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The New Ankara Shuffle: Caught Between Moscow, Riyadh and Tehran

1 Turkey Iran RussiaDr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire 

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (or the Prez) and his Justice and Development Party (or AKP) are now moving Turkey ever closer to its Arab neighbours in the south. At the same time, however, he is also forging ties in the north, namely with Vladimir Putin (or the Czar) and  Russia.

Some time ago (Friday, 23 June 2017), an arguably Erdoğan hungry Prez held a much-publicised telephone conversation with the Czar –  as a pious and observant Muslim, Erdoğan was quite naturally observing the fast on the penultimate day of Ramazan (26 May-24 June 2017). Putin, on the other hand, was situated aboard the “giant construction and pipe-laying vessel Pioneering Spirit,” which had earlier left Rotterdam for the Black Sea in order to “begin work on Russian gas monopoly Gazprom’s TurkStream project.”

Following the complicated cross-border and even trans-Atlantic pirouettes performed by the Prez last May, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has now taken the initiative, personally climbing on “board [of] the Pioneering Spirit to kick off operations,” launching the “alignment of the shallow and deep-water sections” accompanied by the Gazprom chief executive Alexey Miller.

Ever the action-man as well as consummate showman, Putin telephoned Tayyip Erdoğan to inform the latter that work on TurkStream has now started for real but also discussing the earlier agreed upon business deal to construct the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant (comprising four units) on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

This Turco-Russian project goes back to May 2010, when both governments signed an agreement that a subsidiary of Rosatom would build, own, and operate a power plant at Akkuyu, with engineering and survey work having been undertaken in March 2011. The original plan envisioned that the four units be put into service in the period 2019-22, with an annual electricity production of 35 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) and a service life of 60 years.

Now that the Prez and the Czar are on good terms again, this controversial project appears back on track as well, meaning that in a few years’ time Turkey will arguably have a functioning nuclear power plant located in the vicinity of the East Anatolian Fault. And just as a reminder, quite some time ago science journalist Wendy Zukerman posited that “[m]any of Turkey’s most severe quakes occur on one of the two faults that flank the Anatolian plate – the north and the east Anatolian faults.” But over the past years, Turkey’s earthquakes have been moving in a westward direction in the period 1939 and 1999, which means that the risk of a major earthquake occurring close to the projected Akkuyu power plant seems to be dwindling . . . were it not that “[s]ince 2003 . . .  activity has shifted to the east Anatolian fault,” as remarked by Zukerman.

Turkey as an Energy Hub

But the Prez and the Czar have more business deals in need of ironing out, and quite naturally the Russian leader informed his Turkish counterpart of TurkStream’s developing progress – an ambitious project slated to cost up to $12.7 billion. Upon which, Tayyip Erdoğan delivered this conciliatory reply that had apparently been composed previously: “Thanks to TurkStream, it will be ensured that the Russian natural gas coming to our country via the Western Line and the Blue Stream is directly transmitted to Turkey without being dependent on the transmission system of any country.

The TurkStream project is a beautiful symbol of our foreign policy and win-win understanding that argues that energy should not be a cause of conflict in international relations but a unifying instrument for peace.” In this way, Erdoğan delivered a message of harmony and alliance, hinting at the congruence of Turkish and Russian concerns arguably in fields way beyond commercial ties and purely monetary gains.

As a the leader of a Middle Eastern nation largely devoid of its own hydrocarbon resources yet blessed by its strategic position at the gateway from east to west, the Prez seems willing to pursue the AKP dream of some years ago to transform Turkey into a regional energy hub with international clout and influence. Putin, for his part, ended the telephone conversation on point: “I would like to wish you and the people of Turkey all the very best.”

In spite of Erdoğan’s effusive words, Putin remained quite cool and formal. The realisation of TurkStream is still a huge achievement and the Turkish authorities are clearly hoping to reap the benefits, not just with regard to their ambitions of establishing an energy hub and more importantly, with regard to delivering cheap gas to their voters and their dependents at home.

