On Erdogan’s Plan to Defy the US

17.08.2018 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

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Turkey’s Erdogan didn’t just start riding a flying horse when he decided to confront the US for its unilateral actions and a virtual plot against Turkey, manifested through particularly the imposition of tariffs and the resultant fall of Turkish lira by a whopping 22 per cent last Friday, he seemed to have calculated plan when he promised that the US will “regret” what it has done. What’s that plan? While we have already shown that part of this plan is to sign up with China and partake in its New Silk Roads, use this partnership to become in future a member of BRICS (plus) and even SCO at some point, Turkey still cannot walk a path that may lead it to integration with the East and completely or partially abandon the West. As a matter of fact, the West remains Turkey’s largest export market, and at least some of the major European countries, such as Netherlands and Germany, have no intention of subscribing to the US unilateralism against Turkey. In fact, these countries have started to normalize their relations by bringing bi-lateral economic activity to pre-tension levels.

Turkish officials have already been speaking about the need for improving relations with Germany. And Erdogan is also going to pay an official visit to Germany in September. Therefore, as far as Europe is concerned, he has odds in his favor.

Therefore, given that Turkey is tuning with China after it tuned up with Russia in the wake of Syrian war and that Turkey still has friends and markets in Europe, it does seem that Erdogan did have a game-plan when he defied the US president Donald Trump and when the later hit-back with tariffs and threats of sanctions.

Given that Turkey is playing on both sides of the geo-political spectrum, its game plan seems to involve a thorough re-projection of Turkish position in the region, and at the same time, not lose its independent foreign policy choices. Within Turkish calculus, this path syncs well with the global system that is increasingly becoming multipolar, the trend that offers states like Turkey a viable opportunity.

Therefore, with the US-EU schism becoming increasingly visible over NATO and with opportunities from the non-Western world knocking on Turkey’s door, Turkey can only be expected to seek whatever benefit it can. Its yet another manifestation came when Qatar’s leader paid an unannounced visit to Turkey only few days ago. This visit, apart from highlighting Qatar’s tilt towards Turkey in the wake of Saudi-Qatar rift, also threw light on how Turkey intends to exploit all of its foreign policy options and optimize accordingly.

Qatari investment, announced during the visit, would have a significant soothing impact on Turkish economy. Qatari royal court announced that the country will be making investment and will also deposit money to the tune of US$15 billion in Turkey. Turkish officials were reported to have said that the investments would be channeled directly into Turkish banks and financial markets, purportedly to off-set the impact of US tariffs.  Qatari leader Al-Thani confirmed the direct investment plans in Turkey, which he described as having a “productive, strong and solid economy.” He tweeted: “We are together with Turkey and our brothers there, who stand by Qatar and problems of the Ummah.”

Now the investment coming from Qatar, and investment likely to jump manifold from China and with EU countries relaxing their relations with Turkey, the ‘sick man of Europe’ seems to be on the right track to avoid going to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and seek a bail out. Understandably, this is what the Trump administration wants Erdogan. If Erdogan does this, this will bring the US in a position to tight its scrutiny of Turkish policies in the region, especially vis-à-vis Syria and Russia along with China as well.

Turkey’s search for friends and allies elsewhere in its neighborhood and beyond does indicate that Erdogan has no wish to surrender to the US and IMF but retain the country’s independent position by thoroughly diversifying its foreign policy options.

And while Qatar is strongly allied with the US and the latter’s Central Command is headquartered in Doha, Al-Thani also has a more than warm relationship with Russia, not to forget that Turkey, too, has established its own base in Qatar, which may seem symbolic in comparison with the Western bases, but turned out to be an important lifeline for Doha for pushing back at Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the heydays of Qatari blockade, which hasn’t ended yet.

Therefore, the on-going military cooperation through this base and the up-coming joint military exercises plus Qatari investment in Turkey not only showcase Turkey’s strong position vis-à-vis the US in terms of neutralizing its tariffs and sanctions but also reflect the increasing Turkish influence in the GCC, something that Saudi Arabia and UAE strongly resent to see happening.

After normalizing with Iran, Turkey’s strong handshake with Qatar shows how massively the US Middle East policy has failed in recent years as it continues to antagonize country after country with no recourse to measures to mend the self-inflicted ruptures.

Unwittingly, the US failure to hold countries in its axis has left a big opening in the Middle East geo-political chessboard, allowing both regional and extra-regional countries to make their own way. Turkey is playing its game accordingly.

Erdogan’s op-ed in New York Times made the point succinctly as he wrote, “Before it is too late, Washington must give up the misguided notion that our relationship can be asymmetrical and come to terms with the fact that Turkey has alternatives.” As it stands, Turkey has already operationalised its alternatives.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.