Is Turkey’s Pivot to Russia about Erdogan’s Survival?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Turkey’s prime minister, Yildirim Binali, has announced a significant about-face in Turkey’s Syria policy. Murat Yetkin writes:

“The most important priority for us is to stop the bloodshed as soon as possible,” Yıldırım said at a press conference in Istanbul on Aug. 20, later adding that the rest amounted to irrelevant “details.” He also said that the U.S. and Russia agree that al-Assad cannot hold Syria together in the long run but he could be considered for the transition. Upon a question, Yıldırım said Turkey’s deal with Russia to normalize relations had an “important share” in this policy shift.”

The attempted coup of July 15, 2016 in Turkey shook that country’s political system to the core. Although President Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had broken in 2013 with his former allies, the right wing religious cult around Fethullah Gulen, he appears to have believed that he had tamed it. He survived the members’ leak of recorded conversations pointing to AKP corruption and support of fundamentalist militias in Syria. His party went on winning elections without the Gulenists, who were revealed to have less popular support than they had imagined.

So the coup attempt appears to have taken Erdogan by surprise. One important but neglected report suggests that it was the Russians who informed him of the chatter their cyber-spies had picked up from Turkish officers, a few hours before the coup was launched. Russia intensified its cyber surveillance of the Turkish military after it shot down a Russian fight-jet in November of 2015.

Several members of Erdogan’s circle, including cabinet ministers, have blamed the United States for the coup, since Gulen lives in the US. Personally, I find the idea that President Obama plotted a coup against the Turkish government implausible (Joe Biden frankly calls the notion “bonkers.”) But that I find it implausible does not stop the AKP elite from believing in it. (I’m also not sure that Gulenist sleeper cells in the officer corps were the only or main element in the plot).

It has to be admitted that elements of the US foreign policy elite find Erdogan extremely inconvenient. He did not step up to combat Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), which contributed to its ability to hit Paris, Brussels and Baghdad. He has bombed the YPG Kurds in Syria, which have been the only reliable and effective allies of the US against Daesh. And he has tangled with the Israelis over Gaza, and tangling with the Israelis is not allowed according to the Washington consensus. But it should be remembered that many NATO allies have been inconvenient for Washington at one point or another over the decades (Charles De Gaulle used to give them conniption fits) and it hasn’t been US policy to overthrow those allies in coups. (The US did stage coups, but I doubt any among NATO allies).

But let’s just imagine that Erdogan does think that the US was either behind the coup or at least was willing to wink at it (Washington didn’t at the time seem all broken up at the idea), whereas Putin actively intervened to warn him about the plotters’ chatter. Remember that the coup-makers were trying to kill Erdogan, and they could easily have succeeded. This coup was personal. Erdogan would be grateful to Putin, would have gained a degree of trust in his intentions, and inclined to show some gratitude. Erdogan seems to think he can go on winning elections the rest of his life (he is 63) and will have an opportunity to transform Turkey into a presidential system. Those ambitions were almost cut short by mutinying soldiers of his own military.

Erdogan is embarked upon a massive purge of oppositionists (they cannot all be Gulenists), with tens of thousands of people detained or charged, including journalists, academics, minor bureaucrats, and even soccer players and others Obviously not involved in the coup.

NATO countries are democracies and generally object to mass round-ups with no habeas corpus more redolent of Zimbabwe than Western Europe, and their criticism has stung and inconvenienced Erdogan in his apparent march to a presidency for life unencumbered by a rule of law or grassroots democratic processes. (Admittedly, his enemies, whether the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] or the Gulenists, have far less respect for both).

Then there is the problem for the AKP government that the US Department of Defense is actively allied with the YPG Kurds of northern Syria and is de facto helping them establish their Rojava, or an ethnic Kurdish mini-state on the Turkish border, in return for YPG help in rolling up Daesh. This policy seems in part to be Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s revenge on Erdogan for refusing to destroy Daesh.

But from Ankara’s point of view, the YPG is a terrorist group. It would be as though a foreign country helped an anti-American Mexican cartel take over Tijuana, posing a perceived threat to San Diego. (I don’t myself see any sign that the YPG has ambitions outside Syria or that it has a command structure in common with the brutal PKK group from which it is descended, but we’re talking about how Ankara sees thing).

