Turkish Unilateralism; Oscillating between US and Russia


Turkey is a NATO member and is expected to share cordial and strategic ties with US. However, the regional objectives of both US and Turkey vary considerably and there is clash of interests between the two, which have brought the relations between the two states to the lowest level since WWII.
Two main factors stirred up the worsening of the US-Turkey relations. First one is the Turkish downing of Russia jet in 2015. Being aware of Turkey’s status as the NATO member, Russia resisted the direct military retaliation, instead employed other economic sanctions since Turkey is dependent upon Russia in energy. On the contrary, Turkey found itself on its own as US reaction was insisted on de-escalation – termed as cautious – instead of vehemently supporting its NATO ally. Second and the foremost factor was the US support to Kurds which Turkey considers a security threat. Being a member of “Coalition against ISIS”, Turkey is expected to assist in combat operations against the terrorist group. However, Turkey was more focused in its fight against PKK (the Kurdish military group). This divergence in strategies ultimately deteriorated the relations between US and Turkey and brought Turkey in strategic partnership with Russia.
After observing the cold attitude from the US and not been able to secure its membership in European Union, Turkey formulated a foreign policy posture termed as “Look East” policy. This means that Turkey has shifted its focus in building good relations with countries of Asia-Pacific and Middle East. Turkey desperately went in quest for the regional allies. Russia proved to be that ally which can counter balance the US role. By offering a formal apology to Russia by President Erdogan for the downing of Russian jet and participating in the Astana Peace Talks, Turkey has been in close terms with Russia.
Unlike US, Russia was more conciliatory regarding Turkey’s concern for Kurds. However when the relations seemed to be formalizing into a strategic partnership, Turkey’s military offensive inside Kurdish-held regions for the establishment of “safe zone” in 2019, has created the rift between Moscow and Ankara. As Kurdish forces (Syrian Democratic Forces) and Syrian Arab Army are allied together, Turkey’s attempt to influx the refugees inside the “safe zone” and establish the autonomous government, was the intimidation of Russian plans for Syria. Hence, this brought the two states in confrontation against each other and resulted in the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in March 2020. This not only aggravated Russia but also its new ally which is Iran.
The Turko-Russian rivalry is not just limited to the Syrian conflict. Since, Turkey is playing an assertive role in consolidating its position as leader of Muslim world; it has become active in Middle East. Thus, there are many issues and instances on basis of which there is clash of interest between Turkey and its regional ally Russia. In Libya, both Russia and Turkey are supporting the opposite sides. Turkey is backing the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) while Russia is supporting the forces of Khalifa Haftar. Turkey’s motive to support GNA is largely driven by its desire to control the Mediterranean Sea and expand its influence. Control over Mediterranean Sea would mean access to MENA region which would be pivotal for geopolitical, geo-economic and geostrategic interests of Turkey. In its desire, Turkey is attempting to get control over the air and naval bases of North-African nation and violating the UN-imposed arms embargo. Similarly, Turkish support to Azerbaijan in the latter’s recent escalation with Armenia, also heightened the tensions of Turkey with Russia. The escalation in Russian backyard could have the replicating security implications for Russia while Russia’s priority is to secure peace in the Caucasus. Although the ceasefire has been carried out resulting in the Azerbaijan’s victory yet the tensions remain high as Turkey is now expected to replicate this victory into its political influence.
Conclusively, in its struggle to balance between US and Russia, Turkey is failing in both ways. By signing the agreement of purchasing S-400 Missile Defence System of Russia, Turkey is alienating itself from the NATO allies while in the quest of implementing its own model in Syria, Turkey is endangering its partnership with Russia. Turkey seems to be playing in both ways i.e. creeping the benefits of being the NATO member while exploiting its leverage over the rebels inside Syria. However, this policy of Turkey is backfiring as it is losing the allies. Turkey’s ambitious plan of building its own bloc and revive the Ottoman legacy might get attraction in the Central Asian Republics (CARs) due to the shared heritage, however, in Middle East and North Africa, Turkey has been facing the opposition. Hence, the unilateral approach of Turkey is pushing itself towards isolation and might prove to be disastrous for Turkey in the longer run.

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