As Erdogan’s reliance on Russia grows, NATO hopes to win back wayward Turkey
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow for six hours on Thursday to negotiate a ceasefire deal that intended to end clashes in northwest Syria’s Idlib province, which resulted in the deaths of 60 Turkish soldiers since the start of February. Although the two leaders have significant differences over the future of Idlib and Syria, Erdogan’s dependence on Russia, both politically and economically, limited his ability to pivot away from the Kremlin and realign with Turkey’s traditional allies in NATO.
The ceasefire, which went into effect after midnight on March 6, includes plans to set up a security corridor along the M4 motorway, a major road that runs from east to west through Idlib. The deal also calls for joint Turkish-Russian patrols to start on March 15. Despite the Turkish military’s battering of Bashar al-Assad’s Russian- and Iranian-backed forces over the past week, the ceasefire allows al-Assad to maintain control of territory he captured before Erdogan’s troops gained the upper hand on the battlefield. Putin appears to have succeeded in convincing Erdogan to give up parts of Idlib that the Turkish president recently vowed to defend until the bitter end.
February’s clashes came after a three-and-a-half-year honeymoon in Turkish-Russian relations, prompted by Erdogan’s turn to Putin for political and military support in the immediate aftermath of Turkey’s July 2016 abortive coup. The Turkish president signed a long list of energy, trade, and defense deals with Russia, and given his waning popularity at home, he believes that his political survival requires cozying up to other authoritarian regimes. The most controversial agreement was a 2017 deal with Moscow to purchase two batteries of the S-400 air defense system, which provoked heavy criticism from Turkey’s allies in NATO, the 29-member international military alliance made up of the US, Canada, Turkey and European states. The NATO allies’ concerns spurred the removal of Turkey from the US-led F-35 stealth fighter program and prompted a congressional push for sanctions.
The wisdom of Erdogan’s cozying up to Moscow and Tehran came into question following the casualties Turkey suffered at the hands of al-Assad’s Russian- and Iranian-backed forces in February. The Turkish president showed signs of turning back —albeit tactically— to the West for solidarity. Since using Russian-built S-400 batteries against Russian and Syrian planes was not a viable option, he asked NATO allies for a no-fly zone in northern Syria as well as Patriot missiles.
Although US-Turkish relations are at an all-time low, Washington saw the Idlib crisis and the ensuing Turkish-Russian tensions as an opportunity to reverse Ankara’s drift toward Moscow and reorient the wayward NATO member back toward the transatlantic alliance and its values. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the US ambassador to NATO, stated, “I hope that President Erdogan will see that we are the ally of their past and their future and they need to drop the S-400.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement in support of Turkey, demanding, “The Assad Regime, Russia, Iran and Hizballah [to] cease their ongoing attacks in Idlib.” Senator Lindsey Graham called for establishing a no-fly zone over Idlib, as Erdogan wanted.
Across the Atlantic in Brussels, NATO members met on February 28 to hold consultations under Article 4 following Turkey’s request and expressed “strong solidarity,” condemning “the Syrian regime and its backer Russia.” Meanwhile, Erdogan chose to weaponize Syrian refugees yet again, opening Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria. The Turkish president hoped that a new wave of refugees would pressure Turkey’s European allies into providing political and military support in Idlib. Earlier during the course of the Syrian civil war, Brussels took Erdogan’s similar pressure seriously, opting to provide Turkey financial aid in return for promises to keep Syrians away from the European Union’s borders. During an emergency meeting on Friday, foreign ministers of European Union member states rejected Germany’s attempts to provide further financial support to Erdogan, calling his threats an “unacceptable way to push for further support.”
The Idlib clashes indeed provided an opportunity for the US and its NATO allies to slow down Turkey’s ongoing drift toward Russia. However, given Erdogan’s strong personal rapport with Putin and growing reliance on the Kremlin for his political survival at home, a quick reversal of Ankara’s foreign and security policy was unlikely. Add to that Erdogan’s deeply ingrained anti-Western sentiments and track record of working against US sanctions on Iran, Russia, and Venezuela. It would have taken a miracle for Erdogan to reverse his course so late into his game.
Washington and its NATO allies should continue to look for opportunities to wean Turkey off of its dependence on Russia as they try to return the country to its historical role as a counterweight to Russian and Iranian influence in the Middle East and beyond. Yet the US and Europe should not turn a blind eye to Erdogan’s hostage-taking, permissive attitude toward terror financiers, and efforts to undermine Turkish democracy. Without leverage, there is no way for NATO to get Erdogan to change his ways.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @aykan_erdemir.
Philip Kowalski is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @philip_kowalski.