When it comes to sowing division and reaping the profits from it, Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan is quite the superstar.

Under the delightfully named Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the Donald Trump administration this month duly slapped sanctions on Ankara for daring to buy Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile defense systems. The sanctions focused on Turkey’s defense procurement agency, the SSB.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s response was swift: Ankara won’t back down – and it is in fact mulling how to respond.

The European poodles inevitably had to provide the follow-up. So after the proverbial, interminable debate in Brussels, they settled for “limited” sanctions while adding a further list for a summit in March 2021.

Yet these sanctions actually focus on a completely different subject: as-yet-unidentified individuals involved in offshore drilling in Cyprus and Greece. They have nothing to do with S-400s.

It’s a matter of priorities. What eurocrats have come up with is in fact a very ambitious, global human rights sanctions regime – modeled after the US’s Magnitsky Act. The emphasis is to impose travel bans and asset freezes on people unilaterally considered responsible for genocide, torture, extrajudicial killings and crimes against humanity.

So Turkey, in this case, is just a guinea pig. These sanctions are a test drive. The EU always hesitates mightily when it comes to sanctioning a NATO member. What the Eurocrats in Brussels really want is an extra, powerful tool to harass mostly China and Russia. 

Our’ jihadis – sorry, ‘moderate rebels

What’s fascinating is that Ankara under Erdogan always seems to be exhibiting a devil-may-care attitude.

Take the seemingly insoluble situation in the Idlib cauldron in northwest Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra – aka al-Qaeda in Syria – honchos are now involved in “secret” negotiations with Turkish-backed armed gangs, such as Ahrar al-Sharqiya, right in front of Turkish officials.

The objective: to boost the number of jihadis concentrated in certain key areas. The bottom line: a large number of these will come from Jabhat al-Nusra.  

A Syrian government forces serviceman guards the frontline against Jabhat al-Nusra rebel forces some 14km southwest from the Idlib Governorate’s Jisr al-Shughur town, in Latakia Governorate, Syria. Photo: AFP/Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Sputnik

What’s also certain is that even with so many imponderables at play, Erdogan, a master of pivoting, will find ways to simultaneously profit from both Germany and Russia. 

So Ankara for all practical purposes remains fully behind hardcore jihadis in northwest Syria – disguised under the “innocent” brand Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Ankara has absolutely no interest in letting these people disappear: they are and will continue to be used as leverage in any negotiation on Syria’s status. 

Moscow, of course, is fully aware of these shenanigans, but wily Kremlin and Defense Ministry strategists prefer to let it roll for the time being, assuming the Astana process shared by Russia, Iran and Turkey – devising a future for Syria away from a political stalemate – can be somewhat fruitful. 

Erdogan, at the same time, masterfully plays the impression that he’s totally involved in pivoting towards Moscow. He’s effusive that his “Russian colleague Vladimir Putin” supports the idea – initially tabled by Azerbaijan – of a regional security platform uniting Russia, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.

Erdogan even said that if Armenia is part of this mechanism, “a new page may be opened” in so-far-intractable Ankara-Yerevan relations.

The national flags of Azerbaijan (L) and Turkey, and portraits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (R) hang side-by-side on the mayoral building in the Kecioren district of Ankara on October 21. Photo: AFP/Adem Altan

Even under Putin’s pre-eminence, Erdogan has already identified that he will have a very important seat at the table of this putative security organization. 

The Big Picture is even more fascinating because it lays out various aspects of Putin’s Eurasia balancing strategy, which involves as main players Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan.

On the eve of the first anniversary of the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, Tehran is far from cowed and isolated. For all practical purposes, it is slowly but surely forcing the US out of Iraq. Iran’s diplomatic and military links to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon remain solid. 

And with fewer US troops in Afghanistan, the fact is that Iran for the first time since the “axis of evil” era will enjoy some relief from being surrounded by the Pentagon. Both Russia and China – the key nodes of Eurasia integration – fully approve of this. 

Of course, the Iranian rial has collapsed against the US dollar, and oil income has fallen from more than US$100 billion a year to something like $7 billion. But non-oil exports are going well over $30 billion a year.

