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Putin arrives to Ankara, German military leaves Incirlik airbase for Jordan

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ANALYSIS/COMMENTARY

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Ankara on September 28 for key talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, including recent developments in Iraq and Syria and bilateral relations. At the same time, following months of strained relations between the two NATO-states, on Thursday German military has announced complete withdrawal of its troops from Turkish Incirlik airbase.

According to German contingent commander Stefan Kleinheyer, the transfer of German reconnaissance and refueling aircraft from Turkey’s Incirlik to Jordan’s al-Asrak airbase had been “an unprecedented, mammoth task”, as reported by Deutsche Welle.

The Bundeswehr relocated a set of Tornado reconnaissance jets, a German refueling aircraft, logistical equipment and 260 personnel to Jordan. The troops are involved in oversight of the US-led aerial campaign against “Islamic State” (IS) militia in adjacent Syria. According to German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen the unit was being redeployed to a Jordanian air base used by numerous NATO partners.

The spat between the two countries was caused among many factors by German criticism of Turkish crackdown on renegade military officers who are believed to be behind failed coup in July 2016. In May Turkey denied access to the base to German parliamentary delegation visiting the troops deployed there. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel sharply criticized Turkey’s decision to block the delegation from visiting the troops stationed at the base, calling it ‘a blackmail’. In June German parliament overwhelmingly voted to leave Incirlik, and Jordan was selected as top alternative.

Turkey is having an increasingly tense relationship with the EU, which continues to criticize Erdoğan’s for the post-coup crackdown. The EU has taken a harsh stance on crackdown which has negatively impacted Turkey’s EU-membership efforts. The latest blow to the Turkish years’ long aspirations came from recently reelected German Chancellor Angela Merkel who clearly stated her opposition to Turkey becoming a member of the bloc. Erdoğan on his part responded that the bloc “never kept their promises” to Turkey gaining membership, as reported by Reuters.

Meanwhile, another door of opportunity seems to have opened for Turkey to possibly replace its unsuccessful bid for EU ― Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) founded under the auspices of the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mid-August Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said that Turkey has received a proposal “to begin negotiations with the Eurasian Economic Union on signing a customs agreement. Without violating a corresponding agreement with the EU, Turkey wants to establish another cooperation with the EAEU”.

Besides EAEU Turkey is a pivotal country in China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, President Xi Jinping’s signature project which has prompted Chinese diplomatic efforts in bringing Turkey more into the China-Russia economic-security bloc.

In May Chinese ambassador to Turkey announced that his country was ready to discuss Turkey’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with the other member states.

Speaking ahead of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to China, Ambassador Yu said that “Turkey has reached the position of being a dialogue partner of the organization by attending the activities of the SCO in recent years, adding that “China, which understands Turkey’s intention of becoming a member of the SCO, is ready for Turkey’s membership… in consultation with other member countries.”

The SCO is a regional security bloc made up of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Turkey was approved as one of six “dialogue partners” in 2012, with India and Pakistan joining as new members in June this year. Other than Turkey, two other regional powers have expressed interest in joining ― Iran and Iraq.

All these developments are important recent changes in Turkey’s foreign policy orientation where the growing skepticism of its traditional Western allies is shaping the new Eurasian outlook. With the growing importance of China and its ambitious global development project, the likelihood of Turkey leaving the NATO to join SCO is increasingly distinct. Purchase of Russian state-of-the-art S-400 air defense systems is only a first step in that process.

While Turkey’s critics believe that its chances of leaving the military alliance are slim to none, and understand this move as a short-term tactics of President Erdoğan to put pressure on Western partners to gain some concessions amidst his growing isolation, others see it as a serious issue particularly due to US President Trump’s contradictory stance on NATO. There is a growing belief among experts that should US under Trump decide to dismantle or pull out of NATO there is nothing to keep Turkey in.

The outcomes of today’s Ankara meeting between Russia’s Putin and his Turkish counterpart Erdoğan will surely keep Turkey’s Western allies on their toes for some time. Syrian conflict resolution, Iraqi Kurdish referendum, and many other issues are said to be on the agenda. The results will soon be visible – brace yourselves for interesting few months in the region where Erdoğan will feature prominently.

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