Turkey’s Middle East Policy: What Goes Around Comes Around
Andrey ARESHEV | 07.01.2016 | WORLD / Middle East

Turkey’s Middle East Policy: What Goes Around Comes Around

Russia's economic sanctions imposed against Turkey following its downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber in Syria on November 24, 2015, by Turkish fighter, came into force on January 1. With no retaliatory steps to follow, the Turkish authorities are preparing materials to submit a complaint to the WTO. Speaking to Daily Sabah, Economy Minister Mustafa Elitaş sounded rather extravagant saying, «Trade needs to have a moral basis as well. These entrepreneurs have put their trust in the Russian government and invested in the country. We are trying to be patient but we are expecting an embargo against Turkey». Alexey Ulyukaev, the Minister of Economic Development of the Russian Federation, declared that all actions of Russia meet standards of the WTO. «I want to tell that such restrictions are in full accordance with rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Article 21 of the agreement of GATT of 1994 allows to enter different restrictive measures in the field of trade in goods and services, in the field of investments in case of threat of national security. We fully now endure such case», Ulyukaev said. Turkish economist Erhan Aslanoglu predicts that the cost of Russian sanctions for Turkey in lost business could amount to at least $10bn (£7bn).

Perhaps, for some people the sudden deterioration of bilateral relations in 2015 was an unexpected turn of events. Anyway, it should be admitted that the Russia-Turkey economic cooperation did not do away with political differences that have been negatively affecting the relationship ever since the Syrian conflict sparked. In the spring of 2015 pro-Turkish, pro-Saudi Arabia and pro-Qatar forces in Syria joined together in an effort to counter the Syria’s government.

In late summer-early autumn the Syrian government was in dire straits. With Palmira fallen and an offensive launched to encircle Damascus, shells started to explode in the heart of the Syria’s capital.

Kirkuk and Aleppo have always been claimed by Turkey, no matter what government was in power. The US-inspired «Arab Spring» appeared to provide an opportunity to accomplish the mission. Ankara planned to set a «no-fly» zone in the northern part of Syria ruled by a puppet «interim» government. The military operation launched by the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces became a game changer in Syria to impact the global international situation.

The Turkish borders as defined in its National Pact of 1920

With reliance on radical jihadist groups Turkey failed to take into consideration all the possible implications. The Turkey's «zero problems with neighbors» policy brought quite the opposite results of what was expected. The conflict with the Kurds inside Turkey got exacerbated. According to the reports coming from the south-eastern parts of the country, many urban areas are besieged. The security forces act like chasteners on the occupied territories. The four largest cities with predominantly Kurdish population – Diyarbakır, Cizre, Silopi and Nusaybin – have become prime targets. Over ten thousand servicemen with heavy armament take part in the punitive actions. The Kurds offer resistance to the government forces. The Kurdish leaders aren’t asking for much, yet the death toll is already measured in hundreds. The business life it Diyarbakır (where a curfew was installed almost six months ago) has nearly ceased to exist.

The Turkish leaders torpedoed the talks with the Kurds in the autumn of 2014 (at the time Kobani was under siege by the Islamic State, a terrorist group banned in Russia). They seem to be constantly looking for enemies inside the country.

Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP) represented in the Turkish parliament, visited Moscow in late December, 2015 to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Ivanov.  The event made President Erdogan throw a tantrum. He accused Demirtas of being a traitor. The Kurdish leaders, who support the idea of expanding self-rule for the south-eastern parts of the country, are prosecuted. Moscow is blamed for instigating «Kurdish separatism» without any evidence produced to support the accusation. Mustafa Jemilev, former Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, and the like are met at the highest level in Ankara. Exerting pressure on Russian Crimea has become one of the elements of Erdogan’s foreign policy recently. Turkish «Grey Wolves» militants are reported to move to the Crimean borders.

Turkey tamps down hostile anti-Israeli rhetoric, almost forgotten by now, as the talks on Leviathan gas field proceed. The visit of Erdogan to Turkmenistan (Dec.11-12) was fruitless, but upon his return from Riyadh (Dec. 29-30), it was announced that the Turkish president will go to the United States to take part in the Nuclear Security Summit (March 31-April 1, 2016). The agenda may be rich. Ankara has special interest in nuclear missiles technology. Turkey has announced its intention to make up for the lost exports to Russia. It plans to focus on trade with Africa (Kenia, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Nigeria) and the Middle East. It may mitigate some losses, but it’s hard to imagine it compensating the whole damage.

Moscow has indicated many a time that there is still a chance for normalization of the relations. Turkey has to publicly apologize, offer material compensation for the damage done and punish the perpetrators of the crime who carried out the illegal order to shoot down the Russian plane.  Will common sense prevail in Ankara? There is little hope, to speak frankly.

Public in Turkey expressed great support for the action of the Turkish Air Force which downed the Russian bomber jet Su-24 on November 24, according to the results of the survey conducted by MAK Danismanlik agency. According to the poll, 65 percent of Turkish citizens approve of the Russian plane downing.

Probably, in the near future Turkey together with Washington, Doha and Riyadh will do their best to obstruct the military operation of Russia’s Aerospace Forces against terrorist gangs in Syria. The obstruction activities may include military provocations, as well as diplomatic efforts to stymie the conflict management process. The attempts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad and subjugate Syrian Kurds will continue. Syrian Turks and other militants will receive military aid. Turkey will cooperate with the leadership of Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which facilitates oil sales to Turkey. In the long run, this policy aims at revamping the political map of Syria and Iraq in accordance with the goals promulgated by the expansionist doctrine of Neo-Ottomanism.

Probably, Turkey will continue to be a serious destabilizing factor in the Middle East and adjacent regions. Meanwhile, the situation on the battlefield has changed in favor of Damascus. Hopefully, terrorists will be cut off from the supply routes across the Turkey’s border. The Kurdish problem has greatly exacerbated inside Turkey.

Norman Stone, a Professor in the Department of International Relations at Bilkent University, Ankara, notes in his article published by the Guardian, that the consequences may be such that the framers of Turkish foreign policy will look back on the old days with nostalgia. He emphasizes that if there is one lesson for a ruler of Turkey it is this: do not provoke Russia.