The Ottoman Syndrome
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The newly elected leader Imran Khan of Pakistan, in his very first tweet, commiserated with President Erdogan tweeting, “On behalf of the people of Pakistan and myself, I want to let President Erdogan and the people of Turkey know we are praying for their success in dealing with the severe economic challenges confronting them, as they have always succeeded against adversities in their glorious history." This was as much symbolic as strategic, in the context of their very close bilateral relations, and in the backdrop of Pakistan’s declining trajectory with the US.

Turkey, especially under President Erdogan, has acquired a leadership and decisive role be it in the context of NATO, EU, G-20, Iraq, Syria, Gulf crisis or for that matter that, of the leadership of the Muslim world. Earlier this year President Erdogan won the domestic support handsomely in pursuance to the far-reaching constitutional amendments that conferred much greater powers on him as the President. He took strong positions on issues impacting Turkey’s vital strategic or even national interests. In the bargain, he took on even the allies like the US when it thought prudent to buy S-400 anti-missile shield from Russia despite being a NATO member. Both Trump and Erdogan are strong men and adapt in public posturing and hence the US-Turkey show down on an accused arrested pastor since 2016, fits the bill. Besides, Trump is apt at using US economic power as a political tool in his international discourse and conduct of foreign policy.

The current crisis with the US occurred due to arrest of an American pastor Andrew Brunson who has been accused by Turkey of being a spy with terrorist links. He may have also played a role in the 2016 failed coup in Turkey according to some analysts. Trump wanted him released forthwith and Erdogan refused to budge in keeping with his public image. He refused to be bullied into submission, while it was understood that some understanding was reached between the two leaders at the recent NATO Summit. But US sources revealed that Trump felt betrayed as Turkey went back on its promise. Threatening language of Trump followed by doubling of punitive tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium that put Erdogan in a corner and Lira on the downward spiral causing havoc in Turkey and other financial markets.

As such Turkish economic reforms are long overdue and its excessive borrowing far outweigh its dollar denominated debts that can push Turkey to the brink. No wonder, in one day Lira lost almost 18 percent in a day when Trump tweeted “I have just authorised a doubling of tariffs on steel and aluminium with respect to Turkey as their currency, the Turkish Lira, slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar! Aluminium will now be 20 percent and Steel percent. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time”! Earlier he had placed personal sanctions against two Turkish Cabinet members invoking reciprocity from Erdogan. Tit for tat continues. Erdogan also imposed a boycott on US electronic imports including on the symbolic I-phones that were used by CNN Turk during the attempted coup in Turkey two years ago. Indian rupee also felt impacted against dollar when it touched 70 against the green bill, according to some analysts.

President Trump blocked a deal for delivery of F-35 stealth fighter jets to Turkey that has also been agreed by the Congress and Senate after the compromise defence expenditure bill was submitted. This also seeks to assess the Pentagon’s study of the impact if Turkey was excluded from the Joint Strike Fighter program. Similarly, the sale of 30 T129 ATAK helicopter gunships to Pakistan at a cost of US$ 1.5 bn with concessional credit is in jeopardy even if it might hurt US, British and Italian manufacturers of the engines.

US and Turkey have been on the opposing sides in the regional context as well. US does not like Turkey’s decision to deploy Russian S-400 anti-missile defence system as well as Turkey’s defiance to support US sanctions against Iran. Likewise, they are at odds in Northern Syria where US supports some Kurdish militant groups which forced Turkey to take charge of the situation in Northern Syria militarily. As such, NATO had a taste of Trump’s heavy-handed approach at the recent Summit, and now with Turkey turning into an unreliable partner may create major strategic problems for the Alliance. Germany and Italy have already expressed their deep concern on this deterioration which is due to avoidable and unnecessary US sanctions. Erdogan already hinted that this “economic war” and US’s continued enforcement of an asymmetrical relationship was not feasible and Turkey will look for alternatives. In an op-ed in New York Times, Erdogan said “Before it is too late, Washington must give up the misguided notion that our relationship can be asymmetrical and come to terms with the fact that Turkey has alternatives. Failure to reverse this trend of unilateralism and disrespect will require us to start looking for new friends and allies.” As such there is tremendous trust deficit between Washington and Ankara as Erdogan has accused US of harbouring the rebel preacher leader Muhammed Fethullah Gulen and having a hand in the 2016 coup against him.

Although Turkey has felt disrespected as despite decades long negotiations for EU membership they took respite in special arrangements including membership of NATO, that also enabled them to play a more significant leadership role in the Islamic world and related issues. Most recently post Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as de facto capital of Israel, Erdogan took the lead through the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to gather the Muslim countries to condemn the move. Turkey is highly strategic for the West for the success of their Middle East and Mediterranean policies or for that matter in Balkans and Central Asia. This was more so for the fight against terrorism and Islamic State (IS) even though the US may have doubted some of the intentions of Turkey as it allegedly bought oil from the IS controlled areas in Iraq and Syria thereby sustaining them financially. But Turkey is also a middle power, with a significant geo-strategic importance, aiming to regain its Ottoman glory.

Meanwhile, Iran and Russia have supported Turkey. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov was there (August 13-14) to discuss regional and bilateral issues while exploring as to how they fit into alternatives for Turkey. Relations have greatly improved since their extreme low when Turks shot down a Russian fighter jet on their borders with Syria. Putin and Erdogan might meet again. Similarly, Iran sent a high-level special envoy to Turkey to assure their support to Erdogan as both currently are in the same boat and are cooperating on several regional issues. Rouhani and Erdogan might meet sooner than expected. China is enhancing its close strategic partnership with Turkey as it sees Ankara as a major protagonist for its Belt and Road Initiative. Common denominator for this alignment is the Trump policies.

If Turkey’s estrangement with the US goes further south, one could witness a new alignment of synergies among China-Russia-Turkey-Iran-Pakistan-Qatar (CRIPTQ) as well as several European countries who either are suffering from the unilateral approaches of Trump or are being sanctioned by the US. This is also straining the Trans-Atlantic partnership between Europe and Russia. Erdogan already express his desire to join BRICS at the South Africa Summit. Apart from adversely impacting the NATO’s Black sea grand plan to contain Russia these developments will have a defining impact on the already volatile middle east region.

We are living through an age of mercantilism and its real impact is still latent but may have dangerous consequence for the global peace. However, despite the advice to the contrary from his own business community, Erdogan, though pragmatic, is unlikely to blink first lest he loses his “strong man” image and the Ottoman pride. Face saving for the two leaders will be the key to the way out of this deepening crisis that will have reverberations across regions.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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