Erdoğan vs. Putin: The Streetfighter and the Agent Face Off

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Man, I woke up feeling stuffed this morning. For the third straight year, I cooked my own turkey this Thanksgiving. It was good fun, with good company, but with lots of food left over, course. 

Erdoğan and Putin have been cooking up conflict, but we've got bird at the BL. 

Slowly, I've been making my way through at least some of the leftovers. For example, today and yesterday I started my day off with the Borderlands Breakfast of Champions: coffee, croissants, and stuffing.  

All in all, it's been an easy and relaxing holiday. 

Pull the trigger, change the conversation

In much of the rest of the world, however, the tone this week has been decidedly different. The governments of Turkey and Russia have been trading accusations over the past few days regarding Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane earlier this week. The question of whether or not Russia's plane was actually in Turkey's airspace matters of course, but only somewhat. Because whether the Russian plane was shot down over Turkey or Syria, one point seems pretty obvious: even if Erdogan thought that the plane was in Turkish airspace, the decision to shoot down the Russian fighter was a conscious choice to escalate tensions and pick a fight with Putin.   

Why create a crisis with Russia? Well, things were hardly going Erdoğan's way after the attacks in Paris on the 13th of November. Erdoğan wants the focus of the international community to be placed upon Assad's ouster, not limiting ISIS. If anything, I think that Turkish officials privately see ISIS as the lesser of two evils vis-a-vis Assad, if not an outright ally. Therefore, all of the talk that had taken place in recent weeks--especially in Paris and Moscow--of coming up with some kind of "grand coalition" opposing ISIS must have been making Erdoğan nervous. 

Showdown between the streetfighter and the agent

So... what to do? Blow a plane out of the sky and change the conversation. Create a confrontation with Russia, one that also brings NATO and Russia on a collision course. Suddenly, no one is talking about anti-ISIS coalitions and/or working with Assad anymore. 

Done and done. 

Streetfighter on the world stage
This is how Erdoğan operatesThe dude's a street-fighter, one with a history of turning upon past confederates. Sure, nobody was really that surprised when it was the military or the Gezi Parkers who were on the receiving end of Erdoğan's wrath, but some of the Turkish president's biggest targets have been his former allies. 

Such was the case with the Gulenists--followers of Futhullah Gulen. The Gulenists were some of Erdogan's most important backers in the early years of AK Party rule. Through their media outlets--and especially by using their  English-language daily Today's Zaman--the Gulenists carried Erdogan's Gulenists carried the AK Party''s water for some time, uncritically re-printing the oftentimes crudely absurd charges that were being made at the time about the journalists, university presidents, NGO types and others who had been caught up in the Ergenekon trials

Gulen & Co. are no longer the big fans of Erdogan that they once were.  
But in late 2003, Erdogan & Company turned on their former cheerleaders, closing down the cram schools that had been one of the big money-makers from the Gulenist brotherhood. NoToday's Zaman is an opposition paper of sorts, finding itself in the cross-hairs of the very power that this paper relentlessly sought to expand prior to 2013.  

I think I've got an idea about what might have led to the breach between the Gulenists and the AKP. 
Why turn against the Gulenists? This part of the story has never been properly explained to me, although my sense has always been that the pie became a little too small for everyone to share it. 

Erdoğan's relationship with Kurdish-related issues and figures is also worth thinking about here. For much of the time during the early years of AK Party ruleErdoğan's approach to dealing with issues related to Kurdish cultural and language rights was exponentially more flexible than that of the Kemalist CHP and most other parties (the exception being the parties associated specifically with Kurdish-related issues)

And while most of the Kurdish-related measures taken during the last 13 years of AK Party rule in Turkey have been primarily symbolic in value--establishing a state-run Kurdish TV network, allowing some villages in the southeast to call themselves by their Kurdish namesallowing Kurdish to be taught in some places in Turkey--they were still more than most of the other parties (excepting the specifically Kurdish-oriented ones) would have considered. Even if the AK Party's "Kurdish initiative" has since come to a crashing halt, I think that the fact that there was an initiative--its rather limited nature notwithstanding--in the first place was a good thing. 
Rojin may have left, but TRT 6 is still around

Now, however, the wars taking place in Syria and the prospect of Kurdish fighters carving out another autonomous or independent statelet in the region has led Erdogan to veer in the opposite direction, toward demonizing Kurdish politicians and militarizing the conflict over the Kurds to a degree unseen in Turkey since the 1990s. 