As a result, the fact that the pro-government Daily Sabah subsequently reported that “Gazprom could leave the Turkish domestic market,” must have come as a blow to the Prez and his henchmen (28 June 2017). The Turkish daily based its report on the Russian Kommersant, which reported that Gazprom is contemplating selling off its holdings in the “Promak company, which owns a controlling stake of 60 percent in two importers of Russian gas to Turkey – Enerco and Avrasya” as well as its 71% share in  “Bosphorus Gaz,” which is “Turkey’s first natural gas importer,” according to the company’s dedicated website Gazprom’s deputy board chair Aleksandr Medvedev was cited by Kommersant as indicating that the Turkish market was too “unpredictable,” having generated a net loss of $113.6 million last year.

Arguably, the Russian President had been well aware of these developments during his telephone tête-à-tête with Tayyip Erdoğan, which could explain his reticence during the exchange. This is another indication that Russia seems intent on utilizing Turkey for its own benefit, but is not really all that much concerned about the latter’s country’s internal affairs and/or well-being. The Czar is charting his own course and will apparently do what needs to be done to keep the Gazprom Nation afloat, even if it means somewhat upsetting his southern neighbour.

The Qatari Conundrum

Still, there are other topics which appear to have the Prez and Czar toeing the same line. At present, the one topic that dominates the Turkish media is the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. Both players have urged calm and suggested talks to resolve the crisis, with Turkey actively supplying the small Gulf state (area: 11,586 sq.km, population: 2.4m) with necessary goods and foodstuffs, and Russia’s largest independent natural gas producer Novatek seeking to topple Qatar as the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

On a more positive note, though, Russia also appeared “ready to increase food deliveries to Qatar but the Agriculture Ministry has not received an official request yet, First Deputy Minister of Agriculture Dzhambulat Khatuov told, TASS reports.” And as a result, Putin is so far playing it by ear and keeping a neutral distance in the apparently Trump-induced intra-Arab dispute. Still, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani first flew to Ankara and then to Moscow.

On 10 June 2017, the Qatari minister met with the Russian FM Sergey Lavrov, whereas his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, accompanied by Nihat Zeybekci, Turkey’s Economy Minister, for their part, flew to Doha on 14 June, to meet with Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar. In the following days, Çavuşoğlu also visited Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Speaking to the Turkish press in Qatar, the Turkish FM underlined that the present crisis is taking place “[a]mong brother nations,” indicative of the deep changes which have taken place in the nation-state founded by Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk] in 1923.

At present, Turkey clearly sees itself as a Sunni Muslim nation, as a brother of its Sunni Arab neighbours with an important role to play as mediator and facilitator in the present dispute. And all these Sunni players come together in the Syrian war theatre, where the government led by Bashar al-Assad is being attacked by various Jihadi factions openly and/or covertly supported by Ankara, Riyadh, and Doha. Damascus, on the other hand, enjoys the open support of Moscow and Tehran.

As a result, Syria’s not-so civil war really is nothing but the main battleground of the Intra-Islamic Cold War, waged between adherents of Sunni and Shi’a Islam, as an ideological sub-set of the New Cold War, pitting the U.S. and NATO against Russia and China.

In fact, despite these clear ideological fault lines, some interaction between Doha and Tehran has nevertheless been in place (what the Iran specialist Ali Hashem calls the “thin vein that keeps relations alive despite regional tensions”) – in fact these ties might also have been instrumental in fomenting the present crisis in the first place.

Three days after the Turkish FM’s visit to Doha, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Jaberi Ansari visited Tamim bin Hamad to convey a message from his newly re-elected President, Hassan Rouhani (20 May 2017). An anonymous source at Iran’s Foreign Ministry told the press that “Rouhani had assured the Qatari emir that he could count on Iran for food stuff and using Iran’s airspace for Qatari planes”.

Rouhani had further stressed that controlling tensions and resolving issues through dialogue would be the best [path forward].” In fact, Emir Al Thani telephoned Rouhani on 25 June, saying that “Qatar has open arms for interaction and cooperation” . . . And a similar spirit now also seems to float between Ankara and Tehran; particularly following the Saudi publication of a 13-point list of demands that, if met, would bring an end to the crisis. These demands include the severing of ties with Iran and the shutting of the Turkish military base in the Gulf state.

