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Turkey’s Eurasianist Moment: The Importance of Idlib and Russia

Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

Turkey and Russia have enjoyed a good relationship over the past years. The Islamist President of the Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (aka the Prez), and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (aka the Czar) have enjoyed very cordial connections in that time – having spoken approximately 40 times over the phone and about 24 times face-to-face since 2016‘s Coup-that-was-no-Coup, according to data provided by BBC Türkçe.

Gone are the days that the Republic of Turkey’s internal and external affairs were encapsulated in Atatürk’s famous phrase ‘Peace at Home, Peace Abroad’ (20 April 1931). That was then and this is now, and now is the New Turkey, a nation of believers led by an overly ambitious Tayyip Erdoğan:

“Turkey has been at the forefront of the armed effort to unseat Bashar al-Assad from the very beginning. Even though in previous years Erdoğan and Assad had been the best of buddies, ever since the supposedly peaceful protests against Damascus came into their own, morphing into Syria’s not-so civil war, he has been adamant about the fact that the Allawite-led regime in Damascus should fall and be replaced by a Sunni-friendly administration arguably headed by the Muslim Brotherhood and/or its proxies,” as I opined in late 2015.

But then President Putin threw a spanner in the works: “Russian warplanes launched their first airstrikes . . . against opposition targets in Syria [on 30 September 2015],” as reported in the mainstream press at the time. And  subsequently, the Syrian government formally invited the Russians on 2 October 2015 to send in troops to aid in the fight against various Jihadi factions, including ISIS or the Islamic State, battling to topple the Damascus government. And in the context of Russian planes flying in the local sky, a serious diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Moscow occurred – namely when a Turkish Air Force F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 that had accidentally intruded into Turkish airspace on 24 November 2015. Following this outright emergency, “Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdoğan engaged in a tit-for-tat battle of words about Turkey and its policy aims and goals,” as I wrote at the time. Putin was not shy attacking his Turkish counterpart: “[t]he problem is not the tragedy we witnessed yesterday . . . The problem is much deeper. We observe . . . that the current Turkish leadership over a significant number of years has been pursuing a deliberate policy of supporting the ‘Islamization’ of their country.” This accusation might seem strange in view of the fact that Putin himself is well-known as a champion of the Orthodox Church in Russia. The Czar uttered his words of criticism as part of a “much larger accusatory discourse linking Turkey-under-the-AKP to the Islamic State (or IS/ISIS/ISIL) and its illegitimate oil deals and weapon shipments.” The Prez jocularly responded in kind, saying that “ISIS sells the oil it extracts to Assad. [And t]hat is also where it gets its money from,” linking Putin’s Russia to the Islamic State (or IS/ISIS/ISIL).

Freezing and Thawing and Freezing Again: Russo-Turkish Relations

In spite of this duel of words, the two leaders were eventually able to see eye to eye. Before that rapprochement could happen though, Putin exerted some pressure on Erdoğan, with Russia hitting Turkey with a raft of sanctions – a “[b]an on import of Turkish fruit and vegetables, poultry and salt. [A b]an on sale of Russian package holidays to Turkey. [The s]uspension of construction projects involving Turkish firms in Russia. [As well as r]estrictions on Turkish citizens working for companies registered in Russia [and the s]uspension of new Black Sea pipeline that was to boost Russian gas exports to Turkey,” as dutifully listed by the BBC. In this way, the Czar hit the Prez where it hurt, in his country’s pocketbook. As a result, the latter was duly able to see the error of his ways, which enabled him to come to his senses and tender an apology: “I want to once again express my sympathy and deep condolences to the family of the Russian pilot who died and I say: ‘I’m sorry,’” reports Reuters citing a Kremlin statement (27 June 2016). For in the aftermath of the downing of the Russian jet – crashing in the mountainous Jabal Turkman area of the Syrian province of Latakia – its pilot Lt Col Oleg Peshkov, who had jumped to safety, was killed in the air by an armed group of “Turkmen rebels.”

