Russia’s Strategic Hold on Turkey

9386585f90fafe19ef347ff9b273786cIt is no secret that Turkey is slowly pivoting East away from NATO and the European Union; not so much by choice of Turkey, but by demand of Russia. Turkish-Russian relations have been as unstable as the condition of the Middle East today. Since the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, Turkey has decided at times to openly support the terrorist organization, as well as fight it when plans failed within its own borders.

Like it or not, Russian strategy has not changed since its intervention in Syria with support to the Assad regime. All the while the Obama administration, the international coalition, and Turkey have aimlessly entered the conflict without a clear strategy. The United States only intervened in Syria through airstrikes years after thousands lost their lives in the civil war. Turkey decided to interfere when it witnessed Kurdish forces successfully overturn IS gains.

Following the downing of the Russian military jet by Turkey, Vladimir Putin exposed Erdogan’s oil smuggling scheme with IS. Putin even went as far as squeezing the Turkish economy through sanctions and a ban on tourism between the two states. Tensions were raised and fear of yet another conflict in the region was likely. However, Putin played chess while Erdogan stood there in fear, worrying about how he will explain this to western powers. With the recent assassination of Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov, we see Putin again playing it cool. The assassin, Mevlut Mert Altintas, was known to be a pro-AKP supporter and Erdogan’s bodyguard at rallies. The Russian response was to simply continue improving relations between the two nations. Turkey’s response was once again fear, as Erdogan rushed to send Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu to Moscow to pay respect to the fallen ambassador. Turkey went so far as to name a street after ambassador Karlov after the assassination.

Erdogan has single handedly tarnished his relations with the US, EU, NATO and has now fallen in the hands of Putin seeking legitimacy and possibly another chance to prove his loyalty to the Kremlin. It is clear that Putin is playing the long game, forcing Turkey to steer away from NATO, in result weakening the security bloc, insisting Turkey accept that Assad stay and gaining another strategic ally in the Middle East in spite of the Obama administration.

Russia-Turkey-Iran talks on the future of Syria prove the West’s failure and Russia’s success. Obama’s backseat strategy has given the Middle East to Russia on a silver platter. The three states aim to gain greater leverage in reshaping the future of the region. Ultimately this is bad news for the Kurds in Rojava, southeast Turkey, and even the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). All three states openly reject Kurdish independence/self-determination and are relentlessly fighting to keep Syria whole while denying Kurdish success by the YPG/YPJ forces. To make matters worse, the lack of Kurdish unity in not only the KRG, but between KRG-Rojava, allows Turkey-Syria to resume relations long after the civil war.

Erdogan has conceded to Putin and Assad in exchange for the greenlight into northern Syria to prevent the connections of the three Kurdish canton of Jazira, Afrin, and Kobane. This equates to a weaker Turkey but stronger Russia in the region. Putin filled in the vacuum where Obama failed; the lack of military and political support to Syria’s Kurds by the United States allowed for the Turkish illegal intervention in Rojava. NATO’s role in Syria has also proved to be insubstantial, the bloc ignored to keep Turkey in check giving way of possibly losing its second largest military power to Russia.

Obama’s hands-off approach weakened the Middle East, gave rise to IS, divided the state of Iraq furthermore, and paved the way for the continuation of the brutal Assad regime. The US’s decision to ignore Erdogan’s authoritarian rule against the Kurds ultimately allowed Vladimir Putin to contour a Middle East to fit a Russian agenda. The next US administration is likely to allow Russia to keep its spoils as relations between Trump and Putin look positive. For the Kurds, their lack of unity continues to wreck any hopes self-rule in the region. Turkey and Iran are cheerfully observing their division.

Originally published at Kurdish Question on December 29, 2016

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