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ANALYSIS: A Tripartite Dance of Sorts: Russia, the U.S & Turkey

1 Trump Putin ErdoganDr. Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

Turkey’s first elected President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (aka the Prez) and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have met on numerous occasions previously, but their recent meeting in Sochi came after a relatively long dry spell with Russo-Turkish relations at sub-zero temperatures.

At the same time, Ankara’s relationship with Washington has also been experiencing remarkable turbulence of late, with Erdoğan’s recent busy travel schedule over India (30 April-1 May), Russia (3 May) and China (14 May) culminating in his trip to the U.S. where he will meet the 45th incumbent of White House, Donald J. Trump (15-16 May).

It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas

Now that the dust is beginning to settle in the aftermath of that momentous get-together in Sochi the other Wednesday (3 May 2017), the ties that bind Turkey and Russia are being strengthened again, with the Gazprom CEO Aleksey Miller saying the other Sunday (7 May 2017) that “Today, we started the practical implementation of the TurkStream gas pipeline project: pipe-laying within the offshore section. The project has been implemented in strict compliance with the plan.” These words mark the start of a tentative cooperation between a resource-rich Russia and a Turkey keen to become an energy hub for Europe and the rest of the world: “Turkey’s unique location readily springs to attention. Situated right next to the hydrocarbon oasis that is the Arab (and Iranian) Middle East, Turkey is now trying to capitalize on its share in Pipelineistan to turn itself into a veritable energy hub on the crossroads between East and West,” with a completed TurkStream acting as the proverbial cherry on top of Turkey’s energy leverage. As expressed by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself, the Anatolian peninsula is after all situated “in close proximity to more than 75% of the world’s proven oil and gas reserves” – as if you could hear Erdoğan and his proxy Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu saying ‘location-location-location’ to themselves. A completed TurkStream would all but enhance Tayyip Erdoğan’s stature as a close friend of the Gazprom Nation and a veritable energy power broker in his own right. In this way, one could argue, Turkey and Russia would be in an ideal spot to bargain with Europe in order to receive major commercial benefits and a clear entry into the EU’s energy market and even domestic affairs – “Energy is one of the most important subjects of Turkey-EU relations,” after all.

But TurkStream would be but yet another addition to the already active pipeline network connecting both countries – the Blue Stream, “designed to deliver Russian natural gas to Turkey across the Black Sea bypassing third countries” and constructed in 2001-02, with the actual gas flow starting in February 2003 traveling a whopping “1,213 kilometers” in the process. As a Middle Eastern country with no real hydrocarbon resources on its soil, “Turkey imports nearly 99% of the natural gas it consumes,” with 55,3% of its natural gas needs imported from Russia (followed by supplies from Iran, Azerbaijan, Algeria and Nigeria). But, as the Azeri energy specialist Ilgar Gurbanov rightly points out, the relationship also goes the other way, as “Turkey is the second largest gas market for Russian Gazprom.”

Russia also supplies the EU (or Fortress Europe, if you will) and satisfies around a third of Europe’s gas needs, with Gazprom deliveries through the Nord Stream pipeline (“two 1,224-kilometre natural gas pipelines through the Baltic Sea”) even reaching an all-time high of 165.2 million cubic meters in the early months of this year, as reported by the news agency Reuters. Last March, Gazprom reported a 3.3 percent sales’  increase to Europe – the company itself stating that “exports to Turkey increased by 51 percent, to Serbia by 37.6 percent and to Bulgaria by 19.4 percent.“ In 2016, the Russian share in the European gas market stood at a record 34%. Gazprom’s Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Medvedev stated clearly that “Europe has always been and continues to be a priority market for” Russia. Earlier this year, Royal Dutch Shell and BP indicated that the Gazprom Nation would remain as the “top European gas supplier at least through 2035“ (with Norway taking second place with 24%, followed by LNG supplies, led by Qatar, at 13% and Algeria at 11%). And that is why Russia needs TurkStream in order to alleviate the load of the Nord Stream pipeline.