These so-called “rebels” formed part of the Jihadi terrorist factions fighting the Assad government. The actual Turkmen shooting down the Russian turned out to be a Turkish citizen, a young man called Alparslan Çelik, hailing from the district of Keban in the province of Elazığ, and even more surprising is the fact that this sharpshooting not-quite Syrian Turkmen even turned out to be the son of a one-time mayor belonging to the ultra-nationalist (or fascist, if you will) MHP (or Party of the Nationalist Movement), as indicated by the journalist Tunca Öğreten. This political coloration probably explains why Çelik acted as a commander of the Turkmen brigade roaming the countryside. At the moment, the MHP openly supports the AKP-led government, and as a political grouping the party espouses an openly racist (or Turkist, if you will) agenda. As a Turkist organisation, the MHP always supports and aids each and every social grouping or individual claiming a Turkish (or broadly Turkist) identity. The area where the plane was hit just happened to be a region where members of Syria’s ethnic Turkmen community are living. The Turkish authorities even claimed that the Russian jet that was downed had been taking part in aerial attacks on Turkmen villages in the area, known as Bayirbucak (or Bayırbucak, in Turkish). The Turkish journalist Öğreten even asserts that the Turkmen brigades active in the area were at the time fighting and training with the Jihadi terror group Jabhat al-Nusra (currently known as a ‘HTS’ or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham). The veteran rightist journalist and commentator Taha Akyol explains that the “Syrian Turkmens settled in Syria with the Seljuks [1072-1194], the Turkmens at the Bayır and Bucak regions [, on the other hand,] were relocated there from Anatolia by the Ottomans [1299-1922], with the security of the hajj [pilgrimage] route and population strategy in . . . mind,” and even adding that “[f]or this reason, they have many relatives in Turkey,” which could arguably explain Alparslan Çelik’s presence on the ground.

Following Erdoğan’s public apology, things moved pretty quickly. Turkey’s tomato producers were happy again, being able to sell their wares to Russia. AKP-led Ankara was again put into position where dreams of transforming Turkey into a veritable energy hub were alive again, with plans for a TurkStream pipeline actually coming to fruition some time ago. Russian tourists were flocking to Antalya again. And on a political and diplomatic plane, Tayyip Erdoğan’s New Turkey joined the big boys at the negotiation table – as a part of both the Astana Process (which started on 23-4 January 2017) and the Sochi agreement (22 October 2019), negotiated settlements that were meant to bring Syria’s not-so civil war to a conclusion. As a result, Turkey became a part of the New Cold War realignments, taking its place next Russia, China, and Iran – a development that led the pro-AKP political scientist Burhanettin Duran, who happens to be heading the Turkish think tank SETA as its general manager, to state that “Turkey’s Western allies . . . effectively compelled the Turks to work more closely with Moscow and Tehran” (6 October 2017). At that stage, Dr Duran said that Turkey seemed to be “shifting toward the Eurasian axis,” but insightfully added that it is “not possible to ignore the differences of opinion between Russia and Iran.” And the present sudden cooling of the Russo-Turkish love affair all but underlines Duran’s reservations. The latest developments in Syria’s not-so civil war next door suddenly soured relations – so much so that the Turkish writer Burak Tuygan recently even proposed that “this [Turco-Russian] honeymoon could not last long,” particularly now with the “emergence of the developments in Idlib” (12 February 2020). And the Russian Ministry of Defense made no bones about this, releasing a statement saying that “reason for the crisis in the Idlib de-escalation zone unfortunately is the non-fulfilment by our Turkish colleagues of their undertakings to separate moderate opposition militants from terrorists,” a key component of the Sochi agreement. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, for his part, added that “according to [the Sochi agreement], the Turkish side undertook to ensure that terrorist groups in Idlib were neutralised. We continue to note with regret that these groups are carrying out strikes from Idlib on Syrian forces and also taking aggressive action against our military facilities,” adding ominously that “[t]his is unacceptable.”

Sochi and Idlib: One Man’s Terrorist is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter

As such, one can but wonder about Russia and its intentions, as Turkey had been given an impossible task – to separate “moderate opposition militants from terrorists” – given that the mere concept of ‘moderate opposition’ seems alien to the reality on the ground, and particularly in Idlib.

Even the then-U.S. Special US envoy Brett McGurk stated on the record that “Idlib provice is the largest al-Qaeda safe-haven since 9/11, tied directly to Ayman al Zawahiri, this is a huge problem” (27 July 2017). And that seems to be the reason behind the Prez’s current intransigent stance on Idlib, for I have argued elsewhere that he all but sees the “Syrian Theatre as a Laboratory for [his] Islamist Agenda.”

