Putin and Erdogan, despite Assad, against the West

Russia and Turkey have surprisingly quickly found each other again in their mutual aversion against the West, which in their opinion routinely humiliates them. Their interests in Syria are an important pull factor, although Putin and Erdogan don’t (yet) agree about the position of Assad. According to Arabist and diplomate Marcel Kurpershoek, the Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov hides pure Russian-Turkish opportunism behind perceived historical rights on the status of ‘great power’.

by Marcel Kurpershoek

On RaamopRusland, Fyodor Lukyanov stated that President Putin can be satisfied about Erdogan’s visit to Moscow. His article demonstrates how Moscow has tried to turn the failed coup in Turkey to its advantage. Under Erdogan, Turkish ties with Europe and NATO are no longer crucial. However, formally severing these ties is not to be expected for the time being, Joost Lagendijk rightly states in his reaction to Lukyanov.

The Kremlin perceives the relationship with Turkey within a framework of ‘constructive opportunism’. This is exactly what Erdogan and Putin have in common, although we could leave out the epithet ‘constructive’. Opportunism brought Erdogan to where he is now. If he had been more firm in his principles, he would have been politically dead a long time ago. His notorious statement ‘Democracy is like a train: when you reach your destination, you get off’ he put into practice when he needed the European Union. Now it became clear that he mainly did so to keep the military at a distance. This opportunism is, however, fuelled by a deeply felt vision.

A correction of history

Erdogan wants to erase a century of Turkish history - or at least correct it. He disapproves of the Kemalist secularism and its accompanying one-sided focus upon the West. He and Putin share a yearning for an earlier phase in their history. It is no accident that Lukyanov refers to ‘two great powers’ that have much in common. Their strongest motivation is their longing for an all-encompassing Europe in which they can play the role they think they have a historical right to.

In the case of Russia, this refers to the time of the European Concert of Nations, the result of the Congress of Vienna in 1815. But then the Ottoman Empire was ‘the sick man’ of Europe: a large part of the discussions in Vienna were about the division of that empire’s lost territory. This is why Erdogan prefers to look further back: to Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror who conquered Constantinople in 1453. We can hardly keep a straight face on hearing this. However, when you want to get along with these leaders in any sensible way, you have to realise that they have an extremely serious longing for the past.

Besides opportunism, Erdogan and Putin share a ‘bazar mentality’. They use all available tricks to squeeze out the best price. That the EU and US play no part in this is beneficial for Turkey and Russia. They are now investigating how they can benefit from each other. Via the Kremlin, Erdogan strengthens his negotiating position with the US and Europe. The same is true for Putin. Their both being rejected by the West is not that significant. It is part of moral coercion. They know that Europeans are sensitive about this.

Erdogan will never completely cut ties with NATO and the EU. For him, these are valuable trump cards in a larger game. The interests of Turkey and Russia meet in the region around the Black Sea, the Caucasus and now particularly in Syria. It suits Erdogan and Putin well to pretend, as true leaders of great powers, that they are capable of taking care of things together over there without worrying about the United States. Lukyanov’s statement that Turkey and Russia are great powers is a flattering reflection in the hall of mirrors where they nourish their historical dreams. At the moment, the Turkish economy is smaller than that of the Netherlands. And although it is true that Russia is larger than the Netherlands and Turkey in terms of Gross National Product, it is still smaller than Australia and Spain.

Russia’s nostalgia for the Cold War

Of course, this doesn’t represent the true nature of the relationship. As a result of its former Soviet status, Russia possesses a military infrastructure that is not to be measured only in economic terms. This determines Russia’s position in the world. Opposed to the exhausted soft power of the EU, Putin prioritises hard power which shows that Russia has clout far across its borders. Politically this is anchored in its permanent membership of the UN Security Council. The American-Russian dialogue about Syria has great practical value for Moscow. It revives the memory of the Cold War, when any agreement between Washington and Moscow determined world peace.

Russia is now demonstrating its hard power for example by operating the strategic Russian bombers Tu-22M3, which have recently started to spread their bombs on Aleppo and other targets in Syria. It is even more astonishing that they began to operate from a base in Iran. Even the Iranian Shah never allowed the Americans to do this. (Out of irritation about Russia’s boasting about this feat, Iran subsequently stated that the Russian flights have stopped). Putin makes abundant use of the space offered by Obama’s prevarication. If the tougher Hillary Clinton becomes the new American President, the last months of the Obama administration will provide Putin with an unmissable chance to strengthen Russia’s position in the Middle East at the expense of the US and the West.

Moscow and Teheran immediately reacted positively to the failed coup against Erdogan. For Putin this was the fig-leaf he needed to reverse his enraged reaction on the downing of the Russian bomber by Turkey. Erdogan was overjoyed that he could blame the Gülenists for this painful incident, who he claimed devised the coup: it wasn’t him who downed the airplane but a traitor who primarily wanted to hit Erdogan himself. The two gentlemen could embrace each other again - although Putin pretended to be more reluctant than the effusive Erdogan.

Europe doesn’t play a role

Could we have expected this? What will follow? Last February, I wrote in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad: ‘The Russian advances in Syria have completed the humiliation of the Turkish President Erdogan. His rage about the attitude of Obama and Europe can be measured by the increasingly threatening language he uses. It is even possible that Erdogan will reach an agreement with Putin.’

I couldn’t predict the coup. But I did anticipate that Obama’s Syria policy could make a Turkish overture towards Russia possible. Europe hardly plays a role in this: over the past two thousand years there has never been a period in which European countries have had so little influence in this region as they do now. It is logical that this European powerlessness has also forced Obama to be wary.