So Erdogan is pretty done out with Washington. But despite his enormous ambition, he cannot make Turkey, a middle income country of 75 million, into a global power by wishing it so, and needs other countries for trade, technology and military help.

On top of Putin’s assistance, then you have the series of Daesh bombings in Ankara, Istanbul and elsewhere, which should have made anyone begin to rethink whether backing or winking at the radical Muslim militias in Syria is really a wise idea, and whether having them come to power in Damascus would really benefit Turkey.

Russia sees Daesh in al-Raqqa, Syria, as an extension of radical Muslim rebelliousness that has affected Chechnya and the Caucasus. Google maps says you could drive from Aleppo through Turkey to Grozny in Chechnya in less than 24 hours. And, there are Russian Chechen nationals forming regiments in al-Raqqa. For Daesh to take over Syria (or for the Army of Conquest to do so) would create a radical Chechen base from which Russia could be attacked.

Another thing. Erdogan’s arrogance toward Russia in the wake of the plane shoot-down last fall was ill-advised. Putin’s consequent economic sanctions deeply harmed Turkish exporters of fruits and vegetables and entrepreneurs connected to the tourism industry (Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast, had become virtually a Russian city in the summer, but abruptly was turned into a ghost town). Middle class businessmen are one of the AKP’s primary constituencies, and part of the rationale of the party is to enhance their profit opportunities, not drive them into bankruptcy.

So Erdogan’s break with the more ideological former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his replacement with the pragmatist Yildirim Binali on 24 May was perhaps already a sign that a more pragmatic Syria policy was in the offing. But after the coup, there was every reason to make a new opening to Russia. And you couldn’t do that without adjusting Syria policy.

The Turkish government has thus adopted the position that US Secretary of State John Kerry was forced into last February, in the lead-up to the now-lapsed cessation of hostilities. That is, that he dropped the demand for an immediate resignation of Bashar al-Assad as president of Syria in preparation for new elections. Apparently at some points Russia had been willing to consider forcing al-Assad out, but Iran, Russia’s strategic partner in Syria, refused to budge on this issue.

The compromise for those who insist on a change of personnel at the top is to say, ‘no al-Assad’ in the long run, but he can stay during this interim or transition period (the US does not want the Syrian government to collapse, given what happened in Iraq and Libya after such a collapse)

And that is what Prime Minister Binali now says is Turkish policy as well.

There are other impetuses for the Turkish pivot to Russia. Yeni Safak reported on 19 August that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tod Sputnik, “Without Russia’s contribution, there cannot be a permanent solution in Syria. We keep saying this. The same goes for Iran, too, with which we also have to boost our relations in this regard.”

It continued that “Cavusoglu said Moscow could not find a ‘more loyal’ friend than Turkey.”

He admitted that Russia and Turkey have differences of opinion (like, who should win the war in Syria!) but that nevertheless Turkey wanted to increase relations with Russia “to a level that is even better than before.”

Cavusoglu also underlined that Turkey is going to Russia to build up its military capabilities beyond what NATO is willing to help with. NATO has been worried about what it sees as Erdogan’s steady move to authoritarianism, which has cooled technology interchange. Cavusoglu admitted this drawback: “Unfortunately, we see countries in NATO are a bit hesitant when it comes to exchange of technology and joint investments.”

I think all this pivot to Russia business can easily be exaggerated. Turkey has been in NATO a long time and the Turkish officer corps has deep ties with Brussels and Washington. Some of what is going on may be Erdogan flirting with Putin to signal to Washington, Berlin, Paris and London to leave him alone about the mass arrests Or Else. And, ultimately, Moscow and Ankara do not at all see the future of Syria the same way. There will be continued frictions. But it is also undeniable that Turkey’s foreign policy in the wake of the coup is accelerating its pragmatist direction. Better relations with the Russian Federation is part of that process.

