The Turkish President Recep Erdogan cut a lone figure at the trilateral summit of Russia, Iran and Turkey at Sochi on Wednesday regarding a Syrian settlement.
From a position of being the friend of the Assad family, close ally of the United States and leader of a major NATO power, influential voice in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East – at Sochi he was wearing sack clothes and ashes, pleading with his Russian and Iranian counterparts to accommodate Turkey’s core interests of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Make no mistake, the US is warning of a regime change in Turkey. The wheel has turned full circle for Erdogan.
He was the darling of the West in the nineties when he took on Turkey’s Kemalists, riding the wings of “moderate Islam.”
The dismantling of Kemalist state wedded to militant nationalism was expected to make Turkey more amenable to western influence. So, the West hailed him as a role model for the New Middle East – a democratically elected Islamist serving western geopolitical interests.
The first shock came in 2003 when Turkey’s Islamist government refused to join the US-led invasion of Iraq. Turkish-American relations never quite recovered after that.
One thing led to another – and, a second turning point came in January 2009 when Erdogan publicly clashed with then Israeli President Shimon Peres over Gaza at a Davos panel, walking off the stage after an angry exchange in front of cameras.
The Turkish-Israeli relationship, which used to be a quasi-alliance, fractured even as Erdogan began supporting Hamas and sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood. This hurt US interests very much, since the Turkish-Israeli axis was crucial to American strategies in the Middle East.
The Obama administration tried hard to get Turkey to reconcile with Israel, but it became apparent that Erdogan was calibrating the compass of Turkish foreign policies in a new direction altogether. Some called it “neo-Ottomanism.”
The last opportunity for a US-Turkish rapprochement came with the Arab Spring when Obama and Erdogan found themselves on the same page. But then, after raising hopes in Erdogan’s mind regarding regime change in Syria, Obama pulled back from the agenda, whereas Erdogan expected a forceful US-led intervention.
Erdogan’s dilemma was not different from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
“I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
So, he pressed ahead regardless, and very soon Turkey found itself in strange company, mentoring the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria.
Erdogan might still have succeeded but for the Russian intervention in September 2015, when a terrible beauty was born profoundly transforming the balance of forces. For the first time in its ancient history, Turkey had to contend with a superior power in its backyard.
In circumstances that remain obscure even today, a Russian jet was shot down in November, which gave Moscow the alibi to turn the screw on Erdogan. It was a win-win situation for Moscow because pressuring and isolating an increasingly intransigent and stubborn Erdogan was just what suited the US and NATO (and Israeli) interests, too.
Whereas, Moscow also knew Erdogan couldn’t take the Russian pressure for long and would seek to patch-up the relationship, which was exactly what happened. Of course, the Kremlin is hugely experienced in salami tactics – a process of threats and alliances used to overcome opposition – and Erdogan’s discord with the US made him by far the weaker party, his bluster and theatrical rhetoric notwithstanding.
Meanwhile, the attempted coup against Erdogan in July 2016 worked to Russia’s advantage. Erdogan believes the US masterminded the coup to eliminate him. From that point, things got personal – entangled also with the fate of his Islamist rival Fetullah Gulen living in great style in the US.
To be sure, the US too is highly experienced in salami tactics and began steadily tightening the noose on Erdogan. The FBI opened a file to implicate Erdogan, his family members and his close circle in a scam that involves Turkey’s state bank for trading with Iran violating US sanctions and in turn breaking US banking laws.
The trial is set to begin in a US federal court in December. And the main accused in the case, an unsavory Azeri character, half-Iranian and half-Turkish in FBI custody, may have turned “approver.”
Washington is seemingly helpless with the due process of law taking its course, but has the option to intervene (provided Erdogan capitulates.) An adverse verdict in the US federal court can lead to criminal charges against Erdogan and key associates, sanctions against Turkey and even eviction from NATO.
With the dramatic change in its relationship with Turkey, the West is furious like a woman scorned. At a NATO exercise in Norway last week, Erdogan (and Ataturk, symbolically) were listed as “enemy” targets inadvertently.
Erdogan – and Turkish politics – is at a crossroads. Erdogan’s dalliance with Vladimir Putin was the “red line” for the West. The dalliance has turned into a tight embrace lately and breaking loose may inflict great pain on Erdogan. Moscow holds the Kurdish card and has influential lobbyists in Turkey’s Islamist elite.
The Kremlin won’t let go Erdogan easily, either. At stake for the Kremlin is the future of the western alliance system at Russia’s gates – nothing more, nothing less.