All is about to change for the better. Iran is building an ultra-strategic pipeline from the eastern part of the Persian Gulf to the port of Jask in the Gulf of Oman – bypassing the Strait of Hormuz and ready to export up to 1 million barrels of oil a day. China will be the top customer.

President Rouhani said the pipeline will be ready by the summer of 2021. He added that Iran plans to be selling more than 2.3 million barrels of oil a day next year, whether or not US sanctions have been alleviated by the incoming Joe Biden administration.

Watch the Golden Ring

Iran is well linked with Turkey to the west and Central Asia to the east. An extra important element in the chessboard is the entrance of freight trains directly linking Turkey with China via Central Asia – bypassing Russia. At first sight this might be interpreted as Ankara alienating Moscow. Well, it’s slightly more complicated.  

Earlier this month, the first freight train left Istanbul for a 8,693-kilometer, 12-day trip, crossing below the Bosporus via the brand new Marmary tunnel, inaugurated a year ago, then along the East-West Middle Corridor via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway, across Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

In Turkey, this is known as the Silk Railway. It was the BTK that reduced freight transport time from Turkey to China from one month to only 12 days. The whole route from East Asia to Western Europe can now be traveled in only 18 days.

BTK is the key node of the so-called Middle Corridor from Beijing to London and the Iron Silk Road from Kazakhstan to Turkey.

A freight train, part of the Belt and Road Initiative, leaves the Qingbaijiang Railway Port in Chengdu for Europe on April 26, 2019. Photo: AFP.

All of the above dovetails with the EU’s preferred agenda, especially Germany’s: a geopolitically strategic trade corridor linking the EU to China via a NATO member – and, once again, bypassing the territory of the Russian Federation.

This would eventually be very helpful to consolidate what may be one of the key alliances of the Raging Twenties: Berlin-Beijing. That’s at least the way some political factions in Germany see it. The bottom line of their strategy is to create a Divide and Rule between Beijing and Moscow.  

To speed up the possible Berlin-Beijing alliance, the talk in Brussels is that Eurocrats may instrumentalize Turkmen nationalism and pan-Turkism. But that would imply adopting a very nuanced position on Xinjiang, which is not in the cards at the moment.

And there’s an extra problem for the Eurocrats: many a turcophone tribe prefers an alliance with Russia.

Moreover, Russia is inescapable when it comes to other corridors. Take, for instance, a flow of Japanese goods going to Vladivostok and then via the Trans-Siberian to Moscow and onwards to the EU.

The EU strategy of trying to bypass Russia in every part of the chessboard was not exactly a hit in Armenia-Azerbaijan: What we had was a relative Turkey retreat and a de facto Russian victory, with Moscow reinforcing its military position in the Caucasus.

A Russian army Mi-28 helicopter launches rockets during military exercises at the Raevsky range in Southern Russia on September 23 during the Caucasus-2020 military drills gathering China, Iran, Pakistan and Myanmar troops, along with ex-Soviet Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. Photo: AFP/Dimitar Dilkoff

Enter an even more interesting development that also benefits Moscow: the Azerbaijan-Pakistan strategic partnership, now in overdrive regarding trade, defense, energy, science/technology and agriculture. Islamabad, incidentally, supported Baku on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Both Azerbaijan and Pakistan have very good relations with Turkey: a matter of interlocking and very complex Turk-Persian cultural heritage.

They may get even closer with the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INTSC) increasingly connecting not only Islamabad to Baku, but also both to Moscow.

Thus the extra dimension of the new security mechanism proposed by Baku uniting Russia, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia: all the top four here want closer ties with Pakistan.

Analyst Andrew Korybko has neatly dubbed it the “Golden Ring” – a new dimension to Central Eurasian integration featuring Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan and the central Asian ‘stans. So this all goes way beyond a possible Triple Entente: Berlin-Ankara-Beijing.

What’s certain as it stands is that the all-important Berlin-Moscow relationship is bound to remain as cold as ice. Norwegian analyst Glenn Diesen summed it all up: “The German-Russian partnership for Greater Europe was replaced with the Chinese-Russian partnership for Greater Eurasia.”