The traditional supply route to Europe via the Ukraine has now become off-limits (in 2009, five years before the outbreak of the “Maidan protests,“ for instance, 80% of the EU-bound gas was “piped” this way, according to the BBC) and the planned South Stream project to take its place suspended. The South Stream had been originally announced on 23 June 2007 and was intended to transport Russian gas into Bulgaria and then through Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia to Austria. President Putin therefore pushed the start button for the TurkStream project while visiting Ankara in early December 2014, and the signature of a Memorandum of Understanding between Gazprom and the Turkish Botaş… until disaster struck and Tayyip Erdoğan, then arguably still beholden to the U.S. and NATO interests, had allowed a Turkish F-16 to down a Russian fighter jet. But now, the Kremlin happily reports via RT that the TurkStream “project was shelved in 2015… but [that] the recent rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara has given the pipeline new life.”

The Prez and the Czar: A Marriage of Convenience or More?

Following the fateful downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M, Erdoğan and Putin engaged in a “tit-for-tat battle of words” and Turco-Russian relations were at an all-time low, with a possible World War III scenario lurking in the offing and trade restrictions being imposed straight away. But, as tends to happen in the real world, relations between the two neighbours were bound to improve. And improve they did, with the haughty Erdoğan even calling his Russian counterpart in June 2016 to tender an apology and following the infamous Coup-that-was-no-Coup of 15 July 2016, Putin returned the favour by means of a telephone message to “voice his support” for his apparently beleaguered colleague. As the recent Sochi meeting highlighted, both men do have a good rapport and want to get down to business as soon as possible. During their joint press conference in Sochi, President Putin significantly said that they had both “agreed upon a comprehensive solution of all problems related to restrictions. We assume any restrictions jeopardize the economy and eventually inflict damages to our producers.” And, subsequently, as tweeted by the pro-AKP Daily Sabah, “Erdoğan [said]: We’ve agreed on all topics, except tomato exports.” In Turn, Putin told the gathered audience that “Mr. President was right, Turkish tomatoes are a bit cheaper,“ then adding that “[i]t’s a wonderful [product] and we want our consumers to get access to a more affordable product.“ Still, the Russian President did not change his stance on the issue of Turkish tomato imports. On the other hand, this rather unusual exchange between the two leaders nevertheless had a direct impact on Erdoğan’s domestic audience – Rasim Şahin, the head of the Erdemli Agricultural Chamber, the second largest tomato producer in Turkey, even telling the national press that Our President… has made our hearts rejoice. Hopefully… our tomato exports will increase“ in due course.

Though Erdoğan seemed overly concerned with his domestic audience and the resumption of Turkish exports, the international community had a greater interest in Syria’s not-so civil war and possible efforts to bring an end to the bloodletting. RT’s Oksana Boyko tweeting that “[o]n #Syria, #Putin [and] #Erdogan suggest creation of “de-escalation zone” in #Idlib province, the idea Putin says he already discussed with #Trump.” In fact, the White House website indicates that a conversation held on 2 May between Trump and Putin “was a very good one, and included the discussion of ‘safe’, or de-escalation, zones to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons.” The Trump White House also noted that the “United States will be sending a representative to the cease-fire talks in Astana, Kazakhstan on May 3-4″ and that the U.S. and Russian Presidents “also discussed at length working together to eradicate terrorism throughout the Middle East.” In this way, the leaders of United States, Turkey and Russia have become entangled in a tripartite war dance, arguably predicated on a modicum of mutual attraction as well as an urgent desire to solve the Syrian crisis. In spite of the fact that the three men have three quite different objectives in mind and the Islamic Republic of Iran also acts as a fourth dance partner, much to the chagrin of Trump and the Washington establishment. The two-day Astana meeting formalised the plan into a “Memorandum on the creation of de-escalation areas in the Syrian Arab Republic,” with Moscow, Ankara and Tehran acting as “Guarantors.” This agreement builds on the provisions of the UNSC resolution 2254 (2015) and aims to bolster the “sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic,” arguably not a goal that would carry Tayyip Erdoğan’s favour under normal circumstances.

