Limiting US influence in the Middle East is not the only shared interest of Russia and Turkeys autocratic leaders
As the prospect grows of military showdown with Russia in the skies over Syria, the US “re counting on” subsistence from European partners such as France and the UK. But help from a key regional friend- Turkey- is less certain, despite its position on Syria's northern border and opposition to Bashar al-Assad's regime.
There are echoes of 2003, when Turkey refused to back the US-led invasion of Iraq. Whose side Turkey is on is a question increasingly exerting Washington policymakers as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, constructs closer ties with Russia.
Although Turkey is a Nato member, its growing defense cooperation with Moscow includes a recent$ 2bn deal to buy state-of-the-art S-4 00 surface-to-air rocket systems. At the same day, military collaboration with the US has been scaled back.
Faced with Turkish limiteds, US air force combat operations at the Incirlik base, close to Syria's border, have been run down. In January a squadron of -A1 0 “Warthog” ground-attack airplanes was redeployed to Afghanistan, reportedly leaving only refuelling aircraft at the base. Last year Germany, another Nato member, was obliged to withdraw its forces from Incirlik amid a fierce row with Erdogan over the rights and legal issues. The German aircraft, which like their American counterparts has been involved in assaulting Islamic State forces-out in Syria and Iraq, were moved to Jordan.
US-Turkey tensions rose after the failed 2016 coup attempt in Ankara, which Erdogan claimed was instigated by foes are stationed in the US. They have since been exacerbated by rows over Turkish human rights abuses, Washington's support for anti-Assad Syrian Kurdish forces-out, whom Turkey regards as terrorists, and by Turkey's military incursion into Afrin, in north-west Syria.
Erdogan's government, which has previously demanded Assad step down, initially blamed the Syrian regime for last Saturday's chemical weapons assault in Douma- the focus of current tensions between Russia and the west.” The Syrian regime will have to pay the cost ,” Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan's spokesman, said on Monday.
The government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said the Assad regime was guilty of” barbarity and[ a] crime against humanity “. But Ankara changed its tune after Erdogan received a phone call subsequently that day from Assad's main backer, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Ensuing official statements pointedly avoided blaming Douma on the regime, calling instead for a” careful investigation “~ ATAGEND- Putin's exact stance.
A menacing statement by Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, may also have changed Turkish minds. Russia has hitherto acquiesced in Turkey's Afrin operation, procuring assurances from Damascus that regime forces-out would not resist it. But on Monday Lavrov said Moscow expected Turkey to hand over Afrin to Assad. Iran, Russia's collaborator in Syria, made a similar call. Erdogan angrily repudiated the demands, but the message from Moscow was crystal clear: don't mess with us.
Turkey's close collaboration with Russia- critics would call it subservience- is a relatively new phenomenon. The two countries came to blows in November, 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian military jet for alleged airspace violations. Moscow retaliated by enforcing economic sanctions.
To the dismay of Nato and the EU, the subsequent reconciliation has been rapid, fuelled by shared self-interest, especially in Syria. Both Erdogan and Putin want to shape any post-war settlement to their advantage. To this end they launched, with Iran, the so-called Astana peace process, rivalling talks overseen by the UN.
Putin personally commiserated with Erdogan after the 2016 takeover endeavor, assuring him of Moscow's full supporting. That was an important moment for two instinctive dictators who dread the popular verdict of the street. Since then, bilateral cooperation on nuclear power, energy pipelines from Russia to Turkey and Europe, tourism, investment, arms sales and military-to-military ties have reached “unprecedented levels” ~ ATAGEND, according to the IISS thinktank.
Erdogan and Putin share another objective: curbing US influence in the Middle East. And for Russia, courting Turkey brings additional benefits- sowing dissension within Nato and limiting US military options in Syria when, as now, pushing may come to shove.
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