The Russian power display is the consequence of the weak play of the opponent. American-Turkish disagreement is part of it. Turkey is angry about the close US ties with the Syrian branch of the Kurdish PKK. They might have compensated for this by giving more support to the Syrian rebels and creating safe zones in Syria. But these proposals were rejected by the Oval Office.

Turkey is stuck with millions of refugees, terrorism and the resurgent PKK - not to mention the 80,000 people in the army, police, judiciary and education sector who were fired after the coup, as well as the companies that were confiscated. For years, we have been hearing the Turks grinding their teeth, but the seething anger behind it was trivialised. Now this anger has exploded. Erdogan knows how to play this game. The extradition requisition for Gülen, who fled to the US, is most of all an act of pinpointing an error. Complying with this is not seriously expected and, perhaps, not even wanted. It is a way to make the US understand fully that Turkish priorities have been neglected.

US should eat humble pie

Erdogan is triumphing and the West is losing. Moscow and Tehran understood this rapidly. Improved relations will be highly profitable in economic terms for the three countries. But this is not the most important issue. One of the main issues in the three capitals is the desire to force the US to eat humble pie. Paradoxically, this desire became stronger as the Obama administration began to soften its tone, using a smaller and smaller stick.

The other main issue is Syria. Much is at stake here for the three countries. For Russia, there are the bases and strategic facilities. For Iran, the supply route to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the balance of deterrence with Israel. On the other hand, Turkey cannot completely abandon the mainly Sunnite armed opposition in Syria. Even Russia understands this. In addition, Turkey is the only country that shares a long border and history with Syria.

Iran strongly supports Assad and his regime. Russia wants an authoritarian secular state, with Assad at the helm for the time being. For Erdogan, however, Assad is a curse. Since the regime of Hafez Assad, Russia and Iran have had a strategic relationship with the regime. Assad represents a regime still being supported by the large number of minorities and the Sunni bourgeoisie, because there is no alternative. So the relationship of the Russians and Iranians with Assad’s Syria is much stronger and enduring than that of Turkey’s. But Moscow and Tehran will state that the even older connections of Syria with the Ottoman Empire and the communal border of Turkey and Syria are of less importance.

So, at first sight, the positions of Moscow, Tehran and Ankara seem to be irreconcilable. For the time being, they agree to disagree. Is a solution possible? It seems obvious that Erdogan will wait until after the American elections. The cards he has now collected will be more valuable later. It is therefore not to be expected that he will actually build an alliance with Russia that will serve to strengthen Assad.

Russian Tupolevs from Iran

Launching Russian Tupolevs from Iran is a novelty and also, of course, a sign. The act can be seen as a disproportional response to the downing of a Russian combat helicopter by Syrian rebels – and so is comparable to the Russian reaction on the incident with Turkey. The comparison that inevitably comes to mind is to the American ‘Christmas bombings’ of Hanoi with over one hundred B-52s in 1972, which probably killed thousands of Vietnamese people. Shortly after this, the Americans understood that they had to radically change course, and they reached an agreement to end the conflict. In contrast, Russia keeps counting on a victory.

The Russian intervention of a year ago was a response to the weakening of the regime of Assad. The rebels were advancing, despite their disunity and limited foreign support, which was disproportionately less than that Assad received from his allies. When the Russian bombings started, Assad advanced again. The US contributed to the survival of Assad with their condition that support to the opposition could not be used against Assad but solely against IS. The recent offensive against Aleppo should essentially put an end to the battle. So far, it has led to a counter-offensive by the armed opposition, fuelled by Turkey and allies in the Gulf.

The Gordian knot of Assad

There are two possibilities now. The first is that Assad and his associates launch a successful offensive against the counter-offensive, with a helpful Russian-Iranian escalation in place. The question is what Turkey and Saudi Arabia will do then: they are (not counting IS) the most important pillars of the armed opposition of Assad. The second possibility, which would disqualify the US, is a sort of ceasefire, which will turn Aleppo into a divided city like Nicosia. In this case, Assad will have a guaranteed corridor to his part of the city and the rest of ‘useful Syria’: the part of the country that isn’t a desert, including the capital Damascus, the coast and the hinterland, as well as part of the Euphrates Valley will all remain under the regime’s control. The Kurds will keep their essentially autonomous zone along the Turkish border, but without a connection to the Afrin enclave – because otherwise the complete Turkish southern border would be in the hands of the Kurds.

Subsequently, they will wait for further developments in the US, and all involved parties will strengthen themselves for a possible next round. This is constructive opportunism. It can give space to find an arrangement for the ‘Assad knot’ without damaging the structure of the regime. In practice this could mean that Assad, who is controlling the Alevites and other minorities through fear of Islamic extremists while he himself rules with extremist repression, will have to make way for a regime that is not based on fear and violence. New leadership should come from the civilian side of the government, not from Assad’s security services which are compromised by their complicity in war crimes. The civilian opposition in exile appears to be incapable for such a role.

The question is whether such an orderly domestic transition is possible, when we consider the tentacles of the regime. Assad and his associates will not leave voluntarily: by committing more crimes than ever before, they have managed to stay in place during the five-year war. This will make them less willing to leave than ever before, because there is not a single promise or guarantee that can offer them security. This is the Gordian Assad knot which Obama didn’t, or couldn’t, disentangle, and which has therefore become even more inextricable.

Recently, Amnesty reported on the 18,000 Syrians who have been tortured to death in Assad’s prisons. It is as if these crimes need to be publicised again and again. The world stubbornly tries to look away from this shame, but it will not disappear. It is an insurmountable barrier for the return of peace and reconstruction. Therefore, if the West possesses some self-respect, it cannot go back to normalising relations with the Assad regime. Even when a truce is reached, a solution for the ‘Assad knot’ remains an essential condition.

Translation from Dutch: Anna Maria Doppenberg & Mark Adams


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