Since the very beginning of the conflict next door the Turkish leader has been at the forefront of efforts to oust Bahsar al-Assad only to replace the Damascus government with a Sunni-dominated regime keen to introduce Shariah rule as a possible blueprint.

The Astana Agreement and the Kurds

As a result, one can but wonder about Ankara’s cooperation in the Astana agreement. As such, developments on the ground in Syria have been giving Turkish leaders many headaches over the past months and years. Under the terms of the Astana “Memorandum” the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) and its military factions, the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), are also supposed to remain inactive. Particularly, as Ankara regards these Kurds as terrorists linked to the PKK (ties illustrated by the PYD’s apparent co-option of the personality cult surrounding Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader).

But Turkey is not the only party concerned with “terrorists,” as pointed out by Patrick Henningsen, our Editor-in-Chief, namely that the “agreement does not, however, cover any other contested areas where the Syrian government is fighting designated terrorist group Jabat al Nusra (Al Nusra Front), or ISIS.”

Following last year’s Coup-that-was-no-Coup, Turkey launched its military ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ (24 August 2016) in an effort to thwart Kurdish advances right on the Turkish border. The operation officially ended on 29 March 2017, with the Turkish forces withdrawing to their bases at home. But, this does not necessarily seem to denote the end of Turkey’s military adventurism in Syria, as Tayyip Erdoğan, before flying to Kazakhstan, told his audience and the assembled press at the AKP headquarters in Ankara that “[n]ow it is the turn of Manbij, and, as you know, my dear friends, of Raqqa.”  The subsequent signature of the Astana “Memorandum“ arguably rendered these words null and void, or not?!??.

The Prez also told his listeners that Turkey would “nip in the bud” any “desires” harboured by the “PYD-YPG” in northern Syria, and that he would communicate this resolve to Putin upon his arrival in Russia. This is indicative of the complicated dance Ankara, Moscow and also Washington are presently engaged in. Despite Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Stuart Jones’s presence in Astana, the U.S. is not party to the Astana agreement and consequently, it should not come as a surprise that “President Trump has [now] approved a plan to directly arm Kurdish forces fighting in Syria,“ on 9 May 2017 as expressed by the Washington Post. And this leaves Erdoğan all but high and dry, without any real space to manoeuvre. Arguably in an effort to avoid such a development, earlier the Prez had sent three of his proxies to the U.S. capital (5 May 2017) – İbrahim Kalın,  Erdoğan’s spokesman, Hakan Fidan, the head (or Undersecretary, as his official title states) of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (or MİT), and Hulusi Akar, the 29th Chief of Turkey’s General Staff. Officially, these three men flew to the U.S. to prepare the ground for the Turkish President’s visit to the White House on 15-16 May 2017, but the exact nature of their activities in America remain shrouded in mystery. But, it is probably fair to say that their mission turned out to be nothing but a failure.

It looks like President Erdoğan has now been all but out-manoeuvred, with President Putin putting down his foot, forcing the realisation of “de-escalation zones” in Syria, and President Trump, in turn, openly flaunting his disregard for Turkish sensitivities by means of supplying the Kurds with military goodies. But a week ago, Turkey’s Prez was grand-standing on an Ankara stage, vowing to single-handedly take Manbij and Raqqa, and now, he has become nothing but a spectator, looking on at events taking place next door. With Russian support for Damascus and American resolve to defeat the Islamic State, Tayyip  Erdoğan is on the verge of becoming largely irrelevant in the Syrian theatre. Sentiments in Turkey are on edge now, not only is the Turkish state being disrespected, it also looks like the supposed Leader of the Free World is actively contributing to the realisation of the nation’s greatest fear.

