On Monday, US National Security Advisor HR McMaster added to tensions in the Middle East when he condemned Turkey and Qatar as prime sponsors of extremist Islamist ideology.
He tore into the Turkish leadership, saying the country’s growing problems with the West are largely due to the rise of the Justice and Development Party in Ankara.
A few days ago, McMaster had described China and Russia as “revisionist powers” encroaching on US allies and undermining the international order, and castigated Iran and North Korea as outlaw regimes that “support terror and are seeking weapons of mass destruction.”
McMaster now rounds on Turkey and Qatar for mentoring a radical Islamist ideology that “is obviously a grave threat to all civilized people.” The stunning part is that Turkey is a NATO ally, while the US Central Command is headquartered in Qatar.
Arguably, Turkey no longer qualifies to be a NATO member. McMaster spoke at a rare public policy platform with his British counterpart Mark Sedwill, at an event hosted by the Policy Exchange think tank in Washington. How any of this transmutes into Anglo-American policy will bear watching. (Interestingly, on a visit to Greece last week, Erdogan publicly sought a revision of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which was negotiated under the tutelage of Britain and the US and ceded, amongst other things, all Turkish claims on the Dodecanese Islands and Cyprus.
Significantly, McMaster’s outburst came within hours of a meeting in Ankara between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, their eighth this year, during a combined day-long trip by the Russian leader which included stops in Egypt, Turkey and the Hmeimim airbase in Syria.
Ironically, if it was the perceived Soviet threat to Turkey that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson blew out of proportion to lay the ground for an enthusiastically pro-American Turkish prime minister, Adnan Menderes, to bring Turkey into the NATO fold in 1952, 55 years later the blossoming of Russo-Turkish cooperation prompts Washington to doubt Turkey’s credentials as an ally.
But then, NATO has no precedents of ousting a member state and its decisions are taken unanimously. To be sure, Erdogan will only leave the NATO tent kicking and screaming. His intent is to shake off US hegemony, which he can do better while inside the NATO tent. He is in turn taunting, provoking, snubbing, defying and – worse still –ridiculing US regional strategies.
Erdogan’s talks with Putin on Monday suggest a new stage in their coordination to undermine US interests in the Middle East. Putin announced that they agreed on a loan agreement, which will be signed “very shortly,” to pursue the “significant prospects for expanding our military and technical cooperation.”
Erdogan added that “the relevant agencies of our two countries are expected to complete what needs to be done this week” with regard to Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system. It is a huge snub to Washington and some of its NATO allies that the Russian system cannot be integrated into the alliance’s defenses.
Again, Erdogan announced that Turkey and Russia are “determined to complete in the shortest possible time” the Turkish Stream (which will bring more Russian gas to Turkey and use Turkey as a hub to supply southern Europe) and the US$25 billion Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant. The US opposes the Turkish Stream, which will frustrate its plans to export LNG to Europe.
Putin joined Erdogan to criticize the US decision regarding Jerusalem. Putin said, “It is destabilizing the region and wiping out the prospect of peace”; Erdogan said he was “pleased” by Putin’s stand. Erdogan said the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) summit in Istanbul on Wednesday would be a “turning point” on the crisis; Putin promised to send a representative.
Most stunning, though, are the emerging contours of a profound Russo-Turkish action plan in Syria. They attribute centrality to the Astana peace process, which also includes Iran but leaves the US and its regional allies in the cold. Following Putin-Erdogan talks, the next meeting at Astana has been announced.
Equally, Russia and Turkey are collaborating to organize a congress of Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu signaled on Tuesday that Turkey no longer objects to Kurdish participation. Evidently, Russia is leveraging its influence with the Kurdish groups. This badly isolates the US, which is increasingly left with rump elements of Kurdish militant groups as its remaining allies. An open-ended US military presence in Syria becomes pointless since the capacity to influence a Syrian settlement is nearing zero.
After returning to Moscow, Putin submitted to the Duma a new agreement on expanding the Russian base in the Syrian port city of Tartus. The balance of forces in the Mediterranean region is dramatically shifting even before a Syrian settlement is negotiated.
Meanwhile, Cavusoglu hinted that Turkey and Russia plan to create new facts on the ground in northern Syria. “Threats for Turkey are coming from Afrin. We may enter this region without a warning. If we carry out the operation there, we will agree on all its aspects with our allies, including Russia.”
Putin apparently heeded Erdogan’s concerns that Afrin is a crucial region for Turkish national security. This is a paradigm shift. If Turkey kicks out the Kurdish militia from Afrin in coordination with Russia, it is a slap to America’s face. A flashpoint may arise.
What emerges is that denying the US any form of land access to Syria’s Mediterranean coast and reducing the American bases in Syria as remote and isolated pockets would be a Russo-Turkish enterprise. McMaster’s rage is understandable.