Related video:

RT: “Ankara considers military ties with Russia as NATO shies away – Turkish FM ”

18 Responses

  1. “Personally, I find the idea that President Obama plotted a coup against the Turkish government implausible (Joe Biden frankly calls the notion “bonkers.”) But that I find it implausible does not stop the AKP elite from believing in it. (I’m also not sure that Gulenist sleeper cells in the officer corps were the only or main element in the plot).”

    You make this statement, yet in the next paragraph you list many facts that support this idea. Not logical.

  2. There were PKK graffitis in videos showing Mandibsch after the YPG takeover. Turkish Kurds take great interest in what their brothers do across the border. Erdogan is known to be paranoid about Kurdish autonomy/self determination. I wouldn’t be surprised if antagonism to the Kurds, shared between the Assad-regime and Erdogan was a significant contributing factor to the move towards Russia. Also Russia can be expected to care less about Erdogan’s affinity to the Muslim Brotherhood-wing of islamism. Together with the economic interest shared with Russia that makes his move very convincing.
    So an international conflict with Kurds, directly involving Turkey becomes a more and more plausible next step in the escalation of this terrible war.

  3. “The compromise for those who insist on a change of personnel at the top is to say, ‘no al-Assad’ in the long run, but he can stay during this interim or transition period (the US does not want the Syrian government to collapse, given what happened in Iraq and Libya after such a collapse)”

    I had read that Assad offered a power sharing transition deal five years ago? If that is indeed the case hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved and this horrific refugee crisis avoided.

    “But from Ankara’s point of view, the YPG is a terrorist group. It would be as though a foreign country helped an anti-American Mexican cartel take over Tijuana, posing a perceived threat to San Diego. (I don’t myself see any sign that the YPG has ambitions outside Syria or that it has a command structure in common with the brutal PKK group from which it is descended, but we’re talking about how Ankara sees thing). ”

    I thought the Kurds had all ready sawed a piece of territory off of Iraq, now Syria..would seem to indicate that Kurds in Turkey would like to be part of that developing state.

  4. While everyone in America try’s to determine who are the good guys and the bad guys, our own country is going down the tubes. There is so much American tax dollars being spend, and while we Americans are so consumed with everything Trump, no major media outlet is reporting how the Inspector General for the DOD in June announced how the DOD can’t locate 6.5 trillion dollars. So while we Americans pay over 11 million dollars a day to fight whom ever it is we are supposed to be fighting, our own country loses big time to implement the Israeli Yinon Plan. Also, whether it be barrel bombs, or Russian and or American bombs, the poor Syrian children suffer greatly. It’s time to shut this insane war down. We can do better than this.

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  5. Something not discussed: is the Turkish military no longer the bastion of secularity that it once was? Could the military step in and restore (secular) order (in their opinion) as it has in the past? Or has it be emasculated by Erdogan? Is the idea of Gulen (a religious movement) sleeper cells in the Army plausible?

  6. A presidential Turkey seems a perfectly reasonable aspiration, no worse than a democracy with little or no ability to influence or veto the decisions of it’s leaders. Turkey is in a situation not altogether dissimilar from England in the early 16th century needing to survive between both Spain and France. Besides, it is more consistent with Turkey’s historical past and all nations have a tendency to function better if their roots are respected. The purpose of any foreign policy whether for aggrandizement or survival is the comfort and contentment of its domestic population, and while that is its outcome it all works fine. What it is not supposed to do is cost that population its wealth, tranquillity and security. If that does become the result then it is a failure and only when it fails is it brought into scrutiny and question. Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason and the same can be said of any otherwise ‘questionable’ pursuits and policies.

    • Turkey historically was ruled by the civil service (Divan i-Humayun), only a limited number of Sultans ever held real power. Not even the most ardent AKP supporters want a presidential system without some sort of accountability of the president especially in appointments, something Erdogan is against.

      A proposed senate has been rejected by him earlier because it contained electoral reform which would end the AKP’s domination of parliament with an elected senate.

      • What about the Ottomans and the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent whose tomb they appear to have found in Hungary and which Erdogan dubbed a neo-Ottoman due to his reverence for the nation’s imperial past and desire to extend its geopolitical influence* has already visited twice and plans to return for a commemoration next month?

