Turkey's Ever-Closer Ties with Russia Leave US Lacking Key Ally on Syria
As the prospect grows of military confrontation with Russia in the skies over Syria, the US is counting on support from European partners such as France and the UK. But help from a key regional ally – Turkey – is less certain, despite its position on Syria’s northern border and opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, writes The Guardian.
There are echoes of 2003, when Turkey refused to back the US-led invasion of Iraq. Whose side Turkey is on is a question increasingly exercising Washington policymakers as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, builds closer ties with Russia.
Although Turkey is a Nato member, its growing defence cooperation with Moscow includes a recent $2bn deal to buy state-of-the-art S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. At the same time, military collaboration with the US has been scaled back.
Faced with Turkish restrictions, US air force combat operations at the Incirlik base, close to Syria’s border, have been run down. In January a squadron of A-10 “Warthog” ground-attack jets was redeployed to Afghanistan, reportedly leaving only refuelling aircraft at the base. Last year Germany, another Nato member, was obliged to withdraw its forces from Incirlik amid a fierce row with Erdoğan over human rights and legal issues. The German aircraft, which like their American counterparts were engaged in attacking Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq, were moved to Jordan.
US-Turkey tensions rose after the failed 2016 coup attempt in Ankara, which Erdoğan claimed was instigated by opponents based in the US. They have since been exacerbated by rows over Turkish human rights abuses, Washington’s support for anti-Assad Syrian Kurdish forces, whom Turkey regards as terrorists, and by Turkey’s military incursion into Afrin, in north-west Syria.
Turkey’s close collaboration with Russia – critics would call it subservience – is a relatively recent phenomenon. The two countries came to blows in November, 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian military jet for alleged airspace violations. Moscow retaliated by imposing economic sanctions.
To the dismay of Nato and the EU, the subsequent rapprochement has been rapid, fuelled by shared self-interest, especially in Syria. Both Erdoğan and Putin want to shape any post-war settlement to their advantage. To this end they launched, with Iran, the so-called Astana peace process, rivalling talks overseen by the UN.
Putin personally commiserated with Erdoğan after the 2016 coup attempt, assuring him of Moscow’s full support. That was an important moment for two instinctive autocrats who fear the popular verdict of the street. Since then, bilateral cooperation on nuclear power, energy pipelines from Russia to Turkey and Europe, tourism, investment, arms sales and military-to-military ties have reached “unprecedented levels”, according to the IISS thinktank.
Erdoğan and Putin share another aim: curbing US influence in the Middle East. And for Russia, courting Turkey brings additional benefits – sowing discord within Nato and limiting US military options in Syria when, as now, push may come to shove.
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