The already mentioned grouping HTS or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham effectively controls the whole province as the ‘key power player,’ imposing its network of Sharia courts on Idlib’s population. Next to HTS, a whole host of other small Jihad terror factions is active in the province – such as the Jabhat al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir (or National Liberation Front/NLF), which the BBC calls a “Turkish-backed rebel alliance,” which arguably denotes its nominal connection with the so-called FSA (or al-Jaysh as-Sūrī al-Ḥurr or Free Syrian Army) now somewhat disingenuously renamed as the SNA (or al-Jaysh al-Watani as-Sūrī or Syrian National Army); Hurras al-Din (or Guardians of Religion); and significantly, the TIP (or Hizb al-Islami al-Turkistani or Turkistan Islamic Party). In connection with the latter grouping, the HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani (Ahmed Hussein al-Shar’a) had this to say in a recent interview with the International Crisis Group (ICG): “As for the Turkistan Islamic Party, things are a little different. These guys have been in Syria for seven years and have never constituted a threat to the outside world. They are committed solely to defending Idlib against regime aggression. As Uighurs, they face persecution in China – which we strongly condemn – and they have nowhere else to go. Of course, I sympathise with them. But their struggle in China is not ours, so we tell them that they are welcome here as long as they abide by our rules – which they do.” In other words, I would argue that Turkey, or at the very least, the now firmly AKP-aligned MHP or its popular formations known as the Grey Wolves (or Bozkurt or Ülkücü, in Turkish) have been instrumental in transporting these Islamist Uighurs to the Syrian theatre where they enthusiastically joined the Jihad against Assad as a kind of displaced fight against the Chinese authorities back home in Xinjiang. This is explained by the San Francisco-based author Chris Kanthan: “[f]rom 2009 to 2015, there were a lot of terrorist attacks by the [Uighur] jihadists (here’s an example). That’s when China decided to really crack down. During the peak of the Syrian war, about 18,000 radicalized [Uighur] Muslims went to Syria and joined ISIS to fight Assad,” with the aid of the New Turkey’s now government-allied Grey Wolves, no doubt.

Publicly though, the Prez shies away from endorsing any kind of Islamist or Jihadi agenda in Syria, instead uttering words expressive of quite different goals and intentions: “[o]ur military observation posts play a vital role [in Idlib] and they shall remain in place . . . we have informed [the Russians] that we will not permit [the realisation of] a civil massacre and a [new] migratory wave [of refugees].” Tayyip Erdoğan made these announcements on 3 February 2020, while visiting the Ukraine. In fact, the Turkish President is really playing with fire, as on the previous day, the Turkish government pledged aid consisting of TL 200 million ($33.4 million) to be spent on the needs of the Ukrainian army, as confirmed by the Ukrainian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Sibiga. Given the tense situation in the east of the country where pro-Russian forces are facing the onslaught of the Ukrainian army as well as far-right armed groups such as the Azov Battalion – a conflict which the West likes to portray as an example of “Russian aggression” – this sample of Turkish generosity cannot be seen as anything but the Prez standing up to and challenging the Czar. Whereas, with regard to Syria, the messages broadcast by Erdoğan convey broadly humanitarian concerns (with possible massacres and refugee crises), even implying that the purpose of the observation posts which Turkey has installed on Syrian territories only function as guaranteeing AKP-led Ankara’s philanthropic considerations for Idlib’s population. In reality though, these much-vaunted incursions of Syrian sovereignty do not even appear to have been part of Turkish government policy or even an initiative of Turkey’s Armed Forces (TSK). Instead, erecting observation posts all across Idlib was an idea that Tayyip Erdoğan received from his close adviser Adnan Tanrıverdi and the organisation he founded and supervises, SADAT A.Ş. This organsation presents itself as the “first and the only company in Turkey, that internationally provides consultancy and military training services at the international defense and interior security sector.” In other words, rather than fulfilling either a strategic or tactical function within Turkey’s military designs in Syria, the posts appear to have sprung-up in response to an operation designed and facilitated by a private entity and paid for by the Turkish state. In this way, the traditional love for privatisation displayed by the AKP has now also become part of Turkey’s military operations, which means that Erdoğan has now also privatised the business of war. In a way, this revamping of Turkish military affairs seems to echo Donald Rumsfeld’s plans originally voiced on 10 September 2001. And this means that a move interpreted by many as proving the New Turkey’s expansionist leanings is in reality part of a wider money-making scheme concocted by one of the Prez’s henchmen –  Adnan Tanrıverdi, the man who late last year caused quite a stir in the country as he had publicly stated that “[w]e must prepare the ground for the coming of the Mahdi.”  To be clear, I would like to remind everybody that both “Sunni Muslims and Shia are awaiting a person who is referred to as Al-Mahdi (Shia call him Imam Mahdi because they are expecting him to be their 12th Imam) . . . There is no Hadith that tells us explicitly the actual name of the Mahdi,” as can be read on the website Discovering Islam.

