Turkey’s Exhausting Zigzagging Between East and West
by Burak Bekdil
August 23, 2016
Turkey has been a republic since 1923, a multi-party democracy since 1946, and a member of NATO since 1952. In 1987, it added another powerful anchor into the Western bay where it wanted it to remain docked: It applied for full membership in the European Union (EU). This imperfect journey toward the West was dramatically replaced by a directionless cruise, with sharp zigzags between the East and West, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist AKP party came to power in 2002. Zigzagging remains the main Turkish policy feature even at this day.
Until the summer of 2015 Turkey was widely known as the “jihad highway,” because of its systematic tolerance for jihadists crossing through Turkey into neighboring Syria to fight Erdogan’s regional nemesis, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey supported various jihadist groups in the hope that they would help Ankara unseat Assad. Then, under pressure from its NATO allies, it decided to join the U.S.-led, international campaign to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria. Feeling betrayed, ISIS started to blow up Turkish cities.
At the end of 2015, Turkey risked tensions with Russia in order to advance its pro-Sunni Islamist agenda in Syria. Russia, together with Iran, provided the lifeline Assad needed to stay in power while Turkey stepped up its anti-Assad campaign. In November, Turkey once again zigzagged toward the West when it shot down a Russian military aircraft, citing the violation of its airspace along its border with Syria. Turkey also threatened to shoot down any Russian aircraft that might violate its airspace again. It was the first time in modern history that a NATO ally had shot down a Soviet or Russian military airplane.
An angry Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, imposed punishing economic sanctions, which cost the Turkish economy billions of dollars. Turkey started zigzagging again. In July 2016, Erdogan apologized for downing the Russian plane, and in August he went to Russia to shake hands for normalization. Once again, Russia is trendy for the Turks, and the West looks passé.
Erdogan and his men are now accusing NATO and, in particular, the United States, of roles in the failed July 15 coup, which they claim is linked to a reclusive, U.S.-based Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gulen. According to Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik, NATO should sit down and think where it went wrong in response to the coup attempt in Turkey. According to Turkey’s justice minister, Bekir Bozdag, the United States would be sacrificing its alliance with Turkey to “a terrorist” (Gulen) if it refuses to extradite him.
Turkey’s newfound love affair with Russia will inevitably have repercussions in Syria, and that pleases Iran. “Not only will Turkey have to ‘digest’ that [Russian-Iranian-Syrian] line, it will have to join it, entering into a pact with Putin and the ayatollahs. Clearly, this is where Erdogan has decided is the best place to pledge his allegiance,” wrote Meira Svirsky at The Clarion Project. There are already signs.
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