Trump’s Turkish admirers have overlooked the Russian angle to the object of their affection. Russia’s interests are diametrically opposed to those of Turkey in a massive region stretching from the Balkans across the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean to the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, and Central Asia. This has been the case for more than three hundred years.
Did you know that Sweden is rearming? Yes, Sweden. The process has only been recently initiated, but Sweden has reinstated its military draft and is beginning to prepare for a possible conflict that can come from only one direction (1). So how do you think Turkey regards what has happened in the past four years as Russia invaded or annexed portions of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014), and then, thanks to the Obama-Kerry-Rhodes foreign policy troika that brought the Syrian conflict to its present state, also became the dominant geopolitical actor to Turkey’s immediate south. From the Baltic to the Eastern Mediterranean, Russian President Vladimir Putin is muscling his neighbors in a manner that had not been possible since the Cold War.
But despite Moscow’s regional resurgence, foreign policy in Turkey’s region may be the silver lining to Trump’s darkening cumulo-nimbus cloud. Even after the first weekend of Trump’s presidency his administration had devolved into a carnival. And in terms of foreign policy, after a month it is still unclear what direction Trump will take the U.S. during the next four years, or whether the actual formulation and implementation of foreign policy will be left to Stephen K. Bannon. Trump may try to intervene from time-to-time to make sure everyone remembers who is boss, as he did when he vetoed Rex Tillerson’s choice for Deputy Secretary of State (2), but even so, the likelihood of Trump taking a generally strong interest in foreign policy seems remote.
So far the State Department has been largely sidelined. New Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has done little other than shake hands with various foreign ambassadors, miss some important meetings, and then quietly slip off to Bonn, Germany for a G20 session before heading to Mexico (3). He met Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in Bonn, but the information provided to the press did not include many details (4). At the very least, the image projected was positive.
The inability of the Trump Administration to send strong foreign policy signals will, for now, leave greater room for Turkey to act in its region. Or, actually, it may require Turkey to act more self-sufficiently. In other words, we may be looking at a period during which Turkish foreign policy will have unprecedented freedom and gravity in its immediate region. For the first time since the dissolution of Ottoman power, Turkey looks as if it will bear a heavy leadership burden in the Eastern Mediterranean, possibly even providing a counter-balance to Russia (to the extent that that is possible). This will be an opportunity for Turkey to continue developing an independent foreign policy, responsible decision-making, and ties to the region’s rational political actors.
Of course, this does not ignore the other actors present and their interests. But if the U.S.’s ability to assert a stabilizing force in Turkey’s region continues to wane, the primary democratic actor is Turkey. The only other factor inhibiting the forward progress of Baathist or theocratic oppression in this region is the will of citizens in several countries to achieve democratic reforms. The recent situation in Manbij, which saw Russia, the Assad regime, the PKK/PYD, and the U.S. collaborate in turning over Manbij’s defence to Assad’s forces in preference to the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, illustrates how little has changed under the Trump Administration when it comes to the conflict in Syria (5).
And Trump’s fondness for Moscow causes one’s imagination to look into some extremely disturbing possibilities. Putin, aided by the Obama Administration’s disastrous policies, has turned himself into the dominant actor in the Syrian conflict. Even in the months since the November election Putin seems to have increased his aggressiveness in Eastern Ukraine (6). To be added to all this is Russia’s renewed activity in the Balkans -- in Serbia, in Kosovo, in Macedonia, in Bosnia Herzegovina (7). Unless Vladimir Putin miraculously blossoms into a democrat in the near future, who will provide resistance to Moscow’s ancient goal of domination over Southeast Europe? An increasingly fractious NATO? An E.U. on the verge of disintegration?
In relation to Russia, Trump’s Turkish admirers have overlooked the Russian angle to the object of their affection. Russia’s interests are diametrically opposed to those of Turkey in a massive region stretching from the Balkans across the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean to the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, and Central Asia. This has been the case for more than three hundred years. Support for Trump, at this point, means support for Russian interests against those of Turkey.
And counter to the claims of Turkish Trump fans, U.S. intelligence services are not leaking information about Trump because they are “Hillary Clinton liberals.” They are leaking information because Trump has declared himself more prescient than the intelligence services and is an open admirer of Putin. This goes against fundamental U.S. policies of the past seventy years. You see, the U.S. intelligence services, as are the intelligence services of any modern state, are essentially patriotic and conservative. That is a prime reason why citizens are attracted to the intelligence services in the first place. The upshot is that the U.S. intelligence services see Trump and his militant fringe followers as a threat to U.S. interests. This has little or nothing to do with Hillary Clinton or the Democratic Party.
