Turkey is an interesting state with some very complicated yet, important tilts and policies. The internal politics of the state are no doubt intricate, particularly in a post-Referendum scenario. Moreover, the state has a very core strategic location and its neighborhood is one with considerable volatility—be it Middle Eastern states or otherwise. In this background, the externalities regarding Turkey also get affected. And since it is a rather influential state—most of its issues with other states get intertwined.
The same is the case with where Turkey stands among U.S. and Russia. The fact is that the relationship which it has with the two is more or less in flux. It seems that Turkey is in a fluctuating relationship with the other two powerful actors. The dynamics are thus; it is a clash of policies, contrasting interests and some very powerful personalities at each side. Furthermore, the post-coup Turkey has learnt a lot from the circumstances. One major thing it has learnt is who to trust and how much of trust it must impart.
In order to understand the complexity of their relationship one needs to analyze them individually. Because the triangle is there yet it is unsure as to what kind of relationship dynamics are to be found at each corner. Thus, it makes it a complicated one—because there is no mutual coordination between the states—while at one end there is a love-hate relationship, at the other there is a relationship which has bitterness without hostility. Thus it becomes imperative to study their relationship individually.
The two states shared a lot of exultant history with each other. They had been steady allies for a long time and their partnership was not just a political one—but carried strategic weight. The two shared NATO and were pretty close in that regard. Things were not that jostled up even when Turkey adopted a ‘zero problem policy’ with its neighbors. Of course no relationship in the international realm is perfect—the two hit certain ups and downs as well. Yet the two states grew the most close when the Arab Spring occurred and as an aftermath to that, the Syrian Crisis emerged.
US and Turkey shared one common goal—the ouster of the Assad Regime and this brought them close. Erdoğan had been an ardent and headstrong leader in defining his policies for the Regime and they resonated well with those of Obama. Moreover, both sides became pretty strong in rebelling against Russia which was strongly supporting the Regime. This became another point between the two states over which they could cooperate, i.e. to make sure that Russia can be weighed down in the region of Middle East.
Things could have been great had two things not occurred; the Turks hitting the Kurds whilst ignoring the ISIS and the idea that Turkey is secretly trading oil with ISIS. These two things became points which began planting the seeds of bitterness in the otherwise steady relationship. The US became highly untrusting of Turkey and the even reprimanded it for its two edged policies. But by then, Turkey also began to feel that the West is using Turkish policies for its own benefits and seldom giving any consideration about its insecurities. The Turks were and still are highly insecure regarding the Kurds—and US was openly engaged with the Kurds by supplying them weaponry as well as other logistical and tactical help in order that they fight ISIS. If anything, this became the bitter pill to swallow for Erdoğan.
To add fuel to fire—the July 15 2016 coup attempt in Turkey further aggravated the relationship status. If the two had a bad marriage before, now the circumstances were such that they became hostile bed partners. Instantly, the Turk side began blaming the US for two things; one that Gullen was behind this attempt and that US should not have given him a safe haven and must at any cost give him back to Turkey—implying that US supported Gullen with the coup. And second that it was in fact CIA which had instigated the entire coup charade.
Now the bitterness between them was open, Erdoğan became highly untrusting towards Obama and vice versa. But even then, Turkey had high hopes with Trump and supported him during the entire election campaign because they claimed that he would be beneficial for Turkey since his policies are unprecedented as well as fluctuating. And there were some positive signs after Trump became the president which showed that there is reason enough to believe that things could be tracked back to rapprochement between US and Turkey.
Yet even Trump failed to please the Turks much because in 2017—trump decided to aid the Kurds more. This was the final strike because now the Turks openly believe that the US means it no good and it will always back-track the Turk policies which will only harm its interests and perhaps even cause some lags in Turkey becoming a powerful state in the Middle Eastern region.
Turkey and Russia have a very fluctuating relationship because there are regions where the two have rivalry of influence, like the Caucuses and the Central Asia and Balkans. While the two states have certain areas of cooperation like economy, trade and energy in the other regions. Moreover in Middle East, before 2016—the two states had a considerable amount of rivalry because of a conflict of policies over the Assad Regime and Syria as well as varying interests between the two. Both states had the idea of making its own influence in Middle East. Thus the two states stood counter to each other, particularly in Middle East.
This bitterness was reached at its apex when in 2015—Turkey shot down a Russian plane and claimed that it was by ‘accident’. This became a long and lingering issue because Putin demanded the Turks to apologize while Erdoğan claimed that Turkey had nothing to apologize about. Things had gotten really bizarre between the two as Russia put some sanctions on Turkey following this episode. This was further propelled by the fact that Russia gave a strong backing to the Assad Regime while Turkey at all costs claimed that it will not stand the regime.
Reversely things would have gotten tenser had the coup attempt not been made. This is because of two reasons; one because it is claimed that the Russian intelligence agencies had forewarned the Turks that such an attempt would occur. And second because following the coup, when things got bitter between US and Turkey, Russia stood by Turkey and supported it. Putin saw that Turkey now stands vulnerable and it is the best time to maneuver this vulnerability. And this he did, so much so that in the wake of August 2016, Turkey and Russia went through a rapprochement and became steady partners. This partnership got strong enough to overshadow the US at one time that Turkey, Russia and Iran basically sat together and conducted the Syrian Peace Deal.
But of course, their rapprochement had certain issues—neither party was willing to budge over its policies regarding the Assad Regime. In fact the case became somewhat curios when the US opened fire at Syria in 2017 by launching Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airbase, Turkey supported the act while Russia was vehemently voicing its apprehension.
Now it seems that all three parties are standing at certain crossroads regarding each other. Obviously each party knows how vital Turkey is to them—for US, Turkey is a valuable ally and could prove to do wonders in the region of Middle East. While for Russia, Erdoğan’s Turkey is a state which can strengthen Russian presence in the region. While Turkey knows that each party has its own plans regarding the region and Turkey is more or less a better version of a party which is both a threat to the US and Russia as well as a state which can help them achieve their goals.
But there is no doubt that there are certain complications in the future course of action between the states. It mostly depends on which side Turkey takes-because Turkey is at one place which can make or break the momentum of power in Middle East. It must also be clarified that since it is also a game of personalities and their policies—Trump will be less than willing to bend the rules of his games, while Putin will only twist them in order to make power a part of it. Regardless of the impediments—Middle East is important for all three states and the Syrian crisis has stakes for them. On the contrary, the three states are powerful stakeholders for the regional dynamics of Middle East, and out of them, Turkey is one very important key for Russia and US. It only depends on how they utilize their policies for Turkey, because as it seems, it might be too late for US to make use of Turkey while for Russia, things might only begin.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.