How strongly is NATO ally Turkey pivoting to Russia and Iran?

President Erdoğan has taken steps that have alarmed his NATO allies. Until recently, Turkey has pursued policies directly opposed to those of Russia and Iran.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, left, and President Trump pose for photographers at the start of their meeting in New York, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. The two were in New York for the opening of United Nations General Assembly.

UPDATE: This story was updated on Tuesday, Sept. 26, at 12:10 p.m.

Setting aside years of increasing Turkey-US hostility, President Trump’s introductory remarks for the cameras were glowing as he met Turkey’s controversial President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan one-on-one last week, winding up a flurry of bilateral diplomacy on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual opening in New York.

Mr. Erdoğan is “running a very difficult part of the world,” Trump said Thursday, “and frankly, he’s getting very high marks.”

“We have a great friendship as countries. I think we’re, right now, as close we have ever been,” he added, also extolling the leaders’ personal rapport.

But seen from Turkey, the picture is far different. The scuttling of a US weapons sale last week for Erdoğan’s presidential security detail was just the latest point of friction feeding Turkey’s disillusion with the US and its NATO allies – and one more reason for its deepening embrace of two historic rivals, Russia and Iran.

Mutual US-Turkey prodding of each other has become more and more frequent, as Erdoğan dabbles with a strategic realignment away from the US and Europe.

The US withdrew the license to sell $1.2 million in arms and ammunition for the security guards after a grand jury indicted 15 of them for assaulting a handful of anti-Erdoğan protesters in Washington in May.

Clearly peeved, Erdoğan groused that the US was refusing to sell weapons to a fellow NATO ally, while giving even more lethal arms for free – 3,000 truckloads worth, he said – to “terrorists.” He meant US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria fighting the so-called Islamic State. Turkey says it fears the US-supplied weapons may one day be turned against it.

Anti-Americanism has grown in Turkey, especially since Washington – the CIA in particular – was accused by some here of orchestrating a July 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan.

But Turkey has also taken steps that have alarmed its NATO allies, including the recent announcement of a downpayment to Russia to buy the sophisticated S-400 air defense system, which is incompatible with NATO weaponry and would signal a deep partnership with the power that NATO was ostensibly created to contain.

Though Erdoğan met with Trump in New York, he is also hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ankara this week, and is due in Tehran on Oct. 4 to discuss joint peace efforts with Iran in Syria. Until recently Turkey has pursued policies directly opposed to those of Russia and Iran. Turkey, Russia, and Iran currently are joint sponsors of a Syria peace process in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Erdoğan’s meetings follow high-ranking military exchanges, including Iran’s chief of staff of the armed forces Mohammad Bagheri making an unusual trip to Ankara in August, followed by Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov.

A tactical move?

Nevertheless, despite the signals of change, analysts say Turkey’s deal with Russia may be primarily tactical, that Turkey’s foreign policy has been increasingly erratic and reactionary, and that Ankara is unlikely to jeopardize its role in the NATO security structure.

“Overall, [the S-400] is just one system and a rather symbolic one. But if you look at the prospects of Turkey and Russia really aligning their interests, they are very small, says Kristian Brakel, head of the Turkey office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a German political foundation associated with the Green Party.

“Turkey needs Russia, to have a seat at the table in Syria. Turkey needs Russia as some kind of bogeyman to show the Americans and Europe,” says Mr. Brakel. “But there are so many diverging interests, when it comes to Syria, when it comes to Crimea, the Black Sea. I think chances are really slim … that Russia could supplant NATO.”

“The current strategy – if there is any strategy – seems to be to diversify the options that Turkey has at its disposal,” adds Brakel.

Those options have grown in appeal since the coup attempt last year, after which Erdoğan and his ruling party castigated Washington and European capitals for the supposed lack of their swift support to “defend democracy.” Seen from the West, however, the wave of 50,000 arrests and purges of 150,000 from Turkish security and educational institutions that followed the coup have helped Erdoğan secure his hold on power. Later, hope faded in Ankara that Trump would prove to be far more pro-Erdoğan than President Obama, who took Erdoğan to task for his growing authoritarianism at home.

Expectations in Turkey that the new US administration would abandon its Kurdish allies in northern Syria – an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that Turkey designates as “terrorists” and has battled for decades – also proved short-lived.

Instead, the Pentagon has used Kurdish proxies in Syria as the prime force in its current anti-ISIS offensive in Raqqa, which has in turn prompted Turkey to shift its strategic priority from fighting ISIS to preventing Kurdish empowerment.

Collapse of Europe relations

On top of that, besides the legal cases against Erdoğan’s personal security detail, the US Justice Department last week issued an indictment of Turkey’s former economics minister and Erdoğan ally, Mehmet Zafer Çağlayan, on charges of taking millions of dollars in bribes to help Iran circumvent sanctions.

At the same time, Erdoğan has presided over a collapse of Turkey’s relations with Europe. The European Parliament in July called for the suspension of Turkey’s decades-long bid for EU membership. The president has prodded the Turkish diaspora in Europe in political directions, and called on Turks living in Germany not to vote for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats or two other mainstream parties in this weekend’s elections, calling them “all enemies of Turkey.”

“Every European country is sick and tired of Turkish shenanigans.… It’s entirely unpredictable, the rhetoric is bellicose,” says Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington, noting that Erdoğan this summer called four different European countries “Nazis.”

“The lack of trust [between Turkey and its Western allies] is pronounced, and that lack of trust makes relatively routine events like a state visit to Iran take on greater geopolitical importance than it really has,” says Mr. Stein.

Skepticism about Russian deal

In the midst of these battles with allies came the announcement of the S-400 deal with Russia, which has elicited skepticism among some analysts who think it is far from a done deal and could falter for any number of reasons, including the cost, Turkey’s technology transfer demands, or Erdoğan’s whim.

“Erdoğan could wake up tomorrow and kill the deal, it just depends on his mood,” says Stein.

Such factors are not lost on a region where Turkey’s foreign policy is seen to have become more reactionary and short-term.

“There is a lack of strategic thinking, a lack of thinking beyond just tit for tat, which we see at the moment with the S-400,” says Brakel. “But does Russia really have something to offer to Turkey?”

Energy cooperation may be one obvious point, “but that’s a huge difference from Turkey sitting in the NATO Council, where it speaks with the same voice as the US, as European partners, and with the same voting rights,” he says. “With Russia, Turkey is a junior partner, and will remain a junior partner, and Erdoğan knows that.”

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