A boxing match. Confrontation between the USA and Turkey. Turkish and American national flags on Boxing gloves. Sports competition between the two countries. Concept of the foreign policy conflict. Photo: iStock

That Turkey, a Nato ally, is at odds with the US is something that is more than obvious. The deteriorating relations between Ankara and Washington are manifested by a number of issues, ranging from disagreements about the Kurds’ role in the fight against Islamic State and violations of the domestic rule of law to strategic decisions considered by the Americans to be against their interests.

Specifically, Ankara’s strategic decision to buy the S-400 missile system from Russia was viewed from the very beginning as a hostile move, since Turkey – from 1952 a crucial Nato member in the Middle East – would not only procure technology incompatible with Nato defense systems but obtain it from Russia in a period of tense geopolitical relations between East and West over a number of issues.

Washington warned President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that if he proceeded with this purchase, he would jeopardize the planned F-35 fighter deal. More specifically, in late April, three US senators introduced a measure aimed at blocking the transfer of Lockheed Martin F-35s to Turkey. The senators questioned Erdogan’s domestic governance and foreign policy orientations and decisions.

Angered by the American move, Ankara told Washington that it will answer with countermeasures if the US cancels or freezes the F 35 deal. As Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Tsavusoglu said, “Such a decision on the part of Washington is illogical and inappropriate for the spirit of an alliance such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

In order to understand the dynamics that shape the recent confrontation between the US and Turkey, we must see and analyze Ankara’s actions from a geopolitical perspective

In order to understand the dynamics that shape the recent confrontation between the US and Turkey, we must see and analyze Ankara’s actions from a geopolitical perspective. One should answer the question, why is Ankara – a Nato ally – distancing itself from the West and moving towards Russia?

According to Michalis Kontos, assistant professor of international relations at University of Nicosia, “Under Mr Erdogan, especially since 2010, Turkey has developed an ambitious agenda for an enhanced regional (if not global) great power role. The locomotive of Ankara’s aspirations is the country’s Muslim character and AKP’s version of political Islam, which is being used as a leverage to increase its influence over Muslim populations in the Middle East.”

For this agenda, he added, to unfold according to Ankara’s planning, the main prerequisite is a decrease in Western influence over the country and, generally, in the region. This imperative is dictated by a complex web of interdependence that includes Turkey’s relations with the United States, the EU, Israel, other Middle Eastern regional powers (such as Iran and Saudi Arabia), as well as with Muslim governments with different cultural characteristics and geopolitical viewpoints (ie the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria and Egypt under Abdel Fatah Al Sisi).

Kontos maintained that while this was playing out, American reluctance to maintain its regional primacy, which was mainly manifested after the mass military withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and after failing to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in 2013 (despite president Barack Obama’s declaration of a “red line” a few months before), created perceptions of a regional power deficit that could be filled by Russia and regional powers, such as Turkey and Iran. Kontos stressed that Russia came to the fore in the Middle East after 2012, amidst the formation of a new regional balance of power. Its military intervention to save the waning Syrian regime in 2015 was a catalyst that transformed regional relations and alliances in the Middle East. Despite initial strains over the future of the Assad regime, Turkey and Russia found themselves in the middle of a significant convergence of interests.

Kontos was asked by Asia Times to elaborate further on this. He pointed out that this convergence was stimulated by mutual economic interests (ie natural gas sales from Russia to Turkey and the establishment of a Russian-built nuclear production plant in southern Turkey). He observed that convergence with Moscow provided Ankara with an opportunity to question (or renegotiate the terms of) Western dominance in the Middle East, the Balkan Peninsula and even Africa, in favor of a more active and respectable Turkish role.

At the same time, he said, ”Moscow foresaw its own opportunity to question Nato’s unity and credibility in times of strain with the alliance, especially over Ukraine and Eastern Europe.”
Mr Kontos concluded that If Turkey leaves Nato (in real or nominal terms), this development would suggest a major power redistribution at the global level, similar to that caused by the détente between the United States and the People’s Republic of China in 1972. “Only this time the favored part would be Russia. The S-400 case is just an episode of a broader strategic game, which provides a good explanation of the American negative stance on the matter.”

In conclusion, one thing is certain: US-Turkey relations are entering a new path with predictable and unpredictable consequences for the foreign relations of the two allies and the Middle East balance of power as well. The detention of American Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey without sufficient evidence that he is guilty of “committing crimes on behalf of a terrorist organization” and Erdogan’s effort to link his release with the extradition of Fetullah Gülen to Turkey may bring US-Turkey relations to a new low.

Nicos Panayiotides

Dr Nicos Panayiotides is the head of the Geostrategic Observatory of the Middle East (GEOPAME), journalist and assistant professor of political studies at American College in Nicosia. He is also Research Associate at the Center for Oriental Studies (Panteion University). His academic interests focus on the Cyprus problem, Middle East politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is author of several scientific publications in academic journals and four books on the Cyprus and Palestinian problems.

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