It was clear at the Brookings Institution on last Tuesday that nothing is easy to predict when it comes to Turkey-Russia relations. As Torrey Taussig of the Brookings Institution, moderator of the panel “The Roller Coaster of Turkey-Russia Relations,” underlined significant events such as Turkey’s decision to purchase weapons from Russia, the increased dialogue among Turkey, Russia, and Iran concerning the Syrian war, Turkey’s move towards authoritarianism, and increasing anti-Western sentiment in both countries. To further discuss the relationship between Turkey and Russia based on a recently published report, “An Ambiguous Partnership, The Serpentine Trajectory of Turkish-Russian Relations in the Era of Erdoğan and Putin,” Taussig was joined by the authors, Pavel Baev and Kemal Kirişci of the Brookings Institution, as well as Evren Balta of New York University and Naz Durakoğlu of the US Senate.
Immediately evident in the remarks made by the panelists were the frequent fluctuations in relations between Turkey and Russia. Kirişci began his comments by referring to the Turkish shoot-down a Russian plane in 2015. Putin reacted by saying that Turkey’s actions were a “stab in the back by accomplices of terrorists,” associating Turkey with extremist groups fighting in Syria. These comments came only months after Putin had invited Erdoğan to Moscow to restore and open a mosque, making the sharp and sudden shift in discourse an unexpected one. Baev described the study of Turkey-Russia relations as “shooting at a moving target.” Conflicts between the two countries, motivated by their many differences, are common; the positive aspects of their relationship are more puzzling.
The sources of animosity between the two countries are easier to identify. Kirişci noted Russia’s discomfort with Turkey’s leading role in the world of political Islam, which Balta added was a major security threat to Russia. He added that Russia, in fact, saw itself as part of “European civilization” that Turkey no longer fit into, despite what he considered a long European heritage that dated back to Ottoman times.
According to Kirişci, beginning with the Arab Spring, Turkey has shifted from a European identity and to a major player in the Islamic world. Turkey saw the Arab Spring from a religious perspective, while Russia simply from a regime change perspective. Balta also referred to the competing interests of Russia and Turkey in Syria, with each supporting opposing sides. Russia has long been a supporter of the regime of Bashar Al Assad, aiding the government in numerous ways in the fight against the opposition, while Turkey has been an outspoken supporter of the opposition, leading to the association with extremist groups mentioned earlier. What has allowed the two countries to maintain a relationship has been in part Turkey’s acceptance of Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict, according to Balta.
Other factors include collaboration on different domestic issues. For example, Turkey imports most of its energy resources from Russia, and pipelines being built in Turkey will make Turkey a transit route for gas from Russia. Russia will be working on the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear plant. The Kurdish issue has also, for the time being, brought the two countries together. While Balta admitted that Russia may find an opportunity to threaten Turkey by taking the side of the Kurds against Turkey in the future, she emphasized that, currently, Russia is more supportive of Turkey in the fight against the Kurds than the US is, raising another point of common anti-Westernism, which multiple panelists evoked. Turkey and Russia mistrust Western intentions in the region, with both perceiving the goals of the West to be regime and territorial change.
Durakoğlu discussed the relationship from a Western perspective, drawing from her experience at the US Department of State. She emphasized that Turkey’s relationship with Europe is largely an economic one, and its relationship with the US is a security-related one. Turkey’s relationship with Russia, in Durakoğlu’s opinion, has no such definition and is “personality-driven,” based largely on a common anti-Western sentiment.
With its recent, post-coup authoritarian trajectory, Turkey has been “taking risks,” relating particularly to its relations with the US, which could “backfire” as the tolerance of American policymakers decreases. Kirişci sees the relationship between Turkey and the US as similar in its ambiguity to the US relationship with Russia. While Turkey has a stronger relationship with the US than it does with Russia, the Kurdish issue ultimately drives Ankara and Washington apart. Durakoğlu seconded this, noting that Turks constitute the biggest international student population in the US.
The panelists talked mostly a Turkish perspective, which Baev justified by reminding the audience that Turkey remains a US ally, while Russia’s relations with the US are less friendly. Tthe importance of understanding Turkey’s relations, whether it be with Russia, Europe, or the US, was made clear at the panel, making the event, as one of a few that have dealt with these topics, all the more valuable.
In a previous post, I focused on what I learned last week about the prospects for Idlib, a Syrian province still largely controlled by both moderate and extremist, non-regime forces. For the moderate opposition, which counts about 100 local councils there, Idlib is the center of gravity of its fight against the regime, even though Hayat al Sham (the Al Qaeda affiliate) has taken over much of the province (and controls an additional 40 or so local councils).
But there are many other issues in the rest of Syria that will contribute to determining the outcome of this long, costly, and deadly war.
