A vizier or a jester?
As Erdoğan plays the US off against Russia, Esen Uslu asks if his optimism is misplaced
The Turkish airforce base at Mürted near Ankara had an interesting history. The name means ‘renegade’, and it has been associated with the Battle of Ankara fought between the Ottoman army and Tamerlane’s Mongols in 1402. The Ottoman army was defeated by Tamerlane’s forces, according to some, because the troops holding the flank on the plain rebelled and went over to his side. The plain has been named after such ‘renegades’ ever since.
After World War II, when the USA introduced jet fighters to the Turkish airforce, a new airfield near Ankara became a necessity, and the most obvious site was the Mürted plain. Following the construction in the late 1950s of the Mürted airbase, in 1984 the production facilities of Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) were built alongside, where CASA CN-235 transport planes and F16 jets were produced. In 1995 its name was changed to Akıncı airbase to nationalistic acclaim - Akıncı means ‘raider’ and refers to the border tribal forces of the early Ottoman state who took over the Balkans.
All this clearly means that Turkey’s rulers believed that people would forget the failures of the recent past and bask in the glorious victories of a bygone era. Changing place names is a useful tool of the nationalist regime to erase the memory of ancient Christian societies that once lived in Anatolia - eradicated during and after World War I.
However, this time the name change had ominous consequences. The Akıncı base was the headquarters of the junta, from where it attempted a coup in July 2016. Eventually it was defeated by loyal sections of the airforce, who bombed the base’s airstrip. In the aftermath of the attempted coup, the rebel forces were disbanded or dispersed, and the base reverted to its ‘renegade’ name.
The Mürted airbase and TAI production facilities, while visible in the distance from the motorway between Ankara and Istanbul, have been off limits for ordinary citizens. No photographs or videos are allowed, and if a person is invited to visit, cameras and phones are removed on arrival.
Suddenly that rule was turned upside-down, when the base became the destination for the S-400 missile system - it suddenly marked the arrival point of the air bridge between Russia and Turkey, where a stream of giant Russian cargo jets flew in supplies. Turkish TV channels broadcast live the arrival, unloading and departure of each and every cargo plane, and paraded the Russian equipment before storing them in the Nato-approved bomb-proof jet shelters, which used to house nuclear bombs in special vaults dug deep underground, during the cold war years.
The fanfare was orchestrated to drum up nationalistic fervour, employing the cheap anti-Americanism of the Islamists once more. Our great leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was defying US dictates and doing what was required for the benefit of our nation!
The timing of the arrival was also important, because the entire state propaganda machine was used to celebrate the third anniversary of the failed coup. And the arrival of the S-400 missile system provided such a background that ingenious supporters of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) made their own admiring imitation with plastic pipes, draped in flags and paraded at night.1
Day in and day out, planes came and went, while state TV continued its coverage. However, the reality of international diplomacy was starting to show its face. At a meeting in Osaka during the recent G20 summit, Donald Trump told the international press, while sitting alongside Erdoğan, that it was unfair to Turkey not to sell it Patriot missiles or threaten it with sanctions, just because Turkey had brought in the Russian system. That bit of Trump’s speech was presented as a major diplomatic breakthrough in the Turkish media and created a degree of unfounded expectation.
After the arrival of the S-400 system Trump played for time for a couple of days - and then declared that (while it might be ‘unfair’) the sale of F-35 jets would be withheld and the already suspended pilot training scheme would not be resumed. He did not mention the options available under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
Some observers have claimed that, because the agreement with the Russians was signed before August 2 2017, when Trump signed the CAATSA, it is not applicable. Be that as it may, any sanctions applied would have drastic consequences for Turkey’s arms industry, as it would disrupt the supply of raw materials and components.
However, there are also those who claim that a US arms embargo would actually be beneficial to the Turkish defence industry, which has been making serious development strides over the last three years, while another group says such an embargo would further Turkey’s steps to have more of a home-grown industry. And it appears that the thesis, ‘If an embargo is applied, then the defence industry will become more independent and stronger’, is the widely accepted opinion in Ankara.2
Meanwhile, the US Congress passed a bill lifting the arms embargo on weapon sales to Cyprus, which has been in place since 1974. Also a bill was introduced by the Democrats to impose sanctions on Turkey with some Republican support. According to the Wall Street Journal,
Reflecting bipartisan opposition in Washington to Turkey’s move, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees called on Mr Trump last week to impose sanctions on Ankara and end Turkey’s participation in the F-35 programme.
