Russia’s foreign and defence ministers were due to visit Turkey on 14 June 2020. At the last minute the visit was called off. No reason was given.
Relationships between states are notoriously unstable. Old enmities dissolve into new alliances and back again with cynical speed, depending on perceived self-interest. The process is rendered relatively easy when the states in question are ruled by autocratic near-dictators.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is one such. Erdogan is a volatile and unstable element in the Middle East. What Erdogan has sought in his political career first and foremost, is absolute power. He has managed to win something very close to it by outwitting his formidable political opponents, both at home and abroad. Skillfully he managed a constitutional coup which first placed him in the presidency, and then redefined the role, function and powers of the office. Since then he has not hesitated to use his dominant authority to imprison a wide range of political opponents and to cripple or silence as much of the critical media as possible.
Although Erdogan is the sort of strong man that US President Donald Trump admires, their relationship deteriorated sharply during 2019. What irked Erdogan was US support for the Kurdish fighters who had played such a major role in defeating ISIS in Syria. Because the Kurds aspired for some form of autonomy both in Syria and in Turkey itself, where their demands had sometimes turned violent, Erdogan regarded them as his enemies. At one point the Kurdish issue had US and Turkish troops firing on each other across the Syrian-Turkish border.
Then, perhaps to demonstrate his determination to pursue an independent line, Erdogan announced that he intended to purchase a Russian S-400 air defence missile system. Turkey is a member of NATO, and at the same time as he was trying to buy the latest generation of US stealth jet fighters, the F-35.
He was attempting the impossible. The S-400 system is specifically designed to detect and shoot down stealth fighters like the F-35. If Turkey acquired both, Russia would be able to learn all about the American-made fighter jets. So when it became clear that Erdogan had no intention of taking US objections into account and was insistent on receiving the Russian ground-to-air missile system, Washington cancelled the F-35 deal.
And then, suddenly, in October 2019 the wind veered. Had Trump blinked? in a surprise move he succumbed to Erdogan’s urging and pulled American troops away from Syria’s northern border, Many saw the move as a betrayal of the West’s longstanding Kurdish allies.
The sudden withdrawal cleared the way for Turkey to seize control of a band of Kurdish occupied territory along the border inside Syria – a move, incidentally, agreed with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Also in October the FBI acceded, after years of hedging, to Erdogan’s request for an investigation into the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of masterminding a failed coup in 2016. Moreover Trump has held off imposing sanctions against Turkey for its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system. while in Libya he stood aside as Erdogan intervened to support the UN-recognised head of state and prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, against warlord Khalifa Haftar.
Behind Trump’s change of stance is, perhaps, an attempt to prevent a Turkey-Russia axis developing – a possibility that would not be welcome in Washington. Has he succeeded?
The Russo-Turkey S-400 deal pulled the two nations into close affinity, but the political situation in Libya perfectly illustrates the convoluted nature of such Middle East relationships. Nominally, Russia and Turkey are on opposite sides of the conflict. Turkey supports the Government of National Accord (GNA); Russia is backing Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in his bid to conquer Libya and become its leader. When Turkey supplied its state-of-the-art military technology to the GNA, Russia responded by sending fighter jets in support of Haftar’s LNA.
Yet the two nations are collaborating closely on attempting to secure an end of the conflict and a negotiated settlement.
Talks between Erdogan and Putin back in December 2019, nominally to inaugurate the TurkStream gas pipeline, resulted in a joint statement calling for a cease-fire in Libya. In January Haftar was induced to travel to Moscow to discuss an accommodation, but he backed out.
Far from discouraged, Russia pressed ahead. In May the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers agreed on the need for an immediate ceasefire in Libya, and called for a resumption of the UN peace-making effort which had virtually ground to a halt. The same scenario was played out in June. On the 9th, the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers agreed to work together to create a peace process in Libya.
Some observers see disturbing similarities between Libya’s civil war and Syria’s. The same foreign powers – Russia, Turkey, Iran – have intervened in pursuit of their own interests. Iran is believed to have supplied Haftar’s LNA with weaponry including anti-tank missiles. Erdogan and Putin may have extended to Libya the deals they made in Syria – for example, the use of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group.
The BBC finds it significant that Haftar’s pullback from Tripoli, his LNA enhanced by Russian Wagner troops, was not harassed by Turkey’s military drones. One commentator believes that Russia and Turkey are trying to carve up long-lasting spheres of influence in Libya, their eyes on the country’s vast oil and gas potential. What is certain is that the two nations have been discussing joint development of aviation and air defence systems This was confirmed on June 2 by the director of Russia’s military-technical co-operation service, Dmitry Shugayev, who went on to say that there was a great deal more potential for collaboration.
Turkey, NATO member though it is, has consistently plowed its own furrow, often to the exasperation of fellow members. For example, even when Western countries combined to fight Islamist terror groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State, Erdogan continued supporting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots. Erdogan’s independent line has already rendered Turkey’s possible inclusion in the European Union a non-starter. How stable is his new-found friendship with Russia? In pursuing his nation’s self-interest as he now sees it, Erdogan is playing a dangerous game.