Is Turkey becoming the next victim of Erdoğan’s hostage diplomacy?

As the delivery date for the S-400 missile defence system approaches, it is still unknown exactly how the United States will respond to Turkey's violation of the red line drawn by the U.S. Congress on the purchase of the Russian-built systems.

Washington has said it will expel Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet programme and impose Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions if it does not withdraw from the purchase, though Turkish officials have said they expect U.S. President Donald Trump to soften the blow.

It is possible that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sees Russia as a reliable option to be used as leverage against the United States. However, dealing with Moscow could be much more complicated than he anticipates.

While the purchase of the S-400 missile defence system has become the main reason for its clash with the United States, Turkey faces several additional risks in dealing with Russia.

Like Erdoğan’s “hostage diplomacy” – the term coined by analysts who say the Turkish president has imprisoned foreign nationals like Pastor Andrew Brunson to extract concessions from foreign states – Russian President Vladimir Putin could extort Turkey by using its leverage over several of the country’s foreign policy quandaries to influence decision making in Ankara.

These would be likely to include the escalating tensions in Idlib, the last Syrian province under the control of Turkish-backed rebels, and the future of the Kurdish question in Syria.

Turkey has relied heavily on Russia in its Syrian policies, including Operation Olive Branch last year, when it attacked Kurdish militants in the enclave of Afrin after receiving assent from Moscow.

Russia has likewise played a central role in securing a ceasefire in Idlib last September and restraining the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and other proxy forces from attacking Turkish forces in Syria.

Secondly, leaving Syria aside, Erdoğan was already deeply indebted to Russian President Vladimir Putin for a number of reasons, not least Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane in 2015. The assassination of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov in Ankara in 2016 had similar costs, as did, if true, Russia’s reported assistance to  Erdoğan during the July coup attempt in 2016. Facing immense pressure from Putin, Erdoğan had to apologize for the former two incidents, after which there was a fast-track rapprochement between the two leaders.

More recently, when the Assad regime’s forces targeted a Turkish observation post in Idlib, Turkish authorities contacted Russia to intervene, expecting that these attacks could not be possible without the blessings of Russia. Every time Turkey reaches out to Russia for mediation, it becomes more dependent on Moscow’s intervention.

Russia has another card to play against Turkey in northern Syria, where Turkish-backed forces are aligned against Kurdish militant groups and their political bases. Ankara has been trying to create the conditions to remove Democratic Union Party (PYD) administrations from its borders, either through a Turkish invasion or the creation of a Turkish-dominated safe zone.

However, Russia can use the Kurds against Turkey by pushing the regime and the Kurds toward dialogue, which will sideline Turkey in the process. Russia's desire to include the Kurds in the Astana peace process has been a major disappointment for Turkey.

In other words, Turkey’s heavy military and political investment in Syria has led it to become heavily dependent on Russia, which is dictating the terms of the relationship.

As Erdoğan doubtless knows, once you are in, there is no easy way out of Syria. So, pushing the boundaries in Idlib or northeastern Syria or pulling out of the conflict are not options at the moment.

Like any authoritarian leader, Erdoğan prioritizes his own interests and policies and equates them with Turkey’s. Accordingly, one of the biggest problems with the Russia-Turkey alignment is that Erdoğan’s decisions have more to do with his personal interest than Turkey’s national interest.

Erdoğan has accused the United States of forcing Turkey into the asymmetrical relationship between two countries. Yet it was he who pushed Turkey toward a relationship with Russia, which is a thoroughly ‘asymmetrical interdependence’ that does not favour Turkey at all.

Given the diverse areas of convergence between the West and Turkey, including the decades-long NATO alliance, Turkey's shifting alignments could turn out to be very costly. Working against the United States or the EU and continuing to distance Turkey from the Western bloc will not guarantee a stable relationship between Turkey and Russia.

What is more, if Putin is using his leverage over Turkey to get his way regarding the S-400 defence systems, then the “hostage diplomacy” is not likely to end there. Given the strategic importance of Turkey, Erdoğan could play a critical spoiler role for Putin in other areas.

If Erdoğan and his ultra-nationalists and Eurasianist allies further expand and deepen the Turkey-Russia alignment, then this could further exacerbate Turkey’s position in NATO. 

Under pressure from the United States, Russia, self-made crises and his weakened position at home, Erdoğan is more vulnerable than ever before, which could lead him to make desperate attempts to protect his rule. Adding to this complexity, Erdoğan could make a grave mistake if he seeks a fast-track rapprochement with China without special care over the terms. Beijing’s debt-trap-diplomacy has already taken its toll in Africa.

As a result, Erdoğan could end up handing Turkey over as hostage to Russia politically and maybe to China financially to prolong his rule in Turkey. If so, Turkey will obviously be the one that bears the consequences, even after Erdoğan's tenure is over.

© Ahval English

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.