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Russian S-400 Erdoğan’s Best Defense from (Un)Predictable Western Policy Whims

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Stana Dubajic •

By buying Russian S-400 air-defense missile system Turkey, erstwhile Western ally, second largest NATO member, and a bulwark against Soviet expansion in the Middle East during Cold War, has caused a geostrategic earthquake and tipped the Middle East balance of power irreparably against the West.

For careful observers of Turkish politics, especially after the failed coup last July, it has become obvious that after the Turkish president Erdoğan found himself increasingly isolated by the West, he had no other recourse but Russia-led Eurasian military-economic bloc. The alienation and media demonization of Erdoğan have played a crucial role in his policy reorientation, and it is a grave geostrategic mistake that the West is committing to its own detriment. The question is whether there would be a way to keep Turkey, with or without Erdoğan, in the Western orbit in the next decade, as the global power balance is rapidly shifting towards Russia-China Eurasian alliance.

Taking precautions

Turkey’s NATO partners were justifiably angry at the news that Erdoğan’s negotiations with Russians about the purchase of the advanced S-400 air-defense systems have ended and the deposit paid, as it signals Turkey’s decisiveness in making national defense decisions independently from NATO. However unacceptable the move may have been coming from a long-time Western ally, the decision should have not come as a surprise to anyone, least of all Turkey’s Western partners considering the downward trajectory of their relations in the last two years.

Commenting on NATO-allies’ angry reaction to his country’s decision to buy Russian surface-to-air-missiles (SAMs), Erdoğan rebuked Western partners for their repeated failure to deliver variety of defense equipment they promised over years. “What do you expect? Should we wait for you? We take care of ourselves in every security point. We are taking precautions and we will continue to do so,” the Turkish leader said. In a recent address to the ruling AKP mayors in Ankara, Erdoğan said “They have gone crazy because we made a deal for S-400s,” as reported Turkish newspaper Hurriyet.

Similarly, Turkish disappointment with the Western failed promises was echoed by Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli, last Tuesday. According to Turkish Anadolu Agency, Canikli accused the US and Germany of ‘covert defense embargo’ saying: “Today, a lot of American and German firms do not give or delay giving spare parts that we use in defense products by applying a covert embargo.” The lack of trust in Western partners is self evident in the wording of these statements, but they are not without cause.

Two years after the US and Germany pulled-out Patriot missile batteries from Incirlik base, that were part of NATO mission in Turkey since 2013, and pressed by rapidly changing geopolitical and security realities in the region, Erdoğan decided to take the matter into his own hands. The fact he used the words “taking precautionary measures” to explain his decision, are telltale sign of his suspiciousness towards future regional security developments. For Erdoğan, personally, there were several factors that pushed him to reconsider then change his perceptions about his own political survival as well as Turkish national security interests.

Timeline of souring relations with Western partners

The S-400 missile system purchase has as much to do with the Western failure to provide Turkey with own missile defense systems, as it does with Erdoğan’s changing perceptions about Western policy towards Turkey and other regional powers in the past three decades.

Make no mistake – Turkish leader is by no means innocent victim of Western power plays and ploys. Until recently along with Qatar and few other Gulf states―all strategic Western allies―Erdoğan was among major actors in the destabilization of Syria. It was most likely the faithful downing of Russian Sukhoi fighter jet on anti-terrorist mission in Syria in late November 2015 that marked beginning of the end of Erdoğan’s Western dependency. Henceforth, the successive events only accelerated Erdoğan’s pivot eastwards, to essentially culminate in Turkey’s siding with Russia and Iran and signing Astana agreements on settlement of the Syrian conflict, drastically changing country’s policy towards the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his government.

The policy change came gradually, as Erdoğan himself started to fight terrorism on his own territory following Russian military intervention in Syria in late 2015, while unsuccessfully trying to get the EU to grant promised financial aid for hosting Syrian refugees and easing visa regime for Turkish citizens, as part of the migrant deal struck with German chancellor Angela Merkel, and Turkey’s EU accession talks. All these unfulfilled deals left Erdoğan disillusioned about his Western partners, and pushed him to actively search for alternatives.

Following the downing of Russian jet, Turkish-Russian relationship went into a deep-freeze mode, with Russia imposing embargo on Turkish tourism and agriculture industries, creating economic issues domestically and undermining Erdoğan’s power. About six months later Erdoğan apologized to Russian president Putin, allowing for the thaw in relations. Unfortunately, only two weeks into the reset in relations with Russia, Erdoğan nearly became a victim of the coup d’etat, orchestrated, according to Turkish officials, by the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ). There were reports that it was Russia’s security services that warned Erdoğan about impeding danger. In any case, the support for Erdoğan’s successful thwarting of the coup was expressed by both Russian and Iranian leaders in the immediate aftermath of the event; while the call from the Western allies, specifically from the American president Obama came much later, and crucially lacked the condemnation of the organizers.

In addition to the disappointment about reactions to the coup, and the American refusal to extradite the US-exiled head of the FETÖ, Fethullah Gülen – Erdoğan had yet to receive another blow from the American partners. Just a month into the successful outcome of the constitutional referendum in April this year that granted him sweeping new presidential powers, Erdoğan was embarking on an important visit to Washington’s new boss, President Trump, only to be greeted with the American decision to provide weapons to Syrian Kurds.

