The Caravan

Letter from Istanbul: Where Have The Americans Gone? Who Invited The Russians Back?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

It is hard to even describe the sense of double-betrayal Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan must be feeling towards the man he considered a friend, Barack Obama.

First came the harsh statements from Washington early last summer criticizing Erdogan government’s ferocious response to protests against his rule. Since the Obama administration had pretty much turned a blind eye to the Turkish leader’s creeping authoritarianism over the past few years – including the imprisonment of journalists, political show trials or tax penalties on disloyal oligarchs —Washington’s support for the secular demonstrations came as a shock.

Then of course came a bigger disappointment— the administration’s about-face on Syria... Turkey had long been campaigning for a tougher international stance against the Assad regime but Ankara’s persistent lobbying for a no-fly zone and arming of the Syrian opposition met with a prolonged state of hand-wringing from Washington. With half a million refugees and a lawless southern border, Ankara sees the war in Syria as a direct national security threat. On top, there have been enough acts of aggression–such as the shooting down of a Turkish plane and three bombing incidents costing the lives of 70 Turkish citizens – to lead the Erdogan government to regard the Assad regime as more than a nuisance—an outright enemy whose survival threatened Turkey’s stability.

On at least two occasions – during Hillary Clinton’s last month as a Secretary of State, and after Erdogan’s White House rendezvous with Obama last May— the Turkish government was assured that Washington was on the verge of a momentous decision to topple the regime of Bashar Assad.

But late in August, when Bashar Assad’s army used chemical weapons against civilians, Washington finally looked poised to tackle the matter of Syria. Though suspicious that U.S. strikes would deliver a meaningful blow to the Assad regime or even “end the war,” with a sizeable NATO base in Incirlik and 900 km of a border, Ankara was willing to support military intervention in every possible way.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Erdogan, emotive as ever, has been hammering the U.N. and “the West” over this past week, warning that an agreement to stop the use of chemical weapons would not put an end to Syrian horrors. He has already expressed skepticism that the Assad regime will abide by the Russian-US deal.

Erdogan should be troubled by Putin’s astonishing victory in the Syrian affair for two reasons. For a man determined to elevate modern Turkey to a regional hegemon, the Syrian war became a stark reminder that Turkey’s ambitions did not match its capabilities. Ankara wanted to do more to topple Assad, and for a brief period after the shooting down of a Turkish jet, even entertained the idea of doing it alone. But neither Turkey’s military capabilities or its international standing allowed for a more aggressive posture. Turkey was left with accepting refugees and providing logistical support for the armed opposition—and even that had to be coordinated with an over-cautious Washington.

The survival of Bashar Assad is more than an irritant to Turkish officials. In many ways, the Syrian saga could mark the end of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman dreams.

But there is something even more sinister in the latest round of Kerry-Lavrov diplomacy that goes beyond Vladimir Putin outsmarting the Americans. Far more unnerving is the prospect that the agreement marks Washington’s departure and Russia’s entry to the Middle East.

Though the Obama administration has been talking about disengaging from the Middle East and pivoting to Asia for some time now, few in the Middle East saw that as a real possibility. Every once in a while, Americans have spoken of retreating from the Middle East, only to realize that their vital interests laid in a stable region.

But now things look different. With the Syrian deal, the erosion of U.S. power in the region stands as a real possibility. For almost three years now, the Obama administration has been telling the world that it has no vital interests in Syria. It has allowed Iran to run the battlefield in Damascus and turned a blind eye to Iraq and Lebanon being engulfed in a grand sectarian war.

On top, Americans have now invited the Russians into a region Moscow had long lost leverage over. “The Russians are back” a Turkish official bemoaned, “and the Arabs have no idea how to deal with them.”

Currently, eight nations in the Middle East are ungovernable or on the brink of civil war and to think that the United States could wash its hands of Syria—or the Middle East—is a pure fantasy. But until someone in Washington realizes that, Ankara will be nervously watching the chaos...

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