Russia and Turkey: Neighbours, Rivals, and Enemies or Friends

Though neighbours sharing the Black Sea, Turkey has had a troubled relationship with Russia for a long time – indeed, a very long time, if we want to put our trust in Professor Dr Halil İnalcık (1916-2026), Turkey’s godfather of Ottoman history and historiography, who penned a scholarly article back in 1947, pointing to the year 1569 as marking the beginning of the “Ottoman–Russian Rivalry.” A rivalry that was to lead to open warfare a little more than a century later (1677-78). And today’s AKP-ruled pseudo-Ottoman Turkey has been torn inside a veritable love-hate relationship with its northern neighbour. Whereas Turkey is oftentimes seen as a bridge straddling Europe and Asia, Russia as a political and cultural construct is understood as occupying a “dual or median position between Europe and Asia,” as expressed by the well-respected Russia specialist Dr Marlene Laruelle. These obtuse words (or this exercise in downright academic verbiage) seem to denote that Russian Westernisation moved along more quickly than had been the case for Turkey (or its Ottoman imperial predecessor). In fact, Czar Peter the Great (1682-1725) appears to have single-handedly initiated if not achieved this feat of material and cultural transformation, by “forcing Russia into the western world,” as worded by the eminent historian B. H. Sumner (1893-1951) in 1950. In this way, Czar Peter once and for all removed Mother Russia from the Orient where she had previously assumed the position of the defunct ‘Byzantine Empire’ (330-1453) as the local Christian Orthodox powerhouse. In her new book, Reclaiming Byzantium, the historian Dr Pınar Üre argues that “Imperial Russia opened one of the world’s leading centres for Byzantine archaeology in Istanbul [in 1894], the Russian Archaeological Institute – its purpose was to stake the claim that Russia was the correct heir to ‘Czargrad’ (as Istanbul was referred to in Russian circles).” Dr Üre’s work adds a religious dimension to the tension present between Moscow and Istanbul (nowadays, Ankara of course), a dimension that very likely has not escaped President Putin’s attention either, as I would argue that he ‘has been pushing an Orthodox agenda at home ever since he came to power at the end of the year 1999.’ Still, away from such religious or ideological spheres, in terms of modernisation as Westernisation, the Ottomans (or Turkey, if you will) have been lagging behind, as they were only able to enter the European Concert of Nations about a century later than their northern neighbours – like Peter the Great, Sultan Mahmud II (1808-39) forced his subjects to dress in European fashion and “completely changed the structure of the Ottoman Empire. Westernization in the real sense began during his reign,” as declared by the popular Turkish historian Erhan Afyoncu. Sultan Mahmud’s son and successor Abdülmecid (1839-61) proclaimed the Gülhane Imperial Edict which led directly to the Tanzimat reforms (1839-76) that thoroughly modernized the Ottoman state and its institutions.

