Turkish intervention in Syria, although primarily motivated by its security concerns vis-à-vis Kurds, has started to create consequences that are not simply confined to reversing the Kurdish advances. On the one hand, Turkey is using its intervention in Syria to streamline its relation with Russia, and on the other, it is using it is to pressurise the U.S., due to the latter’s covert involvement in the failed coup attempt, by pushing the US backed Kurds back to where they have come from and attempting to secure 3000-4000 sq. kilometre ‘buffer zone.’ While Erdogan’s primary concern is Turkey’s own security, the definition of security and national interest that he is now following extends beyond the borders and, therefore, requires a re-balancing act between the West and the East. As such, not only is Turkey using the entire scenario to create a strong military wedge against Kurds, but also to redefine its relations with both the U.S. and Russia. (Read: Russia has not opposed Turkish intervention in Syria but only advised a “course correction” to rectify Iran’s reservations).
The fact can hardly be denied that the U.S. needs Turkey for reasons that extend beyond the fight against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Turkey, since it became a NTO member, has been the fountainhead of the U.S.’ extended-deterrence in Europe against Russia. With Turkey now displaying significant tilt towards Russia, many in the U.S. seem to believe that the U.S. does need to reassess its relations.
Calling Turkey’s mission against Kurds “unacceptable”, many top (neoconservative) US officials and policy advisers have starting advocating the need for ‘teaching Turkey a lesson’ to make it realize that the U.S. continues to be as important for it as it has always been.
Last week, the influential Washington-based neoconservative think-tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies brought out a report with a forward written by former American ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman – Covering the Bases: Reassessing U.S. Military Deployments in Turkey After the July 2016 Attempted Coup d’état.
The report lists Turkey’s support for IS (and Hamas) and assesses the factors at work – fractures in the US-Turkey security relationship; plummeting trust; Turkey’s instability and unpredictability; security threats to estimated 3,000 US military personnel and sensitive hardware based in Turkey; and, “fundamental questions about Turkey’s basic foreign policy orientation.” Edelman thus estimates:
The best outcome would clearly be for the U.S. to remain in Incirlik for reasons that include the effectiveness of the campaign against IS and the on-going need for U.S. extended nuclear deterrence in Europe. Yet, suggesting that the U.S. has alternatives (to Turkey) may serve an important purpose. It can help Turkish officials recognize the importance of the U.S. connection to Turkey.
The American policy makers are clearly troubled by the extent of co-operation taking place between Moscow and Ankara. In fact, on Sunday, August 28, Moscow decreed the lifting of the ban on chartered flights to Turkey carrying tourists; on the following Wednesday, Gazprom chief Aleksey Miller arrived in Istanbul to discuss resumption of work on the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project. Again, Turkey’s Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci disclosed that the two countries have resumed talks on Free Trade Agreement, are discussing creation of a joint investment fund and working out use of national currencies in bilateral trade. On the same Wednesday, during a phone conversation, Cavusoglu agreed with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to meet very shortly.
What has added to the American concerns is the news in circulation that Turkey and Russia are considering to take their military co-operation to the strategic level whereby Russia will be allowed to install defence systems at İncirlik air base. Hence, the American think-tank’s emphasis on pushing for “the alternative.”
The fact of Turkish intervention in Syria putting the U.S. in between devil and the deep sea situation can hardly be gainsaid. Clearly, the U.S. has been outmanoeuvred in Syria. While the U.S. had all along wanted Turkey to be ‘proactive’ against the Islamic State (IS), this is not the way it had anticipated, leaving it now to face a stark choice between its NATO ally or Syrian Kurds.
Although the alliance with Turkey by far outweighs the Kurds and the logical thing would be to throw the Syrian Kurds under the bus, for the U.S. the rise of Russia in the Middle East remains the primary concern and its policy-makers and think tanks would therefore advice in favour of looking for alternatives to the Turkish base in order for keeping a strong military presence. As such, Edelman would further argue:
Although I join most observers in continuing to believe that the U.S.-Turkish relationship is crucial and that Incirlik’s role is particularly important in the context of the anti-IS struggle, it is clearly time to face the possibility that the U.S. may, against its will, be forced to leave. This would be a serious discontinuity in the NATO alliance and the U.S.-Turkish relationship, and it ought not to be approached in a “fit of absence of mind.”
Other authors of the report have also expressed similar thoughts. There is hardly any doubt that the NATO base in Turkey is crucial for American/NATO military presence in the region. Turkey’s temporary suspension of operations at the base during the attempted coup, its disputes with the U.S. since the coup and its attacks on U.S. allies in Syria reveal fractures in Turkish-U.S. relations, wrote John Capello, a former U.S. Air Force official, in the same report. The U.S. should develop a “contingency plan” to move some of its weapons to other locations in the Middle East to send Turkey a message that the U.S. “seeks strong partnerships with allies that share common values, interests, and vision,” he argued further.
The hunt for an alternative is, therefore, in the process. However, its ultimate outcome depends a lot upon how far can Erdogan push Washington up the wall and how far can the U.S. go in giving Erdogan concessions. The sort of “strategic autonomy” Turkey has shown vis-à-vis the U.S. and NATO may come to a halt if Gulen is extradited to the U.S., which is quite unlikely to happen at this stage. On the contrary, the situation may equally get worse if the U.S. continues to favour Kurds by providing weapons, training and air cover. Were Turkey’s “red-line” be crossed once again, the US-Turkey relations will certainly be at the lowest ebb in recent history, leaving the space widen open for Russia and Iran to step in.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.