A triple win for Putin in Turkey

In the aftermath of the ill-fated coup, Putin seems to have ensnared Erdogan in his sphere of influence

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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Putin is winning again. In the aftermath of the ill-fated coup in Turkey, he has managed to ensnare Turkish President Erdogan in his sphere of influence.

For all the talk that Erdogan orchestrated or at least egged on the coup so that he can make a power grab on those segments of the Turkish state that he did not yet control, it does nevertheless seem that the coup attempt has hit the President hard. Or at least he seems to be deeply offended by the sympathetic response that the coup received in the West. And he has been moving swiftly and in radical directions since.

But the move to détente with Russia must be one of the least-expected developments. The two strong-man leaders have been at loggerheads ever since Turkey downed a Russian fighter plane it claims violated its airspace last autumn. And that crisis escalated into a full-blown economic war in the intervening months.

But following the coup, and the lukewarm response from his NATO ‘allies’, Erdogan decided that he might need new friends. So, in a surprising move, he has backed down, apologised to Putin, and flew to Moscow to “repair relations”.

Europe’s unity and its sense of identity have already been frayed by the initial influx of refugees, but another one can only make things worse

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

This new development does not bode well for Syria, the refugee crisis, or indeed Europe. Erdogan has historically been one of the strongest opponents of President Assad in Damascus, and has been a key player in the Syrian Civil War for allowing forces opposing Assad to move across its border, and to trade in oil and armaments – including, in the early days, ISIS.

But Erdogan may now be persuaded to see Putin’s point of view in the conflict, not least because Turkey might care more about suppressing the emboldened Kurds within Turkey, but also northern Syria and Iraq, than about removing Assad.

Leveraging friendship

Meanwhile, the EU-Turkey refugee deal is on the ropes. Already hugely controversial in Europe, Erdogan might hope to leverage his new friendship with Putin to extract even better terms out of EU leaders.

But any such attempts might backfire, as European progressives are increasingly appalled by the authoritarian turn that Turkey has taken, to say nothing of the questionable legality and morality of the refugee deal, while European conservatives are already up in arms about the notion that Turks would have free travel rights in the Schengen area.

All this, at a time when a new wave of refugees out of Syria is imminent, as the civil war is turning firmly in Assad’s favor, and rebel areas can look forward to brutal reprisals – not least in an attempt to change the demographics of these areas to be more pro-Assad. Europe’s unity and its sense of identity have already been frayed by the initial influx of refugees, but another one can only make things worse.

This, of course, is a triple win for Putin. He is dislodging Turkey from the tight-knit NATO fold, and driving a wedge between it and the EU. He is securing Syria for his client, Assad. And he is making further progress in his grand plan to dismantle European unity.

Napoleon is known to have said that he did not want good generals. Instead, he wanted lucky ones. And there is no doubt that Putin has had a fair amount of luck in how things turned out with Turkey. But he also contributed significantly to making his own luck with his staggeringly fruitful intervention in Syria.

Yet our leaders in the West must also take a lot of credit for making Putin’s luck for their equally staggering failure to successfully engage with the Syrian crisis. And in the end, European unity may well be the price we pay for that failure.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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