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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Erdogan is dragging Turkey into an abyss

The only way to de-escalate the current crisis with the US is for him to descend from his neo-Ottoman ivory tower, writes Raghida Dergham

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. Umit Bektas / Reuters
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. Umit Bektas / Reuters

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has placed his country in the heart of a storm, taking US-Turkish relations to a cliff’s edge as a result of his military and economic policies, which seem to benefit Russia more than Nato member Turkey itself. Mr Erdogan has already antagonised Europe, playing the card of refugees flocking to the West through the Turkish gateway. Not long ago, Turkey had normal relations with Saudi Arabia but Mr Erdogan today has lost that important relationship that brought together two major powers. Instead, he prefers to align himself with Qatar amid the Gulf dispute with Doha, pitting himself against the Arab quartet.

Mr Erdogan is also bargaining over his country’s interests in Syria with the Russians, becoming a secondary player in the Russian-led Astana process alongside Iran. He also dragged down Palestine when he chose to back Hamas over the Palestinian Authority, helping drive a wedge between Palestinians, only for Hamas to now turn its back on him as it seeks a deal with Israel with US and Egyptian blessing. His relations with Iran, meanwhile, are based on short-term calculations and a shared dislike of Nato ally US, pitting himself not only against Donald Trump but also the US Congress, which distrusts him for his dealings with Russia and Iran. In short, Mr Erdogan is dragging himself and Turkey into the abyss, unless he climbs down from his stubbornness and neo-Ottoman delusions. He has surrounded himself with enemies and given both Washington and Moscow a rope to hang him with.

Mr Trump’s policy, which uses sanctions targeting the economy and currency as a means to coerce politically, is not solely responsible for the collapse of the Turkish lira. Rather, this was the result of the economic policies of Mr Erdogan and his son-in-law, the finance minister Berat Albayrak. US sanctions on Iran meanwhile have struck at the heart of the regime and will take an even more fateful turn when they expand into the oil sector on November 4. The new sanctions Washington threatened this week against Turkey unless it releases the American pastor Andrew Brunson will affect infrastructure and would not be mitigated by any kind of support like that pledged by the emir of Qatar after a visit to Ankara last week.

What is new and significant in the recent regional developments is the radical shift in the geography of crises here. In recent years, the Arab region was the chosen theatre for both Iran and Turkey to implement their regional projects. But today the regime in Tehran faces the possibility of implosion from within, a shift from the erstwhile exportation of its agenda, revolution and proxies into Arab countries – just as Mr Erdogan’s Turkey faces implosion.

The White House is not interested in Mr Erdogan’s ultimate fate but in the fate of Turkey’s Nato membership. Mr Erdogan’s shenanigans have long irked US administrations and Congress. Some question his ulterior motives, saying Turkey is no longer a strategic ally.

Consequently the US has taken measures to reduce reliance on Turkey’s Incirlik airbase. US aircraft carriers will for the time being be the de facto alternative until Turkey’s Nato credentials are settled.

The US resentment with Turkey has multiple reasons, from the differences over the Kurdish question and Ankara’s insistence on acquiring the Russian-made S-400 air defence system, to the Turkish anti-American discourse and its bid to circumvent US sanctions on Iran.

By insisting on purchasing the S-400 system, he has triggered a bill in Congress to block the delivery of US F-35 fighter jets to Ankara. Turkey does not need the Russian system and the US military establishment would never allow a loophole through which the Russians could learn the secrets of the F-35. It is in Russia’s interest for Turkey to exit Nato, regardless of how that happens. But there is a bloody history between Russia and Turkey, which makes a Russian-Turkish alliance against Nato a dangerous idea, most notably because it would provoke both Europe and the US.

The issue of oil and gas might be instrumental in the development of Russian-Turkish relations, based on Turkey’s strategic position linking Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan and Qatar, the world’s top producers of gas, to the consuming countries in Europe. Iran and Qatar’s projects to export their gas to Europe through Syrian territory have been hindered by developments on the ground but also Russia’s dominance over the future of pipelines to Europe. Turkey was part of Qatar’s project to export gas through Syria but with the collapse of the Qatari project, Turkey shifted to alternative relations with Russia, which is developing its gas export policies to circumvent Ukraine.

The shortest route for Russian oil and gas experts to Europe is Ukraine but this is no longer an option following the Russian intervention there. Moscow has been looking to offset Ukraine and Turkey has offered its services. The US is angry because that is another Turkish policy that it considers provocative and incompatible with its interests.

Mr Erdogan’s wager on Vladimir Putin is risky and not just because of the two men’s arrogant and authoritarian personalities. What if a deal had been secretly struck between Mr Putin and Mr Trump at their summit in Helsinki? In that scenario, Mr Putin would not risk such an accord for the sake of an anti-Nato alliance with Mr Erdogan.

And what would Mr Erdogan do if Turkey left or was made to leave Nato? His strategic vision has made him an untrustworthy member of the alliance. Turkey does not have any friends that can mediate to contain the tensions with the US. The only way to de-escalate would be for Mr Erdogan to descend from his neo-Ottoman ivory tower and get in touch with reality.

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