 2.9 million barrels/ day of Russian, Azerbaijani and Kazakh oil  pass through the Bosphorous strait.

Further, the oil rich Black sea is surrounded by its own territorial disputes. Georgia serves as a major base for US navy.  The Sevastopol port (situated in the Crimean region) provided Russia with warm water access, but political disputes along with growing NATO presence in the region caused a fallout between Kiev and Moscow culminating to  Crimea  desiring to re-integrate with Russia, after a referendum. According to polls; a majority of Ukrainians wish to re-integrate with Russia. However,  Ukraine government  identifies the Crimea issue as Russian ‘annexation’. So, strained ties with other neighbours, further amplifies Turkey’s significance and alliance.

Turkey’s importance in Middle East:

From Russia’s perspective, US involvement in the Middle East hinders its interests. They view these actions as a disruption to their land trade routes, which also dents a strong pillar of its economy; the booming energy sector .

The Russian government strongly opposed Iraqi invasion. They had interests in Iraq, prior to Saddam’s fall, as Iraq has the potential to connect it to Africa, Asia, Middle East & gain access to the  Arabian Sea. The political turmoil caused a setback on Russian agendas .But, despite the chaos; Russian Lukoil and Gazprom recently won major contracts in Iraq energy sector.

Russia also sought alternate routes via Iran and was involved in the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon (Shia Crescent)  pipeline project. However, some project sites are on energy rich, but disputed regions. Hence, The Russian leadership also strongly opposes the creation of the separate Kurdish state. Based on the proposed Kurd map, chunks of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey would be taken to make this new state. And those chunks are of strategic importance to Russia.

Further, resolving humanitarian crises is a separate issue. The Middle East is already suffering due to these carvings, another one would most likely worsen the situation for the Kurds and everyone around.

But, a parallel project stands in competition; the US backed Qatar-Saudi-Jordan (Sunni Crescent) pipelines project; both aspire to gain dominant access to Europe(Currently Russia’s top energy export destination) and Africa. Israel positioned ahead of Jordan would also be required to join the madness.

While the  superpowers have turned the world into their personal chessboard, and the Middle East leaders aspiring to kill two birds with one stone( expanding territorial controls and winning a fictitious religious war); ordinary citizens bear the sufferings and pay the price.

Both parties have tried to win over Turkey, as it literally serves as ‘the gate’ which opens up to Europe, Africa, Americas and the Oceans and is capable of serving the strategic interests of both powers. Reports suggest that it has shown positive signs to both sides . But, it might  have to ultimately pick one.

Shifting alliances:

Loyal supporters of CHP claim that Mustafa Kemal foresaw that the Ottomans didn’t stand a chance against the rapidly changing situation of the time. Hence, he chose rationality over emotions. And decided to at least save ‘The Turkish’ identity, which he feared would also get devoured by the behemoths around.

Given the current situations, Erdogan might be required to make some very difficult choices.

But, one can almost be certain that the outcome of his decisions would most likely be based on ‘What is best for Turkey and its people’. Certain reports paint a negative picture of the impact AKP’s leadership on secular Turkey. But, Erdogan’s actions suggest that his strongest fight is against empowering varied religious opinions- which he fears could plunge Turkey into the same fate as others. Nor, does he seem to be upholding anyone’s sectarian flag. But, instead, under the banner of AKP, manages to keep the principles of Kemalism alive.  

Presently, Turkey’s NATO membership, along with its close proximity with Syria seems to automatically place it on ‘US side’ of the spectrum. And, because of Turkey standing on the opposite side in the Syrian war, created some frictions between Turkey  Russia and Syria.

The Syrian forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet in 2012, which infuriated Erdogan. The Turk -Russian ties also soured when Turkish forces shot down a Russian aircraft in November 2015. After war of words and sanctions, Erdogan eventually apologized to Putin and both countries began normalizing ties. Russia and Turkey have also been working on bilateral deals worth more than 38 billion USD in the energy sector, since 2010.

Turkey isn’t just blindly waging war due to its NATO membership. This war is equally dangerous for Turkey’s territorial integrity. The Kurdish rebel forces that gained  strong ground after the war, spread to their Kurdish-majority areas(from north syria); and in August 2016, Turkey took a more active role in this conflict, and began heavy deployment of its forces to push back the Kurdish rebels and urged for peace talks with Syria- Russia.

After the failed coup attempt in July 2016, Turkey also began a crackdown against FETO, which according to some analysts is as dangerous as ISIS and Al Qaeda because of their potential to stir up religious propaganda and as the coup suggests; even pick up arms. Erdogan has expressed his displeasure over US providing a sanctuary to Gulen; who now lives there in exile.

Further, the tragic assassination of Andrei Karlov’s has created a very awkward situation. Following the death; Turkey blamed the Gulen forces for ‘trying to undermine peace ‘and Putin’s exact words were“ the murder is clearly a provocation aimed at undermining the improvement and normalisation of Russian-Turkish relations as well as undermining the peace process in Syria promoted by Russia, Turkey, Iran and other countries interested in solving this conflict in Syria.”.. So, probably it won’t disrupt the ties. But, the wrath of superpowers in Syria… and beyond might increase.

Turkey; too, might be required to make some tough choices. Erdogan, has already in the past expressed a possibility of Turkey walking out of NATO; the estrangement  in relations with the US  might hasten this process. But, NATO also shelters Turkey; ironically at this point- perhaps from itself.

Turkey’s vision would probably further clear out, once Trump’s Russia policy is actualised. Till then, one can only hope that this policy shift, creates peace in the region and Erdogan never faces Kemal’s predicament of re-calibration’.