Erdoğan’s looking for a way out: from Putin’s Su-35 in Istanbul, to a possible NY dinner with Trump
Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan told Reuters that Turkey could buy American Patriot missiles as well as the Russian S-400s on September 14, the day that a Russian Su-35 fighter jet landed in Istanbul for an exposure in the Teknofest Aviation Fair. In this way, he managed to give off signals that simultaneously play up to and gently spite both the U.S. and Russia, right on the brink of two important developments regarding Turkish foreign relations.
Firstly, there is the Astana Process meeting which will be held in Ankara on September 16 between Erdoğan, Russian Head of state Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani; this will be the fifth meeting between the three leaders since November 2017. The second decisive moment might come during a possible dinner on September with U.S. President Donald Trump in New York.
We’ll come to that interesting dinner in New York but first, let’s take a look at the crucial Ankara meeting… The Astana meeting will be held at a time where Turkey is having serious problems with Russia in Idlib. To Ankara, Russian Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov’s pre-meeting speech, where he said that “the war in Syria is over and there are only tensions in the East of Euphrates and Idlib”, was rather unsettling. This statement is being understood as expressing that the only remaining tension in Syria were concerns of Turkey only. Another way to put it would be that if Turkey’s problem with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) would die out, Russia could claim that the war in Syria was over.
Iran is on a similar page with Russia. The support that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Shia militants give the Assad regime disturbs Ankara. But there is little to be done about it; it also doesn’t change the fact that the two countries are Astana partners. Trump, on the other hand, is giving signs that the U.S. might soften its Iran policy, with the leverage of an E.U.-backed plan by French President Emmanuel Macron. Another critical development preceding the crucial Beştepe meeting was the attack on oil refineries in Saudi Arabia, carried out by pro-Iran Yemenite militants on September 14 night. Rouhani is pushing his schedule instead of Erdoğan’s – the host of the meeting.
It looks as though all parties involved, from the U.S. to Russia, to Iran, are starting to imply that if only Turkey had stopped worrying about the PKK, which is of vital importance in terms of Turkey’s national security, then the whole Syria problem could be solved; that also disturbs Ankara.
There is a dire context to this: Turkey is facing a serious backlash from its NATO partner, the U.S., for having purchased Russian missiles. The Turkish government, on the other hand, to spite the U.S. for its F-35 “unwinding” move, chose to showcase the Russian Su-35s in Istanbul for the world to see, something which he had specifically asked Putin for during their Moscow meeting on August 27.
It almost looks as though Russia has accepted the U.S. control established East of Euphrates through collaboration with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian branch of the PKK. It could even consider that even a Kurdish federation could potentially be a negotiating point in Geneva.
This situation weakens Ankara’s Safe Zone requests vis a vis the U.S. Heroic clamors and domestic psychologic operations on the Kurdish-problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) will do no good, for actions speak louder than words. By doing the rounds with both the Turkish army and the PYD, the U.S. is testing Turkey’s limits.
Though the Syrian situation remains difficult, Erdoğan doesn’t want to let go of Trump’s June 29 Osaka meeting pledge to increase the trading volume to ﹩100 billion.
Trump has shown that he means it by sending his Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to Turkey for 5 days on September 6-10. For Trump, it’s not just a matter between the U.S. and Turkey: the aim is to make up for the trading deficit resulting from a trade war with China, and Turkey would only be among other developing countries providing goods for the U.S. However, Turkish Minister of Commerce Ruhsar Pekcan, as well as other private company representatives who have been to the meeting with Ross, imply that there is no concrete plan at hand yet; the only exception might be the American defense industry’s nearly cartoonish “don’t buy from Russia, buy from us” attitude. It’s therefore not in vain that Trump brings up the Patriot purchase right at a time where Turkey is having difficulties with Russia concerning the Syrian strategy.
A detail not to miss here is Erdoğan telling Reuters that they might talk about this with Trump in New York. Erdoğan is expected to be in New York between September 21-25 for United Nations General Assembly meetings; within this framework, the President chooses brings up the conversation he will have with Trump.
It’s difficult to envisage that meeting in a formal environment. It is reported that there are over a hundred requests to meet Trump in New York. This is why a special dinner has been organized.
The dinner’s host is the president of the Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TUBC), Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, who has been opening up a commercial diplomacy channel between the two states for some time and had conducted a preliminary meeting with Ross I Washington on August 29. Erdoğan is scheduled to be there, at the famous Cipriani restaurant on the 42nd street in Manhattan, to launch the roadmap to make the ﹩100 billion target real. Immense effort has been paid to ensure that Trump will meet Erdoğan at Cipriani before his fundraising dinner, so that he could then deliver a supportive speech. The efforts to make the plan real include a parallel diplomacy between Berat Albayrak, the Treasury and Finance Minister, also President Erdoğan’s son-in-law, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s Middle East Special Envoy and his son-in-law. (By the way, it’s worth mentioning that the Teknofest event, which hosted the Russian Su-35 in Istanbul, is being carried out by the T3 Foundation, led by Selçuk Bayraktar who has been producing Turkey’s domestic-made armed UAVs. It’s also worth noting that Bayraktar, Erdoğan’s other so-in-law, has proved success in his business before his marriage.)
Erdoğan’s recent words when he said Turkey could also buy Patriots could as well be a part of Trump’s endeavor to tell investors to “come to Turkey”.
The S-400s were bought for $2.5 billion. What amount will be paid for the Patriots is unclear but it will surely amount to more than that. Will this sudden expense help overcome the dire situation in Turkey’s foreign policy, at a time where the economy is shrinking by the third quarter now, where Erdoğan and Albayrak are struggling to keep the foreign currency and the interest rates low through political moves, and where the cost of living is felt way higher than the official inflation rates?
Turkey is in such a difficulty because the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has gotten involved in the Syrian civil war eight years ago despite all warnings. In the fall of 2011 it was Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu who said that Bashar al-Assad would be toppled in in six months and it was –then- Prime Minister Erdoğan who said that even peace talks in Syria was not possible before Assad leaves; Assad still remains in his place. The Jarabulus and Afrin operations of the Turkish military in Syria were made possible by Putin’s backing, who is the major supporter of Assad. The safety of the Turkish military monitors around Idlib are kept in jeopardy for the sake of the “opposition” militants that the Turkish government still sees as allies.
Erdoğan is upping his gear, both against Putin and against Trump. And he’s doing this right at a time where the other two leaders are sort of flirting to settle the Syria issue in Geneva, by also seeking a new balance regarding Iran.
Upping a gear has its advantages but the risk becomes higher too. Let’s hope Turkey and the Turkish people will not be the ones to suffer from this move.