Yesterday was an important day in the strategic realignment of Turkey’s new age power alliance system. Erdogan is attempting to stabilize Turkey’s regional standing after the failed July 15, 2016 coup by traveling to St. Petersburg as his first foreign trip. Erdogan is sending a loud message to the United States that he is willing to potentially use Russia as a springboard to build a new regional power bloc that can allow more maneuvering for assisting Turkish national interest. This is a grand political move that parlays very specific optics directed toward what Turkey sees as the failure of U.S foreign policy in the Middle East. Erdogan’s meeting with Putin is important as Russia has paired with Iran in thwarting U.S backed Sunni rebel groups in conflicts all across the Middle East, specifically in Syria.
A new Russian-Turkish alliance may look like a future advance for Iranian interests in expanding its rising Shia-power bloc (the Shia Crescent) in the Middle East, but this will be a tough sell as Turkey is traditionally Sunni and has aligned with Sunni Islamist groups opposed to Shia domination. Therefore, a long-term alliance bloc is not something the U.S should worry about at the moment, it is the short-term damage that a tripartite Iran-Russia-Turkey alliance can do to the U.S’s ability to stabilize its interests in Syria.
For example, in the long term, Russia will be geographically important to how both Iran and Turkey project their dueling interests for reshaping the politics of the Middle East. Iran and Russia will also be competing in the energy sector as each tries to strengthen their economies. Turkey and Russia will likely compete for influence of Syria’s porous and soon-to-be changing political borders.
In the short term, a tripartite political bloc can impart a united front against NATO and U.S assets in the Middle East by advantageously improved cyber warfare. Technology is a huge game-changer in the way the Syrian war is being fought due to the usage of high powered drones as the main tool in battling combatants. Navigation of air power is important in the wars of today and if a drone or fighter plane is cyber-attacked great damage can be done.
The account of the Putin-Erdogan meeting may look like an attempt to thwart U.S influence in the Middle East, but it is likely more so of a tactic employed by Turkey as a first warning for the United States to re-shape its own flawed (and lack of) grand strategy in reducing the political turmoil in weak Arab states. It is likely that Turkey is administering a momentary pragmatic stance to help squeeze out weak players (internally and externally) in order to help it build a future foreign policy. Turkey still has many problems and remains internally divided between various competing factions (Kurds, secular groups). Remnants of deep state actors of the old military guard may very well try to upend the power of Erdogan in order to take back control of state infrastructure. This is the price of Erdogan attempting both an internal institutional overhaul and playing a hand at power politics at the same time.
Turkey may be dabbling in regional realignment with Russia due to the perception of a weakened United States. The unpredictability and precariousness of this election cycle has caused world leaders to take note of the imbalance taking place within U.S domestic politics. Chaotic election cycles in foreign countries can be used as a momentary harness for playing around the political minefield of international coalition building. Turkey and Russia may be viewing this period as a strategic chance to evaluate the possibilities of subordinating U.S power in the Middle East. Both know the unparalleled capabilities of U.S military assets in the region and are aware that they are unable to compete with U.S naval and air power.
The meeting between Turkey and Russia should only be looked at as a momentary gesture for Turkey to try to geopolitically balance the very real threats of Russia’s strategic goals on its own border. Russia and Turkey have historically competing interests due to geography. Both countries have common interests to fortify a strategic balance of power in the Bosporus and Black Sea area, as both are vital economic and military assets to the dominant country. There will be future competition in this area between these two countries, which directly affects each country’s stance on the war in Syria. Syria is strategically important to both Turkey and Russia as each would like to obtain more naval assets in the Mediterranean.
The United States should utilize this moment to reevaluate its ability to assert influence in this emerging regional power bloc. For example, the domestic controversy around the Iran nuclear deal may give the perception of a weakened U.S when dealing with Iranian intransigence, but this argument is mainly used for competition over the opinions of an American audience.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is a multi-nation treaty designed under the auspices of international law. Iran cannot afford to be a rouge player due to the nature of this agreement. The treaty may legitimize Iran’s power to potentially obtain nuclear weapons, but it also holds Iran responsible to prove itself a competent actor on the international stage. It is Iran that is looking to expand its power and assert itself as an important player in regional affairs. Iranian leaders have a great challenge ahead in balancing both the politics of the nuclear deal and dealing with its own dicey internal politics of hardliners and reformists, along with an aging Ayatollah.
A new axis of competing powers sounds like a daunting threat against the United States, but the U.S still has leverage over Turkey and Russia as well. Concerning Turkey, the onslaught of Kurdish expansion into its southern territory will be peril to its overall interest of expanding its influence. The U.S understands the Kurdish dynamic and can use its alliances with certain Kurdish players to subordinate Turkey. As for Russia, it has a lot of internal problems and a weakening economy. It may be able to project force but not power. The U.S can utilize its traditional strength to build its own international coalitions to capitalize on the long-term fickleness of Russia’s political stability. That’s the good thing about multilateralism; it can be played from both sides.