Editor’s Note: as I sit down to write this to you early Sunday morning, the biggest news in America remains the self-inflicted GOP government shutdown designed to force Democrat representatives to choose between health insurance for impoverished children, or extending protection for largely Americanized migrants under the now-cancelled DREAM act. While this objectively cynical, mean-spirited and unquestionably disastrous ploy does absolutely deserve your attention, in far away north-eastern Syria events that may lead to the open outbreak of a brewing global conflict are unfolding.
As of this morning, Turkish forces have crossed the border into northern Syria to fight what it claims are militant terrorists in the Kurdish-controlled Afrin region; a situation greatly complicated by the fact that the YPG militias Turkey is attacking, are supported by and allied with the United States as part of its supposed fight against ISIS in Syria – things could get awkward here, very quickly my friends.
Until now, I’ve spent very little time discussing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the nation of Turkey in our ongoing “” series, but truthfully it is impossible to understand what may well be “the West’s” New Cold Forever War without understanding the role Ankara may still play in this ongoing geopolitical crisis. Although Turkey currently remains a US ally and possesses the second largest army in NATO, growing tensions with western imperial powers might be pushing Erdoğan into a “strange bedfellows” alliance with Russia and Iran:
Note: if you’re having trouble reading this info-graphic, right click on it to select “view this image” to pop out a larger version; and don’t forget to check out my extensive comments after the sources section of this article.
Although I am often disdainful of foreign policy analysis that seeks to paint nations as a monolithic reflection of their leaders, in light of Erdoğan’s sweeping authoritarian reforms in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt, it has become extremely difficult to analyze Turkey without first considering the desires and overwhelming influence of Recept Tayyip Erdoğan. Simply put, the Turkish president is at once a vain but also supremely confident, even arrogant political operator who has taken advantage of hateful rhetoric to shore up conservative support in Turkey; while simultaneously dog-whistling to ultra-reactionary and fundamentalists groups engaged in an ongoing and highly divisive “culture war” inside and outside the country. Although his power within the government is now immense, evidence suggests Erdoğan’s hold on Turkey is tenuous at best; despite a massive campaign of state suppression against his political rivals, the referendum to bestow him with that power succeeded with a mere 51% of the vote – leaving the Turkish president with a “finger tip grip” dictatorship.
This situation will of course be intimately familiar to observers of US politics and the rise of white nationalist president Donald J Trump; despite the likely hopes of pro-NATO US policy planners however, the (admittedly repugnant) ideological similarities between Trump and Erdoğan have done absolutely nothing to bridge the pre-existing divide between the US and Turkish geopolitical establishments.
Indeed, a reasonable observer who isn’t trapped inside the western imperial propaganda bubble might be inclined to ask precisely why the Turkish government should trust the US or NATO in light of recent developments? Frankly, whether or not you believe the CIA was at least involved with the failed 2016 coup against Erdogan, much of Turkish society clearly believes the US is responsible. Whether or not you believe the United States of America is protecting and grooming Erdoğan’s political rival Fethullah Gülen as part of a plot to eventually replace the Turkish president, Erdoğan himself clearly believes it. Finally of course, it makes little difference whatsoever if the western imperial establishment agrees with Tayyip Erdoğan’s accusation that the US-supported YPG militia groups in Syria are actually terrorists affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – the fact that Turkey just attacked a Kurdish-controlled enclave in Afrin despite American objections, makes it clear that the Turkish government thinks the US and NATO have been purposely arming its long-hated enemies.
Standing in direct contrast to this declining relationship with the US and its affiliated NATO powers is the clear and obvious reality that the Turkish-Russian diplomatic relationship has somehow actually improved since the November 2015 downing of a Russian military jet on Turkey’s border with Syria; a fact that is doubly surprising in light of the late-2016 (suspected) terrorist assassination of Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara and decades of bad blood between the two nations. Perhaps less shocking however, is that this unprecedented warming of relations between these two recent sworn enemies has also coincided with a renewed period of increased collaboration between Erdoğan’s government and Russian-ally Iran; especially in relation to the potentially prickly subject of Syria and the future role of Bashar al-Assad.
At least on the surface, this budding friendship doesn’t appear to be a simple strategic military alliance based on temporarily-shared goals – both Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan appear to be building a partnership based on genuine goodwill and cooperation between their respective countries; a popular position in Turkey, if admittedly less so in Russia. At this point, I would also like to remind readers of the vast economic ties between Russia and Turkey, as well as the massive natural gas field shared between Iran and Qatar that we discussed way back in my first Forever War article. Simply looking at a map makes it clear that Turkey represents both a potential customer for and an essential partner in any attempts to move Iranian natural gas by pipeline to markets in Russia and its allies/client states; assuming of course ISIS and hostile Kurdish rebels can be defeated in northern Iraq and Syria.
When you add it all up, it certainly seems like Tayyip Erdoğan might be on the verge of pulling Turkey out of NATO and moving into a direct alliance with Russia and Iran to check US hegemony in the Middle East. There is however still one significant problem with this theory, namely Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. While Russia has long-resisted the idea of removing Assad from power, as recently as late-December 2017, Turkey remained insistent that Assad must go; indeed, at the time Erdoğan called the Syrian president a “terrorist” and said Syrian peace efforts could not continue with Assad’s involvement. Furthermore, while its recent collaboration with Russia and Iran has been fruitful, it remains objectively true that Turkey still has a lot to lose (both financially and strategically) from abandoning its membership in NATO in favor of the burgeoning Middle East coalition Putin appears to be forming. This situation has forced Ankara into a delicate tightrope balancing act; in one breath Erdoğan finds himself reaffirming his strategic alliance with Washington, while in the next he’s asking Moscow for permission to attack Afrin in a move designed to placate the reactionary right wing supporters who guarantee his power at home.
Perhaps in light of all this, it’s best to say that Erdoğan is in fact on his own side in this ongoing geopolitical crisis that threatens to spill into open global military conflict and if that is indeed the case, it’s actually pretty hard to argue with the results thus far. Turkey’s presidential dictator has already survived a coup attempt, passed his referendum and instituted a savage crackdown against his political opponents at home. More importantly however and despite some grumbling from its western allies, Turkey’s financial and military ties to the west have remained largely intact even as Erdoğan declares the nation no longer needs the west. At the same time, Turkey been able to forge key relationships with US imperial rivals Russia and Iran without having to leave NATO or end its alliance with the United States; a situation that greatly protects Erdoğan’s freedom to act independently in the event of a seemingly inevitable proxy war in the Middle East.
At the end of the day, which side Erdoğan and Turkey ultimately pick in the Middle East may simply come down to who offers him the most while asking the least in return; a situation that would fit right in with our current disturbing habit of repeating the errors of our own dark history – I guess even a new Cold War needs an Egypt; although personally, I suspect Erdoğan will prove himself to be more Sadat, than Nasser.
- Nina Illingworth