Turkish-Russian-Iranian Nexus Poses a Threat

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

Guest Commentary

The Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, who ordered the shooting down of a Russian warplane last November and hurled volleys of insults at his Russian counterpart, now refers to President Vladimir Putin as his “dear friend”.

Putin must be inwardly smirking, but he is going along with this buddy-buddy charade because it serves his interests. He knows that a Turkish embrace is a virtual blast of cold air between Ankara and its Western allies. From his perspective anything that weakens NATO is a plus point.

The wily Russian fox is certainly aware that his punitive economic retaliation against Turkey in response to the incident – combined with Russia’s deployment of an advanced surface-to-air missile system on Syrian soil hampering Turkey’s campaign against Kurdish groups – triggered Erdogan’s charm offensive.

Just days ago, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlat Cavusoglu arrived in Tehran presumably to seal the fledgling Turkish-Iranian-Russian pact for greater cooperation to end the conflict raging in Syria despite the fact that until now they have been on the opposite page.

Like President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry, who have been shamefully outfoxed by Putin in Syria, Erdogan has muted his insistence that President Bashar Al Assad must go and is no longer demanding that Iran and its terrorist groups must withdraw.

His fervour to work towards a free Syria unyoked from one of the most brutal regimes in living history has been replaced by his determination to annihilate Syrian and Iraqi Kurds with links to the secessionist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), including those armed and advised by the US to confront the Islamic State.

Coincidentally or otherwise, in recent weeks, the Syrian Air Force has launched a bombing campaign against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)-dominated towns and cities in the north of the country despite US warnings, which makes one wonder whether such attacks have been carried out at Turkey’s behest.

To say this budding nexus is of great concern to Turkey’s NATO partners and another of Erdogan’s new best friends, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is an understatement. In recent months he has gone out of his way to mend fences with Israel, retreating on his pledge that the siege on Gaza must be lifted before relations could be restored.

Israel welcomed the détente with an ally of the United States, especially one with a powerful military machine working closely with the United States, GCC countries and Jordan to cleanse Syria of the Assad regime and its combat cohorts — Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah — militias as well as Islamic State terrorists.

But now that Ankara has seemingly defected to the other side, joining forces with a Russian-Shiite front dedicated to keeping Assad in power, this will undoubtedly throw that renewed intelligence-sharing partnership into disarray.

Simultaneously, the relations between Turkey and the United States have been at an all-time low since the unsuccessful coup attempt. Polls show that a majority of Turks, including those holding prominent positions in the government and media, believe the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) either knew it was about to happen or was the instigator in collaboration with the self-exiled billionaire cleric Fethullah Gulen. The accusatory drumbeat was so ear-shattering that President Obama felt obliged to publicly deny the US had anything to do with it.

Erdogan wants his arch enemy’s head on a platter and if the US declines to serve him up due to a lack of hard evidence, not only does the Turkish President threaten worsening relations, the US military’s use of Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base could be curtailed.

Washington, which stores tactical nukes at the base, has had a taste of what may be in store. In July, Ankara closed the airspace over Incirlik and according to various media outlets, including the Jerusalem Post, “1,500 US airmen and their families” were locked down even as anti-American Turkish protestors trampled US flags outside. US senators and commentators are now clamouring for the 50 or so vulnerable nukes to be transferred out of country.

This is a situation which could develop in one of two ways. So far, the Obama administration appears inclined to kowtow to Erdogan’s demands. Vice President Joe Biden is due to visit Ankara on Wednesday; he says the issue of Gulen is scheduled to top the discussion agenda. Officials from the Department of State and the Department of Justice will also shortly travel to Turkey to pursue enquiries.

Note, too, that whereas EU heads of state have openly criticized Turkey over the government’s increasingly authoritarian bent, its relentless purges and ambitions to reinstate the death penalty, White House admonitions have ranged from extremely mild to zero.

Some pundits suggest that Erdogan’s Russian/Iranian pivot is a ploy to give him greater leverage with the United States and NATO. Others say he is attempting to walk a tightrope, unwilling to burn his boats with western powers and their Sunni Arab allies but keen to hedge his bets within the Russian-led camp.

It was not so long ago that Erdogan was being feted in the GCC  as the leader of a brotherly country, someone who could be trusted to stand by the Sunni Arab world. His strange new alliances and shock U-turns are beginning to feel like a stab in the back.

This worrying, rearranged geopolitical scenario, not to mention the never-ending horrors unleashed on helpless Syrian communities, not only result from Obama’s weak leadership but also the unwillingness of Arab leaderships to keep their promise to rescue the Syrian people from the dictator and his Hezbollah cronies.

I cannot count the number of columns I have written urging the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and/or the Arab League to cut the head of the snake before it multiplies. I am tired of issuing warning after warning that is inevitably unheeded. I have been saying for years that the US will one day make a Grand Bargain with Iran when such an eventuality seemed remote.

To be frank, we have been lacking in commitment in Syria as well as in Iraq, where pro-Iranian, government-approved militias slaughter Sunnis and destroy their homes and businesses.

Moscow on the other hand has shown commitment. Putin has put his money and his airpower where his mouth is and it may be that Erdogan has been lured by what he perceives to be the winning side.

The way this is panning-out gives me chills. Obama shakes hands with the ayatollah conspirators in Syria’s bloodshed, he refers to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni States as freeloaders, and has now chosen to cut US military advisers working with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen while US lawmakers consider a vote to bar weapons sales to the Kingdom. Add to that the Turkish-Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis and anyone with half a brain can envision gathering storm clouds.

When will we learn our life and death lesson! Sunni Arab States are being either physically eroded, thrust into sectarian conflicts or undercut economically. Is this all part of a greater blueprint to destroy Saudi Arabia, Gulf States, Egypt and Jordan? Do not think they would not try it, particularly now that Turkey has distanced itself from the unofficial Sunni Arab bloc! The West is only interested to go where its bread’s buttered and thanks to Mr Obama, the mullahs have plenty of butter to spare.

Once again, I strongly urge our leaderships to trust no one and rely on no other state but those within our own sphere that share our vision and fears. GCC states and their closest allies need to get proactive diplomatically and militarily. What happened to the Joint Arab Force for instance? Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry says it is still in progress, but why is it taking so long?

Enough sleep walking into the hell that is being prepared for us! We must shore up our defensive capabilities, unify our armies and, if need be, make our uniforms at the ready. As soon as we begin depending on ourselves instead of hanging on to America’s coattails, the more secure we and our loved ones will be.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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