Erdogan has also been known to suddenly turn against his neighbors as well. A good example is Bashar al-Assad. In the years immediately prior to the 2011 outbreak of protests in Syria, Turkish-Syrian relations were better than they had been for decades. Under the so-called "zero problems with neighbors" approach of then-Foreign Minister (and current Prime Minister) Ahmet Davutoglu, there were hardly any signs, prior to 2011, that relations between Turkey and Syria could get so bad, so fast. Now, however, the same figure that Erdogan's government sought to engage in 2009-2010 is the target of Turkey's undeclared war. 
The Erdogans and Assads in friendlier times
And now we see Turkey's relations with Russia similarly falling apart. As was the case with Syria, Turkey's foreign policy for much of the first decade of the 20th century was dedicated toward improving relations with Moscow, and Turkey is one of the few non-Soviet countries in the world to enjoy visa-free travel with Russia. There was a huge amount of trade and tourism taking place between the two countries. Back when Russia was taking over Crimea--over the vociferous objections of Crimean Tatars--Erdogan kept his mouth shut. But with NATO at his back, Erdogan knows that he can behave as recklessly as he wants vis-a-vis Russia. So he does.  

Is the authoritarian bromance really over?

So one thing that Obama and others should keep in mind is this: sooner or later, there is a good chance that Erdoğan is going to turn against you. If, at any time, Erdoğan decides that Obama would be more useful as an enemy than as a friend, well...look out. At times, the Turkish president seems like someone who almost pathologically needs an enemy. Today's it's Russia. Tomorrow it could just as easily be the US. 

Dragging NATO into it 

And now, by choosing to shoot down one of Russia's planes, Erdoğan risks bringing all of NATO to the edge of conflict with Russia. Turkey's action puts the Obama administration in a difficult position. On the one hand, Obama and other leaders could conceivably argue that since it was Turkey's aggressive stance in Syria that invited Ankara's problems with Russia in the first place, and because this conflict has nothing to do with Russia's broader relations with NATO, any conflict that Erdoğan stumbles into to with Russia should be Turkey's problem alone. 

Taking such a stance would be extremely dangerous, however, for the long-term health of the NATO alliance. What if, a year from now, Moscow were to threaten the sovereignty of NATO members who were once part of the Soviet Union, like Estonia or Latvia? If the US backed down from defending Ankara today, what would prevent other NATO memberfrom similarly refusing to defend another NATO member later on? The Obama administration might not like what Turkey is doing vis-a-vis Russia right now, but there isn't much they can do about it. 

At the same time, however, is it really a good idea to allow NATO's relations with Russia to be dictated by an unstable figure like Erdoğan? Hopefully, Obama and the rest of NATO can find a way to distance themselves somewhat from Ankara without bringing on a full-scale rift with Turkey. 

But if such a rift does take place, maybe the Obama team shouldn't feel so bad. After all, such developments are pretty much par for the course when it comes to the Turkish president

Also see: 

More on Russia-Turkey Conflict 

Turkey Shoots Down Russian Warplane 

Thoughts and Questions re France and ISIS

Thinking about Paris 

Nothing to Celebrate  

Responding post-Charlie

10 Questions Regarding Syria

160 librarians can't be wrong! Ask yours to order a copy of Turks Across Empires at the OUP website or from Amazon.  
More links, commentary and photographs available poolside at the Borderlands Lounge.  

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