Other voices in the Trump Administration, such as U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, also seem to favor resisting Russian ambitions more staunchly (8). Will we a see a reversal of Trump’s affection for Mr. Putin? Or will the Trump Administration’s Russian ties eventually bring about its loss of political credibility, and then collapse? (9)
One way or the other, the geopolitical concern that has been paramount in my mind for at least the last three years is the nature of Russia’s political system and the intentions of its political leadership. My trust in information published by the U.S. press has been seriously undermined by events of the past few years, especially the NYT’s (and others’) malevolent insistence on presenting a distorted and irrationally negative portrait of Turkish politics and society to the world. I now find it much more difficult to trust what, for example, the NYT publishes about Russian politics.
On the other hand, neither Russia Today nor Sputnik are more dependable sources of news; both are transparently state-sponsored propaganda. Russian opposition journalists end up dead (10), Russian opposition figures end up dead or in jail, oligarchs who decide to fund opposition parties or newspapers end up in jail or in exile, and anyone crossing Putin’s puppet in Chechnya, no matter where they are, gets gunned down in broad daylight (11). So how do I try to comprehend Russia and its direction? From a deeply unsettling film like Leviathan? Without spending extensive time in Russia, learning Russian, and then mastering the intricacies of Russian society and politics, it is extremely difficult to say anything definitive.
It is, of course, also the case that Russia and Turkey do also share a number of interests, primarily economic, that make aggressive moves by either side difficult to imagine. Turkey is now a transportation corridor for Russia’s petroleum and gas products; Turkey still possesses the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles; and Russian tourists have begun to flock back, obviously unhappy to have been absent from Antalya’s sunny shores for the past eighteen months. Turkish agricultural products fill the displays in Russian markets and Turkish construction companies have a major presence in Russia. For now, mutual economic interests mandate an uneasy political cooperation between Moscow and Ankara while the new U.S. administration has decided to continue arming and training the PKK’s Syrian arm. “Politics is the art of the possible,” said Bismarck. So we are going to have to learn just what is possible for Turkish foreign policy in the coming years.
(2) http://www.politico.com/story/2017/02/elliott-abrams-no-deputy-secretary-of-state-234908. The Politico article extensively quotes prominent neo-conservative (and former ambassador to Turkey) Eric Edelman. Edelman was clearly hoping that Elliot Abrams would be confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State, so probably we should be happy that Abrams was rejected, even if it was because of Trump’s wounded vanity. The search for a Deputy Secretary of State still continues.
(4) https://twitter.com/MevlutCavusoglu/status/832248292637540352; http://aa.com.tr/en/todays-headlines/turkey-voices-optimism-about-us-relations-under-trump/752194?amp=1; https://www.dailysabah.com/diplomacy/2017/02/16/fm-cavusoglu-us-secretary-of-state-tillerson-discuss-feto-pyd-and-cyprus ;
(5) https://www.dailysabah.com/war-on-terror/2017/03/06/ankara-content-with-syrian-regime-presence-in-manbij-if-pyd-withdraws; http://aa.com.tr/en/europe/pkk-pyd-to-leave-manbij-to-syrian-regime-russia-says/763379. Indications are emerging that the PYD/PKK maintains a strong presence in Manbij.
(9) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/02/us/politics/jeff-sessions-russia-trump-investigation-democrats.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=a-lede-package-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news; http://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/the-gravity-is-strong; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/05/us/politics/trump-seeks-inquiry-into-allegations-that-obama-tapped-his-phones.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news
(10) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Politkovskaya; https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/remembering-a-journalist-who-was-killed-for-standing-up-to-putin/2016/10/06/d3a9e176-8bf7-11e6-bff0-d53f592f176e_story.html?utm_term=.4002fa7e66ab; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_journalists_killed_in_Russia
(11) http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/02/21/total-catastrophe-of-the-body-kara-murza-poisoning/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=NYR%20Drugged%20Nazis%20Du%20Bois%20poisoning&utm_content=NYR%20Drugged%20Nazis%20Du%20Bois%20poisoning+CID_161c61d7613b497381ea025d5986ea0a&utm_source=Newsletter&utm_term=Total%20Catastrophe%20of%20the%20Body%20A%20Russian%20Story; https://jamestown.org/program/assassination-campaign-of-chechen-opposition-figures-in-turkey-reaches-new-level-2/
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