These two neighbours located at Europe’s eastern flank thus both went though a process of drastic modernisation as Westernisation only to find themselves at loggerheads with each other more often than not: “Russo-Ottoman wars took place between the late 17th and the late 19th centuries . . . Russia [has been] at war with the Ottoman Empire . . . more frequently . . .  than with any other power,” explains the historian Victor Taki. In his 2016 book Tsar and Sultan, Dr Taki even reasons that primarily textual “representations of the brutal realities of the Russo-Turkish conflicts contributed to the Orientalization of the Ottoman Empire [in Russian eyes] and helped to construct Russian identity as the counter-image of the demonized Turk.” These words show to what extent the two neighbours have really been inter-dependent, though mostly in a hostile fashion, for long swathes of time. In the aftermath of the Great War though, the Soviet Union (as the successor to the Russian Empire) was at first on friendly terms with its southern neighbour, even providing logistical and other support to the Turkish resistance movement led by Mustafa Kemal (to be known as Atatürk, 1881-1938). Following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey (1923), a Turco-Soviet Friendship Treaty was signed in 1925, which was renewed in 1929, 1931, and 1935, with the Soviet Union even providing technical assistance and interest-free loans. The outbreak of the Second World War (1939-45) caused Turkey to engage in a wide of variety of diplomatic manoeuvres which enabled the country to remain neutral till the very end. As the end of World War II gave way to the Cold War between east and west, with the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan (August 1945) as the informal opening shot of the latter conflict, as deftly argued by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick in their magisterial Untold History of the United States. As a result, the Turkish Republic which had just joined the allied side, was drafted into service as a buffer-head against the Communist East. In the aftermath of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey profited greatly from commercial ties and exchanges with the new states to its north and north-east. Still, political relations were tense, particularly as Russia violently subdued Chechen separatists intent on breaking away from Moscow and the Russian Federation (1994-97, 1999-2009). As Muslims and, as numerous Chechen refugees that had fled for the Ottoman lands whose descendants are now Turks (or Turkish citizens, if you will), the Republic also felt morally obliged to support the Chechen position against Russia. But eventually, as outlined above, Erdoğan-led Turkey came to an agreement with Putin-led Russia.

Currently in Idlib

But now, Tayyip Erdoğan’s open support for Jihadi terrorist activity in Idlib has put a strain on Turkey’s relationship with Russia, which had been somewhat shaky to begin with in view of the Turkish President’s now tedious history of vilifying his Syrian counterpart and Russia’s open espousal of the Damascus government. The Syrian Arab Army (or SAA) has been acting against the Turkish observation points in Idlib, which basically constitute a legitimate casus belli as they compose a foreign occupation of home soil, as far as the Assad government is concerned: “[t]he SAA has been encircling Turkish observation posts since August 2019 as it recaptured opposition-held territories.” Syria’s Russian ally has been equally vocal and forthright about Turkey, its incursion and non-compliance with earlier-made agreements.

Burak Tuygan’s earlier-mentioned claim that the Turco-Russian honeymoon is over, did however not take account of the Prez’s incredible dancing skills which allow him to pirouette back and forth between east and west, between Moscow and Washington, between Putin and Trump. And this uncanny ability led to a top-level meeting between Turkish and Russian delegations in Moscow on 17-18 February. Alas, these  meetings seem to have produced no real outcome, as subsequently voiced by the AKP spokesman İbrahim Kalın: “[t]here was no satisfactory outcome for Turkey from the meetings with Russia over Syria’s Idlib. We rejected the paper and map offered to us.” In the next instance, Erdoğan proposed a multilateral meeting on 5 March. The news agency Reuters reports that the “German and French leaders expressed concern about the humanitarian situation in Idlib and urged an end to the conflict, while the Kremlin said it is discussing the possibility of holding a four-way summit” on 4 March 2020. At the same time, Turkey’s President has been in touch with his American counterpart, asking for air support and “for two batteries of Patriot missile systems to shield its border area from air attacks.” In other words, the Prez keeps performing his breath-taking pirouettes, but one cannot but wonder how long he will be able to stay in the air like that.

Assessing these recent Turco-Russian travails, the Hürriyet Daily News columnist Barçın Yinanç recently proposed, in a matter-of-fact manner or in an utterly cynical fashion, that “Russian President Vladimir Putin will definitely find a way that Turkey will present as a compromise to its own public.” Yinanç thus thinks that the Czar will come up with a way for the Prez to save face so that Turkey will be able to have its cake and eat it too.

Will Tayyip Erdoğan’s support for the Jihad against Assad spell his end on the international scene possibly leading to a domestic debacle as well, or will he yet again be able to stay on top and continue ruling his land with an iron fist and an open palm, freely handing out gifts to his supporters and believers?!?

Will Erdoğan succumb to the ‘Assad must go’ curse or will he instead continue riding into the sunset?!?? As per usual, only time will tell.

21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans. the greater Middle East, and the world beyond.. 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 revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in the English language Turkish press, culminating in him becoming the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @TheErimtanAngle. Read Can’s archive here.

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