“We should not forget that commercial and all other sorts of missions and associations, now flooding Russia to trade with her and to aid her, are at the same time the best spies of the world bourgeoisie, and that now it, the world bourgeoisie, knows Soviet Russia with its weak and strong sides better than ever before – circumstances fraught with extremely serious dangers in the event of new interventionist actions,” Stalin wrote. He singled out Poland, Romania, and Finland, but even Turkey and Afghanistan, as well as Japan, as formidable challenges. (1)
Over the past week, all the fretting coming from Western capitals, media, and think-tanks about the newly-born “Turkish-Russian alliance” has made for entertaining reading. According to an extremely superficial reading of this momentary juncture, Turkey’s complete departure from the Western sphere is imminent. From now on, Turkey is apparently in Moscow’s orbit.
The development that set off this breathless speculation was the horrific assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, on 19th December in Ankara. Naturally the event should cause great concern and thorough condemnation from everyone. But the hysterical comparisons with Gavrilo Princip’s 1914 murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand were based on nothing more than a few pundits getting a bit too caught up in the WWI centennial commemorations. For anyone who had been following the situation in Syria with reasoned circumspection, several results should have been immediately clear.
The first was that there would be no conflict or escalation of tensions between Turkey and Russia as long as Turkish politicians understood what the event meant. And that they had understood was evident within two hours. The failed coup on 15th July, the Gülenist reality behind that coup (as well as much of the political turmoil that has rippled through Turkish society over the past several years), and the revelation that the downing of a Russian jet in November 2015 was most likely yet another act of Gülenist provocation — all these factors had already served to settle relations between the Turkish and Russian governments. Over the past two months, and more specifically in the past week of civilian evacuations from East Aleppo, Turkey’s and Russia’s actions in Syria indicated that mutual spheres of influence had been drawn, that negotiations between the two sides could be carried out, that agreements could be reached and responsibilities fulfilled accordingly. Some sort of trust, or at least an ability to see eye-to-eye, had been established. As soon as information about Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, Karlov’s assassin, began to indicate that he, too, was likely to be connected to Gülen’s organization, the nature of the hideous murder was clear and the narrative trajectory was set. In the actual course of events, Turkish-Russian ties were likely to be strengthened.
The rest was up to statements by politicians sobered by the turn of events. Both sides displayed the same level of gravity, and mutual themes were established. The assassination was roundly denounced as aimed at weakening relations between the two sides, and would not accomplish that purpose.
Secondly, however, there is a more unsettling reality hanging over the near future of Turkish-Russian relations. Because of the political juncture, Turkey is currently left alone to face Russian might. The Obama administration’s wrongheaded choices in regard to the conflict in Syria have resulted in the steady erosion of U.S. influence in the region. Because the U.S. administration was not able to accept or understand Turkey’s stance towards the Damascus régime and towards the PYD, a Marxist-nationalist Kurdish revolutionary group in the same umbrella organization as the PKK, Washington DC ended up supporting a group in the struggle against so-called IS (DAESH) that could never have received approval from Ankara. In the end, the CIA was forced to quietly apologize to the Turkish government for having erroneously accused them of supporting DAESH (2), but the damage had been and has been done. Instead, Turkey is now doing on its own in Northern Syria what the U.S. should have done four years ago.
Earlier, too, as President Obama took another baffling, even bizarre, decision to pursue a nuclear agreement with Iran, he had again abandoned the U.S.’s previous and well-established partners, most importantly Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Recent articles about President Obama’s main foreign policy advisor, Ben Rhodes, have made it abundantly clear that both Rhodes and Obama wanted to avoid, at all costs, repeating the mistakes made by the George W. Bush administration in Iraq (3). But that obsession affected their ability to analyze the problems confronting them, and they ended up making the same mistake the Reagan administration made in the 1980s in Afghanistan. As is well known, Reagan’s decision to support Muslim anti-Soviet militants with arms and training led eventually to the emergence of Al-Qaeda. President Obama’s need for a militant organization able to fight DAESH without putting large numbers of U.S. soldiers into Syria resulted in the decision to support the PYD, even though the PYD is a Kurdish leftist version of the Afghan militants that Reagan supported in the 1980s.
The same error has led further weakness in the face of Iran’s self-aggrandizing ambitions. The greatest regional beneficiary of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which the George W. Bush Administration lied its way into, eventually turned out to be Tehran. The removal of the Saddam Hussein régime enabled the Iranians to increase their influence over the Iraqi regions populated mostly by Shiites; eventually this would make them the owner-protectors of the Iraqi central government. Then the opposite kind of mistake, i.e. Barack Obama’s decision to disengage from Iraq, and also to avoid taking any actions that might involve the U.S. more heavily in the Syrian conflict, created regional power vacuums that the Iranian regime was well-poised to fill.
In Syria, subsequently, Iranian officers and the Iranian-backed Lebanese extremist group Hezbollah have become (apart from Russia) the most important forces propping up the Assad régime. In Yemen, competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran is also playing out violently, with Yemen’s central government having disintegrated two years ago. Bahrain, where a Shiite majority is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, also seems to be in Tehran’s sights. Rural areas in Jordan are witnessing armed clashes. Egypt’s military rulers, who came to power through a coup d’état against democratically-elected politicians in 2013, look increasingly incompetent and desperate as the economy tanks, violent incidents become more common, and Egyptian military aid is sent to the Damascus régime. Iraq seems increasingly likely to split into a Shiite-dominated, Tehran-supported central state and a Kurdish-ruled northern state. And in the border regions between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, the PKK and its various branches have apparently established a working relationship with Tehran for tactical purposes. Most of these developments have occurred in the past four years.
(to be continued)
(1) Steven Kotkin, Stalin: Volume I, Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, p. 408.
(2) http://www.dailysabah.com/americas/2016/12/16/cia-had-apologised-to-turkey-over-false-allegations-regarding-daesh; http://www.dailysabah.com/diplomacy/2016/12/23/us-ambassador-bass-confirms-cia-apologized-to-turkey