By Shehab Al Makahleh | Follow @ShehabMakahleh
Few days ago Russian president Putin stated Russia’s readiness to supply Turkey with advanced S-400 air defense systems. Turkey’s spat with the EU and growing discord with the NATO may be reason behind Turkey’s demand for Russian weapons. For its Arab neighbors the key question is whether this move is aimed against the newly proposed ‘Arab NATO’ or just a Turkish self-defense response following Washington’s arming of Syrian Kurds.
Erdogan may fear meeting the fate of his neighbors in Iraq and Libya, both former US allies, and preparing for the plan B ― turning eastward.
A number of factors, including its growing alliance with Russia and Iran, may have forced Turkey to look to boost its defenses independent from its traditional Western, NATO allies. Diplomatic spat with Germany over refugee deal, strained military relations over Incirlik base, last year’s failed coup, recent American arming of the Syrian Kurds ― all are seen by Turkey as Western moves against its sovereignty. Disliked as he is in the West, with current set of circumstances surrounding his country, Turkish president is wise to strengthen ties with Russia, with which his country shares borders and many interests, and most importantly, a reliable ally as witnessed in Syria and Iran. The latter is especially important considering that, despite Turkey’s being an extremely important Western ally, Erdogan himself is regarded as a political persona non grata in the US ― the fact that only pushes him further into Russian arms.
While some Arabs may consider the move as targeting the recently announced ‘Arab NATO’, the move actually has different aim. The Arab NATO for now exists only on the paper, and even on the paper not all its signatories are in agreement on all of its stated goals. Moreover, the actual formation timeline is questionable and depends on the pace that Trump administration and Pentagon would take to deliver the weapons they have just sold to the Saudis, and the internal dynamics of the alliance in the making, and its individual members that have widely different military capabilities. As the NATO itself seems to be in disarray, the formation of its Arab equivalent is even more quizzical ― especially as a Trump project.
Erdogan is buying Russian S-400 because he fears that should the war in Syria and Iraq escalate, and the US pushes for the Kurdish state, Turkey itself would be subject to territorial loss. The shifting alliances and abandoning of allies is not a novelty in the American foreign policy, on the contrary ― it is something of a rule rather than the exception, and Erdogan seems to have grasped the possibility of this scenario being replayed with him at the helm of Turkey, and is trying to avoid ill fate of his neighbors.
At this stage Turkish president probably fears the destiny of Iraq’s long time ruler Saddam Hussein whom America first supported against Iran, then labeled dictator and finally deposed in the most gruesome way.
Erdogan has been already widely described in the Western media as a villain and a dictator. There was an attempted military coup last year, which he believes was directed (and likely aided) by the US. From this vantage point, Erdogan is justifiably cautious.
Doğu Perinçek, leader of the Turkey’s Patriotic Party (Vatan), believes that the Erdogan “got caught on the hook” by Washington.
In an interview with Russian Sputnik Turkey, he said “An attempt to divide Syria or Iraq would mean an attempt to divide Turkey. Moreover, this is also an attack aimed to shatter Erdogan’s power. Washington’s tactic is to isolate Erdogan in the international arena”. The only way for Turkey to “avoid a territorial division” is to “develop cooperation with Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran,” he believes.
The pressing questions to ask then are, if Turkey is seriously reconsidering its alliance with the West and turning towards Russia and Iran led regional block, what is the future of NATO Incirlik base? What role would Turkish base in Qatar play? What with the US base in Qatar, should Qatar too change priorities and form alliances with Russia and Iran?
Amidst a serious and deepening rift between GCC countries and Qatar, Turkey’s key ally in the Gulf, there’s a possibility that the Russian systems might end up in the Gulf peninsula nation should the US decide to move its base, and Turkey decides to fill the void, as it already has a military base in the country.
International isolation and campaign of demonizing both Turkey and Qatar seem to have counter-effects. Instead of pushing them apart this strategy is pushing two once major Western allies firmly and inevitably into the Russian embrace.
Trump’s truly big (arms) deal with the Saudis has so far only managed to divide the Arab Gulf states. The security the deal promised to deliver seems further now than ever. Was it a genuine mistake by the inexperienced Trump administration, lack of strategic forethought or something more sinister, and who are the real villains in the Middle East?