Cevat Öneş, the erstwhile Vice-Undersecretary of Turkey’s MİT, said in the first days of this month that “the new goal is [clearly] a united Kurdistan.”  Öneş went on to explain that the “USA is the most important among the dominant powers working towards reshaping the Middle East . . . Today there is the appearance of differences among the Kurds, [the appearance] of power strife and of a multi-headed [structure], but one has to recognise that the aim of the superpowers or the powers that are influencing Middle Eastern politics, and this also includes Israel as a regional power, is a desire for a united Kurdistan.” Öneş sees this as a possible long-term consequence, with the prospect of the formation of new states in the mid- to long-term, with an “independent Kurdish state or [at the very least] a Kurdish entity close to independence in Iraq [as well as] in Syria.“ As a result, one cannot but conclude that the current situation in the Syrian theatre is very volatile, with the dangerous possibility that a Tayyip Erdoğan pushed into a corner could very well see himself forced to act unilaterally… dispatching Turkish troops into Assad’s lands to take care of the Caliph (IS or ISIS/ISIL), while simultaneously and more importantly, from a Turkish point of view, keeping Kurdish designs in check – a development that might just light the powder keg that is the Middle East.

Flying to Washington:

This is not the first time in the recent past that Turkey has apparently teetered on the brink of unleashing a full-scale invasion of its Syrian neighbour. Following the heinous double bomb attack in Reyhanlı or “Little Syria” in Turkey’s Hatay province (11 May 2013), then still-PM Tayyip Erdoğan flew to D.C. to meet then-POTUS Barack Obama (16 May 2013). Prior to his departure, Erdoğan had stated that things would be very different after his return to Ankara, leading everyone to expect the worst. But, turns out, Obama had been able to persuade the Turkish PM to hold his horses and consequently, full-scale war was averted. Instead, the AKP government simply accused the Assad government of being the culprit behind the Reyhanlı attack. After all, President Obama had explained during their joint press conference that they “both agree that Assad needs to go. He needs to transfer power to a transitional body.” By focusing on regime change, in pursuit of the AKP policy of Sunnification, Turkey’s leadership allowed the more likely perpetrators to continue their reign of terror. At the time, the Turkish hacker collective RedHack had released incriminating documents which compromised certain AKP officials and pointed towards the terror faction known as Jabhat al-Nusra (22 May 2013). Following their release, Erdoğan told the assembled press during a conference with the visiting head of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, that even acknowledging the existence of these “hacked documents“ would be tantamount to committing an “act of terror.” But today, the situation on the ground in Syria is very different. Though Turkey is still keen to see Assad’s removal, Ankara’s commitment to the Astana process appears to have placed the AKP-led country in a most awkward spot – bound to the principle of de-escalation and non-intervention. Particularly, now that Syria’s not-so civil war next door also prominently include a certain Kurdish faction, arguably if not actually factually allied to the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers’ Party or PKK. Following the terror group formerly known as ISIS-but-now-simply-calling-itself the Islamic State’s explosive emergence on the scene in the summer of 2014, the Kurds in Syria have inadvertently-or-not made many advances, advances on Turkey’s border elaborating on the Kurdish enclave of Rojava’s self-declared independence of late 2013. And in the further course, the Kurdish PYD and it military arm YPG/YPJ played an important role in the fight against the IS, as hyperbollically expressed on social media: “[the Kurds] fight ISIS on the behalf of the world, not just for the Kurds. The only ones who can resist is us, that’s why the world assists the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), because ISIS is a threat to the entire world” (11 July 2016).

The Prez and Trump: Another Bout of Tomato Diplomacy?!??

