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Thorny alliances in Turkey's regional diplomacy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives before a meeting with European Commission President and EU Council President at the EU headquarters in Brussels on 9 March, 2020 [JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images]
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives before a meeting with European Commission President and EU Council President at the EU headquarters in Brussels on 9 March, 2020 [JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images]

Turkey’s regional diplomacy has necessitated some thorny alliances which threaten to remove it from the usual rules of the game which drive its foreign policies. Links with Russia, the US and Iran in both Syria and Libya are problematic.

In Syria, Turkey is tackling the Kurds who are supported by the US, Israel and some Arab countries. Nevertheless, Ankara maintains its relations with Washington, despite the alleged US involvement in the 2016 attempted coup against the Erdogan regime. The US still uses the Turkish airbase from which the coup started.

The Turkish army uses a Russian missile defence system, but the relationship with Washington has weathered this, as both Turkey and the US are members of NATO. Turkey joined the organisation in 1946 despite falling outside NATO’s nominal geographical area.

Turkish-US relations have coped with many crises over the years, the most violent of which was the occupation of North Cyprus by Turkey in 1974, and the imposition of a US arms embargo. Turkey responded by closing 19 American bases within its territory, a move which affected the strategic relations between Washington and Ankara.

READ: Turkey says Macron suffers ‘eclipse of the mind’ over Libya

Although Washington sided with Israel over the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, when Israeli commandos attacked a Turkish-backed humanitarian aid convoy heading for Gaza in international waters, this did not affect its strategic relations with Ankara. Indeed, the US acknowledges that Turkey has a role to play in America’s favour in its relations with Russia.

In Libya, for example, the US supports the Turkish role which challenges Russia’s attempt to establish a base on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, on Europe’s and NATO’s doorstep. Hence, Washington did not object to Turkey’s rapprochement with Libya’s Government of National Accord, despite covert US support for rebel Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and the fact that America’s allies in the Gulf support him, as, perhaps, does Israel.

Moscow denies official support for Haftar and the Russian mercenaries operating in the North African country. However, Washington has monitored the presence of Russian warplanes in support of the rebels. Given this sensitive situation, Turkey and Russia are discussing possible coordination to avoid direct clashes on the battlefield.

US sanctions on Turkey – Cartoon [AlArabi21News/Twitter]

Indeed, Turkey’s relations with Russia are still relatively healthy. Despite its 2015 downing of a Russian military aircraft which is said to have entered its airspace, Turkey has important economic and tourism ties with Russia, and imports Russian gas and oil.

In Syria, Russia supports the Damascus government, which goes against Ankara’s objectives, while Turkey supports the Islamic leaders who Russia regards as its strategic and historical enemies, as does Iran. Furthermore, Russia’s military activities in Syria threaten NATO, of which Turkey is a strategically-important member.

The situation in Syria is complex in terms of regional alliances. Turkey and Iran are on opposite sides there, but Iran does not object to the Turkish role in Libya. Ankara also coordinates with Tehran to fight the terrorist PKK Kurdish group and the Kurds in general, just as Turkey works with Iran on the issue of US sanctions, and supports Tehran’s freedom to make its own decisions about nuclear power.

READ: Turkey reiterates its support for Libya’s Government of National Accord

Turkey understands that the problem between Iran and the US neither affects it nor clashes with its own interests, although Iran would like to see an end to the American presence in the region. Washington, meanwhile, does not recognise Iran as a regional power and criticises Tehran’s perceived threat to Israel.

One thing that Turkey agrees with Iran about is the need to have a political solution in Syria that guarantees the integrity of Syrian sovereignty. However, it is not happy about boosting Iran’s military presence in Syria, or turning its neighbour into an arena for a confrontation between Iran and both Israel and the US.

In summary, Turkey is an ally of Russia, the US and Iran, but its alliances are subject to multiple challenges, so much so that Ankara is keen to adjust the scale to avoid it becoming unbalanced. This is a task that requires accuracy and clever diplomacy.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 23 June 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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