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        • …and, before I forget it, he appears to be eliminating all serious opposition, a classic procedure when embarked on such a purpose, identified in Herodotus’ story of the tyrant of Miletus’ advice to Periander of Corinth, and later recommended by none other than Machiavelli himself.

        • One Sultan out of 36 is not a rule. Plus the Suleiman’s strength actually weakened the state against local interests (especially those of the Janissaries and other military groups) and there is a strong case to actually blame him for the stagnation and decline of the Ottoman empire because of those policies.

          The sad story of the printing press and regular native army (as opposed to slave/landed gentry based armies both proposed in the early 17th century by visionary civil servants) is an example. Both were not to be adopted until the time was late (end of the 18th century) and Europe was decisively ascendant.

          As for Erdogan, he might have eliminated all opposition within the AKP through internal party shenanigans (3-4 term limit on all MPs, something unique in Turkish history and a source of its popularity) but his political opponents are strong and will challenge him if they see him as a threat.

          Erdogan’s and his friends of the AKP were and are pure statist politicians, ideology for them meant nothing (that is they actually believed in the supremacy of the state) which is why he is in an open conflict with Gulen who wanted an MB/Iranian style state where the AKP would run the real state and Gulen and the movement would run the parallel state.

      • The issue surely is not whether he will succeed or not but what he may be trying to do. If he fails he will likely lose his head, but if he prospers…

  7. The exclusion of the elephant card makes this piece tantamount to political disinformation.

  8. The Russian boycott of Turkey did not affect it. The Turkish economy grew at a healthy rate of 4.3% over the last 3 quarters.

    Nor did the Russians alert the Turks about the coup. The Iranians by the way made a similar claim. The coup was detected months ahead but like previous failed coups it did not materialise and there was an intelligence failure in estimating the timeline.

    The Russo-Turkish rapprochement has been going on since March and there was a full restoration of ties well before the coup.

    The reason for this rapprochement was aimless US policies by a stubborn Obama (just read the State Department diplomats letters and the open revolt of the Pentagon against any kind of cooperation with the Russians and his infamous Atlantic Monthly interview) who thinks that Iran and the Kurds are the key to solving all the problems and not realising that you cannot satisfy both because survival is a zero-sum game in the middle east and no one will accept a Kurdish autonomous region let alone a state. Islamists are now helping Assad in Aleppo to bombard the Kurdish neighbourhood, that is how much everyone does not want to empower the Kurds.

    Antagonised by an Obama who is arming YPG in Syria only to see those weapons used in Bitlis 300 km away from the Syrian border, an American refusal to stop Kurdish ethnic cleansing of areas where there are no Kurds and giving Iran everything they want in Iraq including attacking the positioning of Turkish troops and Turkish financed Arab militias 30 km from Mosul and insistance on using the sectarian shia militias to attack Mosul was just the last straw.

    Within a month Turkey got almost everything it wanted for the last 2 years and the US could not save its own Kurdish allies which will create yet another long term mess.

  9. No doubt the “pivot to Russia” can be exaggerated, but one cannot ignore the reasons to see the US behind the coup. The Su-24 shoot-down was one: clearly AF officers trying to force Turkey’s hand, like those involved in the coup (the pilots were arrested); that sure looks like US influence . The State Dept 51 urging military action in Syria just before the coup, and the US election warmongering and AIPAC solicitations, cannot be coincidental. Turkey has more evidence there than we, and we may hope to see some of it if the mass media are willing to print it.

    MOA has an article rebutting the NYT attempt to play up Russia-Iran differences here: link to

    Even a loss of Turkey by NATO, which seems unlikely, would be no loss to the US. NATO has been little more since 1991 than a pretext for our warmongers to pretend that offense is defense, or somehow humanitarian despite its uniformly disastrous outcomes, and the lack of any US humanitarian efforts by other means. It is long past time to wind it down to keep warmongers under control.

  10. Most Greeks believe the US had a hand in the 1967 coup in Greece – 4 of the 5 Greek military guys who assumed power were closely connected to the US military and/or CIA. Part of why Greeks are skeptical of Washington and London to this day. Yes, Greece was then a member of NATO.

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