A few days before Turkey marked the third anniversary of the failed July 15, 2016 military coup it began to receive supplies of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system despite the grave objections of the United States. The Trump administration had not only made its opposition to the Turkish decision publicly known it had more or less said that Turkey will face serious and direct action for its decision to acquire the missile system. This was especially because as a NATO member-state it is a recipient of sophisticated US and Western weapons and their details may get revealed as Turkey proceeded to integrate the Russian missiles in its defence arrangements.
While, as of now, the US has not announced any action, its ties with Turkey have been going through a turbulent phase for some years. President Tayyip Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policies and actions and US assertive, if erratic, postures have contributed to bilateral US-Turkey differences. Erdogan is changing the country’s direction away from the secular and Euro-centric anchors provided by Ataturk, the father of the modern Turkish state.
Despite some recent electoral reverses Erdogan virtually remains Turkey’s unchallenged leader. He has led his AKP party to the pinnacle of power. In the process he has consolidated the socially conservative and religiously inclined urges of Turkish society which were innately at odds with the secular, modernist legacy of Ataturk. Fethullah Gulen who lives in exile in the US and was once Erdogan’s ally in whittling down the Ataturk national heritage and is now his bitter foe is the other person to change Turkey’s social direction. Between them they have taken Turkey on a path that has veered off from that shown by Ataturk.
Significantly, Erdogan has almost completely eliminated the army as a political factor in Turkish national life. For more than six decades the army claimed to be the protector of Ataturk’s secular legacy. It intervened politically to safeguard his traditions. Erdogan enmeshed it in corruption trials, eroding public confidence in the institution. After the failed coup of 2016 he has purged a large number of army officers who were accused of being Gulen moles further draining it of politically oriented personnel.
One external factor which has contributed to Turkey’s growing conservatism is Europe’s refusal to accept it as part of the European Union. Turkey is situated both in Asia and Europe and the historic city of Istanbul is in both continents. However, despite Turkey’s attempts at meeting EU legal and political requirements the fact is that major European countries, especially France, simply cannot accept a large Muslim country as fully part of the European family. Spurned by Europe, Turkey especially under Erdogan’s leadership fell back to its Ottoman roots. It is this orientation that is the underlying basis of US-Turkish divergences.
Illustrative of Turkey spreading its ‘Ottoman’ wings has been its role in the Syrian civil war and West Asia generally, Central Asian Republics and its interaction with Russia. Turkey’s primary interest in Syria has been the prevention of the creation of a Kurdish entity in any manner or form on Syrian territories. As the US has used Kurdish groups against the Assad regime Turkish and American interests have clashed. There were persistent reports of Turkey’s somewhat ambivalent approach to ISIS during the period it held significant territories in Iraq and Syria. Certainly, this was a testing time for Turkey which attracted large number of refugees fleeing the civil war and ISIS barbarism.
Turkey has cultural affinities with the Turkic speaking peoples of Central Asia. The break-up of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Central Asian Republics provided it with the opportunity to make cultural and political ingress. However, it has only made limited headway because of centuries of Russian rule and that countries continuing influence. In recent years China is seeking the role of a dominant power in the region and that too is thwarting Turkish ambitions but not entirely. In Afghanistan, for instance, Turkey’s connections with the Uzbek ethnic group are strong and a factor in the evolution of the country’s northern areas.
The Ottoman empire and Czarist Russia were at odds and during the cold war Turkey was firmly in the Western camp. However, past alignments are not holding Erdogan back. Russian President Putin and he have warmed up to each other. The missile supplies are a sign of this major change. Naturally, the US is very upset and the question is how far will it go. Will it try to cut Erdogan down to size so that it can firmly avoid the ingress of major Russian influence in the Mediterranean region?
India has largely constrained its relations with Turkey because of close Turkey-Pakistan ties. This is the legacy of the time when both countries were part of CENTO, an organisation that the US had nurtured to oppose the Soviets. Cooperative ties between Turkish and Pakistani armies have also made the realisation of the full potential of Indo-Turkish relations difficult.
At this stage though India has a great interest in following what the US does with Turkey for its acquiring S 400 missiles. Of course India is a not a US NATO ally and has a continuing relationship with Russia in the defence sector. The US has to take this into account among other factors.
In any event the time has come for greater dialogue between India and Turkey at the governmental level and a higher focus on the country in Indian academia and security analysts.