First is the condition of the regime itself. Its regular Syrian Arab Army is down to below 40,000 soldiers, from a nominal strength of 125,000 before the war. Defections, deaths and injuries presumably account for the difference. As the regular army has declined, special forces and militias, some sponsored by Iran, have grown. These are less unified and less disciplined than the army, with commanders who are notoriously indifferent to human rights and other niceities. The dictatorship may well grow harsher as it tries to reassert control with diminished resources.
Even in its weakened state, the regime is seeking to shape Syria’s demography to its advantage, by moving politically loyal people into sensitive areas and leaving some districts once controlled by the opposition in ruins. It is also trying to ensure that reconstruction resources, insofar as they become available, will be under the control of regime-affiliated public/private partnerships, often at the municipal level. The local councils associated with the opposition are immediately disbanded when the regime takes over an area. Their members and associated activists are listed by name as among the first to be expelled/evacuated, so far usually to Idlib.
Areas other than Idlib out of regime control include the Euphrates Shield area under Turkish occupation, the Kurdish-controlled (PYD) “self-administration” zones, and the southern front, in addition to Raqqa and Deir Azour.
The Turks have trained and deployed more than 1000 mostly Arab police to operate in the Euphrates Shield area, have initiated local councils in Azaz and Al Bab, and are trying to restart schools and health services there, with less than complete success. They are also shutting out Syrian opposition people who would like to operate there. While Ankara might like most of the almost 2.5 million refugees it has received to return to Syria eventually, no more than one-quarter appear likely to do so. Some more highly qualified Syrians are now being offered Turkish citizenship.
The Turks regard the PYD and its associated YPG (Kurdish) and SDF (that’s YPG plus Arabs) forces that the US is relying on to take Raqqa as unreliable at best, hostile at worst. No Turks I talked with doubt that the PYD is just the PKK (the Kurdish rebel forces in Turkey) by another name. The Turks are hoping the US will abandon the PYD after taking Raqqa, force the return of the weapons it provided to the Kurds, and reengage productively with its Turkish ally. Ankara is looking for a gesture from the US, which is now regarded by ordinary Turks as their number one security threat responsible for not only the PKK but also the Gulenist coup, and ISIS (sic).
In Raqqa, there will be a tug-of-war between the US-sponsored city council and an opposition-controlled provincial council that has Turkish blessing. While this could be settled amicably with a division of labor, it could also prove problematic, as the provincial council is under Turkish influence and the city council includes people named by the PYD. It will not be easy to reopen the schools, re-establish health care and provide pyscho-social support for Raqqa’s seriously damaged infrastructure and people. For Deir Azour, the regime appears to have the upper hand, though some think the SDF will be prepared to fight the regime for it.
The southern front is opaque when viewed from Turkey. Everyone there just assumes that it will be maintained along the border with Israel and Jordan, in order to protect those two US allies. That sounds about right to me, though it may be tougher than it sounds.
The bottom line: If this war ends any time soon, the post-war process will be markedly different in different parts of the country. That’s ironic, because both the regime and the main opposition forces want it to remain united. More about that in a future post.
Micah Zenko last week in the New York Times obliterated not only Trump’s proposed “new” strategy in Afghanistan but also the entire military-heavy approach to counter-terrorism that has dominated American efforts since the inauguration of Barack Obama. It simply doesn’t work well to just kill people you think are terrorists: there are always replacements, the civilian collateral damage is enormous, and the ungoverned spaces that result are breeding grounds for more recruits. While ISIS may be going down to defeat in the territory it once controlled, it will reemerge as a guerrilla group using terrorist tactics rather than the more conventional military approach it has so successfully employed the past few years.
So what is the alternative?
Max Boot and P.J. Crowley have already named it loud and clear: nation-building. Regular readers of peacefare.net, and those few who have picked up Righting the Balance advertised on this page, will not be surprised that I think them correct. There are, however, two big problems with this answer:
- Presidents don’t want to do it.
- Americans are convinced it doesn’t work.
The only civilian nation-building assistance effort Americans think successful is the Marshall Plan, launched almost seventy years ago to aid US allies in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Civilian efforts during the Vietnam war are generally regarded by non-experts as a failure, because we lost the war, even though CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) is regarded by some experts as somewhat successful. Americans generally disregard the modestly successful UN and other efforts since the fall of the Berlin wall.
American presidents are as adverse as public opinion, but often change their minds. Bill Clinton told Americans he was sending US troops to Bosnia for a year. They stayed for 9 years, largely to ensure peace and stability during the nation-building enterprise. US troops deployed to Kosovo in 1999 and are still there, because its sovereignty is still incomplete. George W. Bush famously derided nation-building during his first campaign, and then launched two enormous efforts: in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Barack Obama, as in many things more disciplined than most, withdrew from Iraq but extended the US presence in Afghanistan, largely because the nation-building effort there was still incomplete. President Trump has said we won’t be nation-building in Afghanistan, but he may be the only one left in the US government who believes that is in fact the case.