In addition, the list also included breaking links with “terrorist, sectarian and ideological organisations,” such as the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda, as well the shutdown of Al Jazeera and its affiliate stations. The Prez took a firm stand, given his personal ties to the first and his tacit support of the latter, in addition to the fact that Turkey’s international propaganda broadcaster TRT World is basically an offshoot of Al Jazeera English.

Speaking to the Turkish press, Tayyip  Erdoğan was firm in his determination: “For one thing, demanding that Turkey withdraw its military is unfortunately a matter of disrespect . . . At the moment, Qatar as a state is facing a lot of sanctions and we have undertaken to support Qatar as best as we can on the point of these sanctions. And we will strive to do so in future [as well]. I am declaring openly, there is a process which is in contradiction to international law.”

In fact, AKP supporters have now even started declaring that, “[i]f Qatar falls, Turkey will fall too,” linking the unlikely allies in the popular imagination. In the same vein, Iran’s President has also publicly declared that “Tehran will stand by Qatar’s government.”

Abandoning the Kurds?!??

Moscow and Tehran are already cooperating in the Syrian theatre, shoring up Damascus against the onslaught of the Islamic State and other Jihadi terror factions, such as the now-multi-named Jabhat al-Nusra (also referred to as Al Qaeda in Syria) and Ankara’s favourites, the Ahrar al-Sham.

In the course of the conflict, though, as the Kurds (the PYD and its military arms, the YPG and the YPJ) have been gaining and gaining, AKP-led Ankara shifted its focus away from Damascus, instead targeting Kurdish factions, whom it regards as but an extension of Turkey’s very own Kurdish terror group, the PKK.

At the end of this month, therefore, Turkey has been massing its troops on the Syrian border, in the vicinity of the Turkish border town of Kilis, with a view to intervening in the adjacent Afrin canton of the Kurdish enclave of Rojava – an area where a Russian base had been established last March, supposedly with a view to “train YPG fighters in ‘anti-terror’ combat.”

But now, in June and under quite changed circumstances, the Russians are withdrawing their troops from the Kurdish-held Afrin, arguably in a gesture of goodwill towards Ankara. Last week, deputy prime minister, Veysi Kaynak declared that “[t]he city of Afrin should be cleaned from terrorists in order to achieve stability in the region.”

The Prez has been vocal in expressing Turkey’s determination to nip any Kurdish successes in the bud, threatening that Turkish soldiers could appear on the scene “any minute” or “unexpectedly” in the middle of the night. The sudden withdrawal of Russian troops appears significant indeed, as reported by the independent Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman, an anonymous Kurdish commander told the press last March that the “main purpose of our alliance with Russia is to keep Turkey off our backs.”

While Russia now seems unwilling to sell gas to Turkey, it has now apparently withdrawn its support from the Syrian Kurds. The Qatari conundrum has now led to a veritable regional merry-go-round that sees a lively interaction between Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran on the ground in Syria. All the while, the United States keep on sending mixed signals as well.

A few days ago, Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Işık held a closed-door meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis in the run-up to a NATO Defense Ministers Meeting in Brussels. And during the hush-hush meeting, Mattis told Işık that the current U.S. arming of the Kurds in Syria is but “an interim situation triggered by necessity rather than preference,” according to an anonymous source present at the meeting. The pro-government Daily Sabah, though, reports that “Mattis said that the U.S. will continue to provide weapons to the YPG after concluding the battle against Daesh in northern Syria’s Raqqa province.”

As the international realignment continues, there remains the distinct possibility that Kurdish aspirations in northern Syria (and beyond) could end up being crushed between two emerging geopolitical tectonic entities.

Do all these mixed-up messages and rapidly changing tactical moves indicate that the Kurds will end up being the losing party once again this time around, or will Washington joining the interactions concerning Ankara caught between Moscow, Riyadh and Tehran mean that, this time, the Kurds will indeed make some gains, gains that could seriously upset the status quo, and anger Ankara no end!? 

***

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar who was living in Istanbul for some time, 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. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In the period 2010-11, he wrote op-eds for Today’s Zaman and in the further course of 2011 he also published a number of pieces in Hürriyet Daily News. In 2013, he was the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. He is on Twitter at @theerimtanangle

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