In fact, the perception in the West is that the the Kurds (as a generic term referring to the YPG/YPJ) are the only effective armed opposition to the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim and his Merry Men (aka the Islamic State or IS/ISIS/ISIL). Still, the Trump White House issued a public invitation to the Turkish leader on 10 May, to “discuss how to further strengthen our bilateral relationship and deepen our cooperation to confront terrorism in all its forms.“ Following their initial scheduled 20-minute meeting and prior to more in-depth consultations after lunch (16 May 2017), Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump took to the stage and gave a joint press conference, with the U.S. President, at the outset, remarking to his counterpart, [i]t’s a lot of press . . . I am shocked“ – a statement arguably disclosing his terse relationship with the fourth estate and not his lack of respect for the Turkish President. Both men spent a lot of nice words in the process. Trump, for instance, assuring El Presidente Erdoğan and the assembled press that he will “support any effort to reduce violence in Syria and create a peaceful resolution” and that the U.S. “offers support to the Turkish nation in its fight against ISIL [or IS/ISIS] and [the Turkish Kurds of] the PKK,” remaining silent though on American support for the Syrian Kurds. And Erdoğan, in turn, saying that he had nevertheless raised the ‘YPG issue’, adding that “Turkey will work with the U.S. to fight all terrorist groups in region” and that he “hopes and prays” for future consultation and cooperation, even calling his first meeting with the businessman-turned-politician a “historical turning point“ for the Turkey-U.S. relationship. In other words, the leaders spoke next to each other but not in unison, deciding to ignore the thorny issue on the table. Instead, the U.S. President gave assurances that the U.S. would quickly deliver military orders placed by Turkey, as trade clearly trumps politics at all times. And besides the real meeting was still to come during the subsequent working lunch, accompanied by large delegations and commensurate expectations on both sides. After all, Turkey has quite a bit of beef with the U.S. at the moment, besides the ‘YPG issue’ there is also the case of the Turkish Bin laden or “Pennsylvania,“ the self-exiled Fethullah Gülen. as well as the issue of the imprisoned Reza Zarrab (aka Rıza Sarraf), prominently featuring in the Turkish  graft scandal known as #AKPgate, and whose U.S. prosecutor Preet Bharara was fortuitously “fired“ by Trump last March. Whereas Putin remained adamant not to give way on the tomato export issue, Trump happily played his cards as Turkey’s favourite arms’ dealer in pacifying the Prez. On the domestic front, the mere fact that Erdoğan had the nerve to bring up the ‘YPG issue’ standing next to Trump is hailed as a victory by the country’s partisan press, with the daily Akşam, for example, even carrying the headline “Historical Message“ (or ‘Tarihi Mesaj’).

In the end, one could reason, Tayyip Erdoğan’s dealings with U.S. presidents tend to consist of lots of bluster at home and an uncanny ability to be swayed by American ‘Real Politik’ in D.C. As pointed out by the well-known Turkish journalist Murat Yetkin, “Erdoğan has blamed Trump’s decision to arm the YPG on officials left over from former President Barack Obama’s administration,” an administration that had already swayed him more than three years ago Adding furthermore, that the U.S. is keen to use the PKK/YPG nexus as a ready supply of cannon fodder in the fight against the Caliph and the rush to take the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa, thereby saving the lives of American men and women in uniform – a case in point would be, for instance, the Turkish Communist militant Ulaş Bayraktaroğlu, whose mortal remains were burried in the Istanbul district of Kadıköy after having been killed in the vicinity of Raqqa fighting alongside the YPG on 10 May 2017.

Flying across the world, the Prez tries hard to impress global audiences, yet his actual dealings with world leaders seem far removed from the confrontational style he likes to adopt for the benefit of his domestic audience. This could one to realise that the much-awaited Trump meeting ended in all but a whimper, and that the President of the very much pro-Kurdish Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass’s insolent tweet of 9  May did contain more than a grain of truth: “If Erdogan cancels visit here, no great loss given his authoritarian rule & unhelpful Syria role.” But, as the 24-hour D.C. trip was the culmination of Tayyip Erdoğan’s whirlwind tour across the globe, returning home with , assurances of arms’ deals to come seems like a fitting consolation prize, if anything. But now, it remains to be seen what the tripartite dance of sorts between ‘Putin-Trump+Erdoğan’ will now be able to realise on the ground in Syria . . .  

But, one thing seems certain, Russia and the U.S. will be backing the Syrian Kurds . . . at least till the city of Raqqa has fallen. What will happen next is still anyone’s guess…

***

Author Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002.

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