Washington’s new administration not only decided to exclude Turkey from the liberation operation of Raqqa, the Daesh stronghold in Syria, but decided to arm the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (YPG), which Erdoğan considers as the extended arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – both designated terrorist organizations in Turkey. Perhaps, the Turkish strongman had quite enough by then. But the troubles with the Western partners were far from over at this juncture. European Union was still to make itself heard on the number of issues on Turkey, which came recently from none else but German chancellor Angela Merkel, but which were repeatedly stated by the Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, both calling for the cancellation of Turkish EU accession talks, openly and publicly stating that Turkey under Erdoğan will never become a member of the EU. Soon after the European Parliament voted to suspend accession negotiations with Turkey. Even for a man with less of an ego than Erdoğan, that would be the last straw.

Policy of regime change – learning from others’ mistakes

Last year’s July coup in Turkey has certainly taught Erdoğan caution in his dealings with the West, reminding him how quickly the favorable leaders become unfavorable, as changing interests and alliances dictate policy priorities. It would be naïve to believe that Erdoğan, after years at top of Turkish government, did not connect the dots and understood―after witnessing disasters in Iraq, Libya and Syria―the duplicitous nature of Western policy dealings with the Middle East leaders and their countries.

While the coup instigators and orchestrators remain unclear, Erdoğan has started and continues the purge of opposition and dissidents, from army to academia, and across the board. In his dealings with the United States since the coup he has insisted the US extradite to Turkey the exiled cleric and his nemesis Fettullah Gülen, whom he holds responsible for the coup. Rumors that it was the Russian security services to warn him of the imminent danger have not been proved or disproved until today, but Erdoğan’s change of heart has been apparent since. The rumors might as well be true to some extent, just as those claiming it was the CIA’s invisible hand assisting the Gullenists organize the event.

Either way, the relationship between Erdoğan and the US was at this point irreparably damaged. Despite Trump’s addressing Erdoğan as a “dear friend”, during two leaders’ meeting at the sidelines of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York last week, the relations remain poor. After the recent US indictment of former Turkish economy minister for his alleged breach of Iranian sanctions, Erdoğan certainly has reasons to remain cautious. Although it is hard to make predictions on how the relations between the US and Turkey would further develop, media insinuations on possible sanctioning of Turkey might soon translate into action, in particular should the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum turn violent and Turkey along with Iran gets bogged down into a military conflict with the Kurds across the region.

The most crucial military and security issue for the future relationship with the US and NATO is related to the Turkish Incirlik Air Base, from which Germany has already started to withdraw its troops last July, due to the row caused by Turkish ban on German parliamentarians’ access to the base earlier this year. The base was first locked down two years ago, prohibiting US personnel and their families from moving freely beyond its gates, while in March last year, all 700 family members who remained were ordered to evacuate. Moreover, following the failed coup Turkish society, including the anti-Erdoğan media, has called repeatedly for the eviction of the American troops from the base.

New war looming – Turkish-Kurdish showdown in Iraq and the aftermath

Siding with Russia and Iran on the Syrian issue in Astana, Turkey has shown its teeth to the NATO allies. When the Gulf crisis broke out early in June this year, triggered by media war between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey has stepped up in support of Qatar, again siding with Iran and against the Saudi-led camp. The most significant blow against its NATO allies for now is clearly the purchase of the Russian SAMs.

Secondly, Iraqi Kurdish referendum on September 25 has pushed Turkey, Iran and Iraq into a united front against the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) ― an alliance that certainly does not please the West, as it puts an additional spoke in the wheel for their plans to contain spread of Iranian influence in the region, as well as plans to establish Kurdish enclave in northern Syria, along Turkish borders.

Although the US, along with the UN, and few other countries have called on the KRG to postpone the referendum, Kurdish president Barzani has not changed the referendum plans. The referendum results will soon be known but the Kurdish problem will not be resolved so easily. Moreover, should the Kurds vote pro-secession the vote may lead to the demands for actual independence of the Kurdish enclave in Iraq, as a starter, and then spill over to Kurdish populated areas in Turkey, Syria and Iran. Since all four countries in question have pledged their support to territorial integrity of each of their neighbors, there is a danger that Kurdish cause will be lost again due to lack of international support.

There is a strong belief among analysts that Erdoğan is readying for war with the KRG forces, which would likely end with Turkish occupation of Iraqi Kurdistan, in the near future, leading to a Cyprus-like situation.

Since Turkey is still a NATO ally, despite its currently strained relations with the bloc, it is highly unlikely that the alliance would use military force against its member in case of Turkish offensive against Kurds on its own and Iraqi territory.

The trajectory of the conflict, in the longer term, however, could change if the Americans find the interest in arming the Kurds for their own geopolitical and economic benefits, and if the conflict could be extended to Iranian Kurdistan. We should remember the Iraq-Iran war where Americans supported Iraq against Iran, to only turn against it and invade it in 2003 when the US policy priorities dictated so, and Saddam Hussein turned from an ally into a foe.

Will Turkey witness the destiny of its Iraqi neighbor remains to be seen. Perhaps Erdoğan has second thoughts about it, and believes that the Russian S-400 air-defense missile systems are the best defense against such American policy whims.

In any case, the extended war in the region that would heavily involve and engage both Turkish and Iranian militaries on two different fronts would be in strategic Western interest as they would drain the economic resources of both countries, weakening them from inside, and creating internal dissent and instability – fertile ground for regime change.  

Iraqi Kurdistan is voting today in what some consider an historic event, that may lead to the establishment of the independent Kurdish state, but for the four countries in which Kurds live the referendum bears hallmarks of a harbinger of more death and destruction, the repercussions of which would likely reverberate throughout the region and beyond for years to come.


Stana Dubajic is an independent geopolitical researcher and analyst, based in the Middle East and the Balkans.