Changing BFFs


Tayyip Erdoğan was in St. Petersburg today, bro-ing it out with fellow sort-of-democratically-elected autocrat Vladimir Putin:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russian trade sanctions on Turkey would be phased out “step by step”.

“The priority is to get back to the pre-crisis level of co-operation,” he told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St Petersburg.

Their relations soured last November when Turkey shot down a Russian bomber on the Syrian border.

It is Mr Erdogan’s first foreign visit since an attempted coup last month. He has since launched a far-reaching purge of the armed forces and other state institutions.

Speaking in St Petersburg Mr Erdogan thanked Mr Putin, saying a call from the Russian leader after the coup “meant a lot psychologically”.

He said “the Moscow-Ankara friendship axis will be restored”.

Both countries stand to benefit heavily from a re-normalization of relations, though Turkey, as it gets freed from Russian trade sanctions and travel restrictions, probably stands to benefit more than Russia. But the two countries had a couple of major joint energy programs in the pipeline that both of them need to get moving again. Turkey’s economy has been doing fairly well, all things equal, but there are structural concerns ou there on the horizon, and the instability following last month’s attempted coup and the subsequent purge, added to pressures caused by terrorism, war with the Kurds, and the Syrian refugee crisis, should have people in Ankara at least mildly concerned. Russia’s economy, meanwhile…well, their central bank says the recession is over, but the IMF appears to disagree, and really whichever story you buy, you’re picking between contraction and very slow growth, neither of which is ideal.

A reset in Turkey-Russia relations isn’t particularly surprising. The two countries have too many economic links to cut each other off permanently over the killing of a couple of Russian pilots, or even over the fact that they’re still on opposite sides in Syria–well, for now, anyway. But the import of Erdoğan and Putin getting back together (in a way that, frankly, was a little weird) is being magnified by Turkey’s continued split from its Western allies, in particular the United States. That split, which has been widening for a few years now, seems to be getting bigger by the day since the attempted coup, owing in part to some diplomatic blundering by Washington and some unreasonable expectations from Ankara. The US response to the botched coup has been poorly managed from basically the start–Washington’s first message about the coup called for “stability,” a less than full-throated defense of the distasteful but, again, still democratically elected Erdoğan. It apparently took President Obama days to call Erdoğan after the coup attempt (Putin apparently called much earlier, and focusing on who called first is petty but, still, here we are), and in that call he stressed the need for Erdoğan to respect civil liberties in the attempt’s aftermath. That’s a good message to deliver, but you can also understand if it might have irked Erdoğan a little bit given what he’d just been through.

The general in charge of US Central Command, Joseph Votel, didn’t help things when he suggested a couple of weeks ago that the US operation against ISIS could be hindered by the purge, given that many high-ranking Turkish military officers have been fired and/or jailed as a result of the purge. Again, this may be true and may be an important point to make, but it could have been made much less provocatively than Votel made it. It seemed to Turkish ears like Votel was supporting the coup plotters, or at least criticizing the purge on the grounds that it would harm American interests, and while Votel denied doing either the Turkish reading of his remarks wasn’t exactly unreasonable. There’s now a criminal complaint in the Turkish legal system–one that probably won’t go anywhere, but still–naming Votel, Joint Chiefs Chair Joseph Dunford, and DNI James Clapper as conspirators in the coup plot, and you can be sure that Votel’s comments helped bring that about.

While the Obama administration has bungled the diplomacy around the attempted coup, Turkey has now put things in an untenable place by basically making the future of the US-Turkey relationship conditional on the extradition of Fethullah Gülen. Gülen is, of course, public enemy #1 for Erdoğan, and is being accused of masterminding the attempted coup. The problem here is that the extradition process works on two tracks: first legal, then political. Turkey needs to bring a formal case in US federal court–something it hasn’t done yet–that Gülen directly led the coup plot that can pass muster with American courts, and if it does that the case then goes to the State Department for a final decision. This setup makes a lot of sense; you want your foreign ministry to have final say on high profile extraditions, but ideally its say shouldn’t influence the legal part of the process. The US has little obvious reason to prevent Gülen’s extradition if the courts give it the go ahead–its Turkish alliance is far more important than protecting some Turkish preacher living in the Poconos. But if Turkey can’t get past the legal part of the process, and so far there’s been little evidence to show that Gülen is directly involved with anything his movement does in Turkey, let alone that he was directly involved in this coup attempt, then Gülen will stay put in Pennsylvania and the Turkey-US relationship will continue to deteriorate.

Turkey is in uncharted waters following the coup attempt, with a military that’s been stripped of about a third of its flag officers, a paranoid government that has had its paranoia justified, and with more strain than ever in its relationship with the country that was formerly its most important ally. I don’t think you’ll see Erdoğan completely resetting his foreign policy around Russia and totally breaking ties with the US–for one thing, that would probably involve Turkey leaving NATO either by choice or otherwise, and that would be a huge step for Erdoğan to take. But I doubt you’ll see Erdoğan and Obama embracing each other anytime soon the way Erdoğan and Putin did today. The task of trying to improve ties with Ankara will likely fall to the next president.



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