Turkey balances US withdrawal, Russian challenge in the Middle East

CAFER TALHA ŞEKER
Published 15.11.2019 01:49
Updated 15.11.2019 11:09

It is no secret that since the end of the Cold War, the role of U.S. leadership in global affairs has been questioned, from the Bilderberg meetings, as revealed to the media, to critical academic research and international conferences.

As an American academic and diplomat, Henry Kissinger pointed out that the U.S. would remain a great power for a long time but could not be the only global leader. U.S. President Donald Trump, as he has voiced since his election campaign, very recently admitted again that “the U.S. military will not police the world and other nations must step up” to cover their own responsibilities.

Therefore, the U.S. as the leader of globalization following the British retreat more than a half-century ago seems to be conducting a retreat of its own. In my opinion, the most significant pullback in terms of geopolitical rivalry has happened in the Middle East in the Syria case, which has also affected Turkish foreign and domestic policies.

Is globalization in decline?

Turkish state broadcaster TRT has been organizing an international conference in Istanbul, named the TRT World Forum, for the last three years. The most recent edition was held in the financial capital of Turkey this year on Oct. 21-22 under the title “Globalization in Retreat: Risks and Opportunities.”

As in previous years, the forum included the participation of academics, journalists and politicians from around the world. In previous years, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was also present on the second day as the closing speaker.

However, this year he joined the forum on the first day, Oct. 21 because he was scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 22 in Sochi.

Before leaving for Russia, President Erdoğan criticized Western allies at the forum for their stance on Syrian geopolitics and stated that Turkey had prioritized human affairs over oil revenue in the Syrian war, but this time will not hesitate to clear northern Syria of the terrorism of the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces.

“Turkey has not dealt with the terrorists and will not work with them like the U.S. is already doing,” said Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, who was the previous chief of the general staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, giving a speech at the forum and said accusations about axis change in Turkish foreign policy are nothing but misguided opinions.

Turkey is a NATO member and willing to protect its borders from terrorist threats. The president and ministers who participated in the forum traveled to Sochi after Istanbul and sat with Putin to hash out an agreement for a 150-hour cease-fire in northern Syria.

An atmosphere critical of the U.S. dominated the Turkish-Russian deal. Accordingly, it was not surprising when Russian diplomat Aleksei K. Pushkov was applauded following his criticism of the incoherent actions of NATO.

During the session, Jan Vincent-Rostowski, a former deputy prime minister of Poland, found the audience applauding a Russian diplomat in a NATO member country weird and pointed out the Bosnian case in which Soviet Russia backed the Serbian genocide against Bosnian Muslims.

Such conversations naturally remind us of the Cold War days, during which the exchange of words and propaganda around humanitarian crises bounced between communism and liberalism.

However, we are seemingly being drawn into a new era where globalism is slowing and a multipolar global order is emerging. The real question is: is globalization retreating or is U.S. leadership in global affairs in retreat?

A new phase

Despite a considerable fall in cross-border capital flows in the last decade, observers like Susan Lund and Laura Tyson have pointed out that globalization is not actually slowing but instead entering a new phase led by China against the Western-led expansion.

Considering the impact of financial interactions on global and regional politics, especially geopolitics, the “new phase” of globalization might affect the Middle East and Africa more than other regions due to the fact that these regions own remarkable natural resources to export and offer markets for processed goods for import.

Russia promised Britain in 1907 to not pursue any geopolitical interest in the Gulf in return for an economic area of influence in northern Iran.

Russia negotiated with NATO for possible cooperation in the early 21st century and maintained silence on the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, but managed to reach a position to show its strength in the Middle East, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean.

After successfully proving its firm stance in Syria, Moscow then prepared to expand its influence in North Africa, already conducting remarkable amounts of arms sales to Algeria and expanding its involvement in Libya. It is also keen to develop relations with Gulf countries ahead of the American military withdrawal from Middle Eastern conflicts.

Turkey bought Russian S-400 missiles, as Ankara lacks trust in the NATO alliance regarding national security concerns and also needs Russian support to protect its borders from aspects of the ongoing Syrian civil war. In order to return millions of Syrian refugees already taking shelter in Turkey to a safe zone in northern Syria, not only an American withdrawal but also the Russian presence in the region has compelled Turkey to balance two great powers in its border areas.

In recent years, American policies in the Middle East have already drawn Turkey closer to Russia in the region. The coup in Sudan affected Turkish and Russian strategies in that country but considering Russian ambitions on developing a new kind of relations in the Gulf and Red Sea regions, more American withdrawals even might carve out more room for Turkish-Russian cooperation in the Middle East from Eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf, where Turkey already has a small military base.

Turkey's response

During the Cold War, Russians were applauded in Turkey only by anti-Western leftists, but today's Russian strategies, unless they threaten Turkey, are likely to be applauded in wider Turkish public and intellectual spheres, just as Aleksei K. Pushkov was hailed for criticizing of the role and existence of NATO.

Even though Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has emphasized Turkey’s NATO membership and the false accusations of an axis change in Turkish foreign policy, radical pullback in American-led globalization and politics in the Middle East, which have even compelled former colonial players in the region, namely Britain and France, to open new military bases in the Gulf and pursue interests in the Eastern Mediterranean in recent years, may force Ankara to develop even more autonomous strategies.

What might affect Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East other than the European impact will, perhaps, be China's involvement in the Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics, with Beijing managing to expand its influence in eastern Afghanistan and East Africa while forming plans regarding huge investments in Iran in the near future.

* Researcher at the Association of Researchers on the Middle East and Africa (ORDAF)

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