“Nation-building” is of course a misnomer. I would call what is needed “state-building.” Nations are groups that self-identify. States are institutional structures that can be constructed in particular social contexts that include the existence, or not, of a nation. From this perspective, there are successful multi-national states, including the US, but also less successful ones, like Bosnia or Iraq. But both Bosnia and Iraq are illiberal electoral democracies arguably, even if many will not agree, improvements over the autocracies that preceded them.
Today the question of state-building in the greater Middle East arises not only in Afghanistan but also in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and still in Iraq because of the scheduling of a Kurdistan referendum for September 25. There are basically two ways to go: allow the autocracies to be restored in Syria, Libya and Yemen, or try (as in Afghanistan and Iraq) to preserve some modicum of popular sovereignty. Tunisia is perhaps the best example of success in the latter enterprise.
I think it will be hard to re-impose the autocracies, but President Sisi has mostly done it in Egypt. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t stable, but it kills a lot of people Sisi defines as terrorists. President Assad would obviously like to do the same thing. In Libya, General Haftar is of the same mind, and in Yemen former President Saleh would presumably like his son to restore the old regime, which was an illiberal democracy in form but an autocracy in practice.
I’d prefer the more democratic route, even if the results are illiberal. Admittedly the preference is more a subjective than an objective one. While you can read in many places, including on peacefare.net, that what is needed to fight terrorism is inclusive states that treat their populations in accordance with international human rights standards, we’ve got precious few recent examples of success. But I am quite certain that the purely military approach simply will not work, and I’d prefer my tax dollars not support the restoration of autocracy.
Following my op/ed for the Washington Post on this subject, Peter Galbraith and I debated the issue for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Al Rudaw TV:
Comments as always are welcome.
Celeste Ward Gventer and I did this piece for Luke Vargas’ radio program Wake. We were actually recorded separately and spliced together by Luke. I’m not sure I approve of the process, but the result is okay, apart from the more or less obvious glitches in the transcript.
For those who are thinking, what difference does all this make? So the President wrote a fib for his son about a meeting with Russian agents, the Republicans failed to pass Trumpcare by just one vote, the potty-mouthed Communications Director got fired before he was hired? This is all small beans compared to today’s challenges: North Korea with nuclear weapons and missiles that can reach the US, Hizbollah running rampant in Iraq and Syria, Venezuela coming apart at the seams.
Yes, it is small beans, but that makes it more harmful rather than less. The President is weak domestically and disdained internationally:He is unable to manage even small issues without embarrassing himself. International support is evaporating. Japan and South Korea have no choice but to align with the US against Kim Jong-un, but the rest of Asia is still reeling from Trump’s sinking the Trans Pacific Partnership, most of Europe and Latin America are lost to American leadership, and the Middle East is consuming itself.
Adversaries are encouraged. Only friendly dictators are comforted, knowing that Trump will not criticize the homicidal crackdown on drug traffickers in the Philippines or the restoration of military dictatorship in Egypt, never mind the absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia or the elected autocracy in Turkey.
America’s two biggest challenges right now are China and Russia. The Chinese are bemused by Trump’s warmth one day followed by bluster and threats the next. He has given the Chinese no compelling reason to be helpful on anything: the South China Sea, North Korea, or trade. Beijing hasn’t done anything dramatic to show off its advantages, but it doesn’t really need to. Xi Jinping gets better ratings than Trump, even if he lags Angela Merkel:
Russia is less shy. It is expelling most of the US embassy, with nary a tweet yet from Trump in protest, and assembling a massive military exercise on the border with NATO. President Putin is disappointed in the return on his investment in Trump, but for the moment at least he seems prepared to take it out on the US government rather than Trump’s business empire, which depends on Russian purchasers and investors. That is odds-on the reason for Trump refusing to make his tax returns public, but it will be clear enough the day Russia decides to yank Trump’s personal chain.
I know lots of people think America looked weak under President Obama, who purposefully set out to reduce American commitments around the world. In withdrawing from the Middle East, he left a vacuum that others exploited. But Trump is continuing that policy, with a lot less finesse. Ending aid to the Syrian opposition, declaring that the US has no interest in Libya, allowing President Erdogan to reverse Turkey’s democratic evolution, and failing to oppose Kurdistan’s referendum on independence are decisions that will have serious consequences for a decade or more. His policy proposals are disliked worldwide:
Can the situation be saved by a retired general as White House Chief of Staff? No more than it has been saved by a general as Defense Secretary and another as National Security Adviser. The fish rots from the head, as the late lamented Communications Director averred. General Kelly may impose some order on the policy process, but the President will still say and tweet what he wants, the family will confer with him at will, and the white supremacists, alt right freaks, and Fox news friends he likes so much (except when they won’t fire the Special Prosecutor) will still have his rapt attention. None of that will change what the world thinks of the man and the country he now leads so badly:
Source for the lovely graphs: Trump Unpopular Worldwide, American Image Suffers | Pew Research Center