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Handling Turkey's Erdogan: What Washington can learn from Russia

Handling Turkey's Erdogan: What Washington can learn from Russia
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Russian President Vladimir Putin knows to handle his fellow authoritarian leaders; he relentlessly applies leverage to extract concessions. This is a lesson that Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTrump administration rigging the game, and your retirement fund could be the loser Haley’s exit sends shockwaves through Washington Turkey-Russia Idlib agreement: A lesson for the US MORE should bear in mind when he meets his Turkish counterpart this week.

Tillerson will primarily deal with the complications of Ankara’s ongoing military offensive in northern Syria. And changing Washington’s wonted tone could be key to winning back a rogue NATO ally.

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Anti-Americanism is running high in Turkey, and a consular spat that led to a “visa crisis” in December shows signs of reescalation. Bilateral relations between the NATO allies are so strained that Ankara has recently threatened to strike at U.S. forces embedded with Kurdish fighters in Syria, just miles from the Turkish position. Just this Monday, the Turkish foreign minister warned that U.S.-Turkish relations will “either be fixed or completely broken.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s most pressing discord with Washington is the U.S. support for Kurdish militants in Syria, which Ankara sees as an existential threat. The U.S.-backed Kurdish group in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated as a terror group by Turkey and its NATO allies for the bloody campaign it has waged since the 1980s.

Ankara’s public reaction to this issue has been consistently exacting. With all but full control of Turkish media, Erdogan’s conspiratorial narrative, which depicts the United States as a deceptive frenemy pulling its strings to destroy Turkey, has taken root. A recent opinion poll shows that Turkish citizens overwhelmingly view the U.S. as the top security threat to their country, and Russia as a leading ally.

Yet Russia, which has undermined Turkish security in all possible aspects — economic, political, and military — over the last few years, has received a carte-blanche from the Turkish president. While Erdogan does not miss a single opportunity to snap at Washington for its partnership with the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, he has been mute on Russia’s ties with Syrian Kurds. While the chair of YPG’s political wing is still barred from traveling to the U.S. due to his affiliation with the PKK, his party opened a representative office in Moscow in 2015.

Turkey’s ongoing operation in northern Syria’s Kurdish-controlled Afrin region also demonstrates Ankara’s double-standards towards Moscow and Washington, consistently acquiescing to Russia while scapegoating the U.S.

While there is little-to-no American connection with the Kurds in Afrin, Russia struck a deal with the YPG just last year to open a small military base there. Over the last three weeks, the YPG repeatedly used Russian-made anti-tank missile 9M113 Konkurs against Turkish targets in Afrin. Turkey’s pro-government media, however, has pinned the blame on the U.S., and called on the government to shut down the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey in retaliation to the attack, conveniently covering up the Russian connection.

These are clear indications that the Turkish government’s priority is maintaining cordial relations with Moscow — even if it requires smearing its NATO ally.

Erdogan’s generous treatment of Russia and hostile rhetoric against the U.S. stem in part from the Turkish president’s realization that he needs Moscow’s blessing for military incursions into Syria, and particularly Afrin. When Russia briefly closed the Syrian airspace to Turkish aircraft following the downing of its jets in 2015 and 2018, Ankara was forced to comply with Moscow’s restrictions. Earlier this month, Turkey cooperated with Russian military intelligence to help recover and repatriate the body of the pilot killed by Syrian rebels, hoping to avoid a new bilateral crisis. Even when Russian-allied Assad forces attacked a Turkish military convoy in Idlib last month, Ankara blamed the YPG and looked the other way, in stark contrast to its standard rhetoric against the U.S.

A more crucial reason for Ankara’s blatant double-standards towards Washington and Moscow, however, is the difference in U.S. and Russia’s own treatment of Erdogan. Turkey’s strongman assumes that the U.S. will not push back on his policies by leveraging its arsenal of Global Magnitsky designations, sanctions, and fines. The Russian president, on the other hand, consistently plays hardball with Erdogan. Following his country’s age-old approach towards its southern neighbor, Putin has no qualms undermining Turkish security when Ankara challenges his designs.

When Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015, which led to a diplomatic fallout, Putin did not hold back. Beyond imposing sanctions against Turkish export products, he cut the tourist flow from Russia to Turkey, a lifeline of Turkish economy. He then took the allegations of Turkey’s purchasing of oil from the Islamic State — which were widespread in American media and believed to be true but largely kept quiet by the U.S. government — to the United Nations. It didn’t take long for Erdogan to embrace Putin at a St. Petersburg summit, addressing him as “my dear friend” three times.

The bottom line is that Washington is a convenient whipping boy in Turkish politics, and anti-Americanism will continue to be the cornerstone of Erdogan’s reelection strategy in the run up to the 2019 elections. Indeed, these days, it is better to be a Russian official in Ankara than a NATO ally.

In his upcoming trip, Tillerson can only hope to be treated as well as his Russian counterparts. However, as long as the U.S., in stark contrast to Putin, continues to appease Erdogan, it shouldn’t expect much respect or cooperation from its rogue partner. Ironically, to win Turkey back, there is much that Washington can learn from Putin’s Erdogan-speak.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate.