Is Obama unhappy with Turkey's outreach to Russia?

Published 24.08.2016 23:46

Due to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to St. Petersburg this month to kick off the normalization process with Russia following the downed jet incident, Turkey's perceived shift of axis has been frequently referred to in the international media. Erdoğan's visit was scheduled before the failed coup, and it didn't mean to send a signal to Turkey's Western allies. However, Washington think-tankers and media are insistent on perceiving Turkish-Russian bilateral relations with this narrow view.

I think this perception lacks merit since it was the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama that slammed Turkey for overreacting to Russian incursions. Last fall, the White House quickly urged Turkey to normalize relations with Russia. That was not surprising given the fact that Washington had been very apologetic about the Russian presence in Syria. The White House's initial reaction to Russian airstrikes involved an offer to work together against DAESH. Then Russia and the U.S. reached an agreement last October to coordinate their aerial activities in Syria. Following this, the two countries brokered some sort of cessation of hostilities, and Obama administration officials kept using the same talking point: We need Russia to bring lasting peace to Syria. On top of this, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow last month with a new offer to strengthen the two countries' cooperation against terror groups in Syria, this time including al-Qaida linked al-Nusra.

I believe U.S. officials are not concerned about the normalization of Turkish-Russian relations at all since they have already given their blessing. A senior Obama administration official said Friday that the U.S. welcomed the de-escalation of tensions between the two countries. "No, I don't think we're concerned about President Erdoğan's outreach to the Russians," the official said. "I think we were encouraged by the fact that Turkey and Russia were starting to - or at least apparently starting to - mend fences somewhat." The U.S. official also made it very clear that the administration does not believe that relations between the U.S. and Turkey or Ankara's relationship with NATO are at some tipping or breaking point. He said: "There are a whole host of reasons why our partnership with Turkey remains as important as ever and we think that the Turks recognize the same. And so no, we don't have any concerns that somehow there's some zero-sum relationship between mending fences with Moscow and somehow drifting away from the United States."

Instead, I believe American experts and journalists should be worried about Washington's cold shoulder to Turkey following the coup attempt, while Russia President Vladimir Putin was among the top three leaders who immediately called Erdoğan. Iran was also quicker than Washington in condemning the attempt. American officials are still avoiding naming Gülenists as the perpetrators of the coup. CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Votel's and Intel Chief James Clapper's comments on losing their best interlocutors in the Turkish army were also very unfortunate in this regard, as now we are in a situation in which bilateral relations cannot afford any intended or unintended mistake, while the Turkish public is turning fervently anti-American.

Turkey has many reasons, ranging from the economy to regional problems, to normalize relations with Russia. But the most important one has been Syria. The spillovers from the Syrian civil war are already destroying Turkish lives with DAESH attacks, burdening the Turkish economy with refugees and solidifying a PKK state next door. In the absence of U.S. leadership, and with the support of the Obama administration, Turkey is looking for ways to reach an understanding with Russia and Iran over Syria.

Dr. Emre Erşen says in his report for the Istanbul-based al-Sharq Forum that instead of interpreting the Turkish-Russian reconciliation as the sign of a new shift in Turkish foreign policy, we should focus on a broader dimension. "One should rather consider the normalization of relations between Turkey and Russia as an integral part of a greater regional framework in the Middle East, which not only includes the countries of the region, but also the U.S. and the EU," he concludes.

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