The US decision to withdraw the F-35 order is a setback for Mr Erdoğan, who had bet heavily on a direct relationship with Mr Trump to resolve the issue and persuade the US president to disregard his own administration’s repeated calls for punishing Turkey.
In addition to not receiving F-35s, for which it has forked out hefty downpayments, Turkey risks losing its share of industrial workload - about 6% of the value of each plane.3
The fact that Russia has sold a sophisticated weapons system to a Nato member has also found its critics in Moscow. When they become too vocal, the editor-in-chief of Eksport Vooruzheniy (Arms Export) wrote:
The systems that Russia supplied to Turkey are an export version of the S-400, which significantly differs from what Russia itself uses. Besides, the S-400 is an older system and Russia is now working on a more advanced system.4
So, despite all fanfare, what is going on? Is Turkey buying an outdated system, yet still creating havoc with its relationship with the USA and Nato? It seems that there are turbulent waters ahead.
EU and Cyprus
As if one major diplomatic problem was not enough, Turkey has jumped head-on into another huge dispute involving the European Union. Despite several warnings and requests for patience and quiet diplomacy, Turkey sent two drilling vessels in to Cyprus’s ‘exclusive economic zones’.
A meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels decided to suspend about $164 million in aid to Turkey and shelve talks on an aviation accord. They also asked the European Investment Bank to review its lending to the country, which amounted to nearly $434 million in 2018. And contacts between high-level officials will now be suspended. The aviation agreement that was under negotiation would have led to more passengers using Turkish airports - in particular the new international airport in Istanbul - as a transit hub.
Turkey responded to these measures with a display of bravado, by sending another ship - this time a deep-sea seismic survey vessel - to the same area. So now Turkey has four ships operating in the disputed zones - two survey ships and two drilling ships - under the protection of its airforce and navy.
The Turkish government is clearly acting in this way because it believes the EU measures are toothless. A previous set of such measures had been introduced to limit the export of German weapons to Turkey because of Ankara’s human rights violations. They were effective for one year, with the intention of reducing the level of exports to €62 million in 2017.
However, those measures were easily bypassed through a loophole allowing fulfilment of already-approved sales. In fact German arms exports to Turkey - mostly items related to submarines being built in Turkey with German licences - were more than tripled to €202 million in 2018. The same goes for arms exports from Spain and Italy as well.
Especially as a change is taking place at the helm of the EU, the Turkish government believes it now has a lot of space to play around in. So turbulent times with the EU also await.
Iran and Kurds
It was recently revealed that four Iranian Kurdish opposition groups have been meeting with Iranian officials in Oslo, through the good offices of the Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution, since May. An unprecedented event. The third round of talks is to be held in August. Absent from the meetings, however, is the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK). Other Iranian Kurdish parties have rejected PJAK, as it has links with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) of Turkey.
The Iranian Kurdish groups believe that Tehran’s aim in these talks is to persuade the armed Iranian Kurdish opposition not to collaborate with the United States in any military action. The big stick was in plain sight: the head of the Iranian delegation threatened the Kurdish side with “unpleasant consequences” if they failed to heed Tehran’s advice.5
The Kurds in Iraq are torn between Iran and Turkey. By its military operation in Iraq, ‘Claw-2’, Turkey is practically creating a new border by grabbing a large zone to its south, and building bases controlling river valleys and roads. One of the undeclared aims is to cut off Iran’s most convenient supply route to Syria.
Practically the only thorn in the side of this plan is Rojava, the Kurdish region in Syria. Amongst all the fanfare around the purchase of Russian military hardware, Turkey has been building up its forces along the eastern border of Rojava. An attack by Turkish forces on the city of Membij seems imminent. Despite various international warnings, Ankara appears to believe anything is possible in the region, while it can play Russia off against the US.
Such a course of action, as an old Turkish saying goes, can make you ya vezir ya rezil - either a vizier or a jester - in the court of humanity. We will shortly see which of these two fates will befall the Erdoğan government l