Turkey re-evaluates its vital interests

The most significant realities imposed on Ankara by Obama’s Middle East policies remain those related to Russia and Iran

Eyad Abu Shakra
Eyad Abu Shakra
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The other day it was announced that the US vice president Joe Biden would soon be visiting Turkey. The visit will follow frantic Turkish activities in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt.

Several issues, I presume, deserve to be scheduled for discussion between Mr Biden and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, more so because Washington’s Middle East policies during the last few years have managed to change many of Ankara’s declared positions.

Regardless of definition, explanations, appraisals – especially as far as the alleged ‘role’ of Islamist figure Fethullah Gulen is concerned – the coup attempt will no doubt affect the march of Mr Erdogan’s Islamist government. Equally, it would be wrong to underestimate the impact of terrorist attacks that shook a number of Turkish cities during the last few months against the background of the worsening Syrian crisis, revitalized Kurdish secessionists and cooling of tensions with Israel. However, the most significant realities imposed on Ankara by Barack Obama’s Middle East policies remain those related to Russia and Iran.

Going back to JCPOA is not actually a replay. In fact, it is the first true step to understanding Washington’s current strategy until its term ends next November. Yes, JCPOA is the defining landmark in Obama’s political thought and strategic regional priorities; and the last three years that – candidly expressed – thought and those priorities were there for all to see.

Washington has allowed Tehran and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to blackmail both the international community and the Syrian people with a morally and politically unacceptable choice between keeping the al-Assad regime which is nothing but a cat’s paw of Iran’s mullahs and their expansionist regional project, or leaving Syria and its people easy prey to ISIS bestial criminality and al-Qaeda’s extremism.

Due to Russia being under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, it has become a dynamic and ambitious player keen to regain the long gone regional influence of the former USSR

Eyad Abu Shakra

The above choice is exactly what al-Assad and Tehran wanted and strived for all along, and the outcome has been clear from the pictures from the town of Manbij, recently liberated from its ISIS nightmare. It is also the ideal script that would ‘wipe clean the slate’ of a criminal regime which since the late 1970s made a business of blackmail, murder, political outbidding, and trading in fake slogans.

Finally, it is what Obama’s Washington has adopted through demeaning and undermining the nationalist Syrian moderate opposition by depriving it of suitable quality weapons, and continuously rejecting its pleas for protective no-fly zones and safe havens under feeble excuses, as is proven every day by direct American military involvement in Iraq and Libya, and Washington’s active support of Kurdish militias.

Turning a blind eye to ISIS’ entrenchment and expansion has not been only intentional, but also required. This is why al-Raqqah was never bombarded, not even threatened, a full year after it fell to the brutal terrorist group and was proclaimed its capital. The same applies to other ISIS “enclaves” elsewhere in Greater Damascus and the open expanses of the Syrian Desert – which are supposedly vulnerable to air strikes – let alone, those close to the Israeli ceasefire line in the Golan Heights!

Turkey’s mistakes

In the meantime, the Turkish leadership was committing two grave mistakes: The first, continuously over-threatening al-Assad and over-promising the Syrian oppositions without guarantees that it can effect a change; and the second, its ambiguous position vis-à-vis Tehran although it should have known the nature and extent of Iranian support for al-Assad, specifically, since IRGC-led and controlled Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan Shi’ite militias were ‘ordered’ to fight inside Syria.

One might say these mistakes stemmed from wrong calculations based on naïve trust in Washington’s and NATO’s backing; and consequently, disregard of what Washington’s willingness to let down its old ally means, while keeping in mind Turkey’s geo-political problematic history with Russia.

Most likely, Ankara began to really worry when it noticed that Washington’s and Moscow’s views on Syria were rapidly converging to the point of total agreement. This went parallel with the unfolding Russian support for Al-Assad reaching the point of direct military involvement in September 2015.

The turning point, however, must have been Turkey’s downing the Russian fighter bomber near the Turkish – Syrian borders in late November 2015; as Washington’s and NATO’s lukewarm ‘solidarity’ with Ankara against Moscow’s bullying threats decisively proved that the page of the Cold War alliance between Turkey and the West was turned forever.

To add insult to injury, American whole-hearted backing for ‘nationalist’ Kurdish militias along the Turkish – Syrian borders despite Ankara’s expressed misgivings, and later Washington’s rush to directly confront ISIS in northern Iraq the moment it began threatening the autonomous ‘Iraqi Kurdistan’ region, only compounded Ankara’s suspicions and worries. Then, no sooner that the attempted coup had taken place than Erdogan accused US – based Mr. Gulen of being implicated, while also insinuating at an American role in it.

Obviously, this meant that all taboos have now been broken, as the Turkish leadership saw itself dealing with new regional and international realities. Erdogan decided to react in the light of what he viewed as Washington’s “betrayal” in the time of need, the Obama administration belittling what a threat “Greater Kurdistan” poses to Turkey and the polities of the Middle East. As a result Ankara took the decision to ‘open up’ to the three influential players in the region: Russia, Israel and Iran.

Ambitious player

Due to Russia being under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, it has become a dynamic and ambitious player keen to regain the long gone regional influence of the former USSR; in addition to the fact that it is the historical ‘Christian’ competitor to ‘Muslim’ Turkey in south eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

As for Israel, it is a small-size major power which enjoys great influence in the West, especially, with the American ‘political establishment’.

Finally, Iran is the historical Eastern pole, whose entities and ruling dynasties coexisted and collaborated with, fought against, and allied to Turkey’s entities and ruling dynasties. In fact, the percentage of Turkic peoples with present day Iran exceeds non-Turks within Turkey.

However, although the two countries are currently competing against each other, and are in opposite sides in the Syrian crisis, they are united by a common concern. They both stand against a “Greater Kurdistan”; which may mean the Kurdish issue provides the window of opportunity for interest-based temporary coexistence and agreement of opportune regional influence sharing at the expense of the major absentee, i.e. the Arabs!

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on August 19, 2016.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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