The following is a guest commentary by a regional expert and friend of the Security Studies Group. It represents his own views, rather than an official position of SSG.
It is clear that since Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet in 2015 which flew over Turkish airspace for just under 12 seconds, Vladimir Putin has acted strategically to gradually pull Turkey under his sphere of influence, and Erdogan has taken the bait. Putin has fed Erdogan bits of Syria, like the once stable Kurdish enclave, Afrin. Putin has sold Erdogan the S-400 surface to air missiles, a weapons system incompatible with the NATO security bloc systems. The S-400 is set to be delivered July 2019. Erdogan is also interested in jointly producing the S-500 missile with Russia, “besides [the S-400s], I have made a proposal to Russia for the joint production of the S-500s.” This move will further force Turkey to dependent on Russia, a move Putin is hoping for only to establish a permanent rift between NATO partners.
Turkish president, Erdogan helped Iran evade US sanctions for violating the Nuclear Deal, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from 2010 to 2015, allowing the regime in Tehran access to international markets. The witness, Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian Gold trader told jurors in New York that Erdogan had personally authorized a transaction on behalf of Iran. The banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, responsible for taking part in the trading scheme between Turkey and Iran was sentenced to 32 months in prison in Manhattan. Erdogan stated that “if Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be almost equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal.” The Atilla v US case continues to prove that Turkey is damaging US strategy against the Iranian regime and is constantly aiding our enemies.
Incirlik Air Base in Turkey has been a strategic point of access for the United States into the Middle East. However, the base has been a thorn on our back, Turkey has constantly attempted to use it against the United States to get its way. Most recently, a group of Turkish lawyers, close to Erdogan’s circle has filed an arrest warrant of US officers based at Incirlik. Reported by Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) reported that lawyers filed a 60 page complaint of names which include top US officials asking for their detention. Included in the names is the commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) Gen. Joseph Votel. Clearly US men and women in uniform are not safe in Turkey, anti-American sentiments continue to surge thanks to Erdogan. The United states should look for alternatives and end our dependency on the airbase, in 2017 Germany made the decision to do so, redeploying its troops to a Jordanian airbase. A heavy US presence in Iraqi Kurdistan would be welcomed by Kurds, and would thwart Iranian influence in the region, disrupting their land bridge to the Mediterranean.
Since the failed coup of 2016, Erdogan has purged Turkish dissidents and foreigners inside the country. As Dr. Aykan Erdemir, former Turkish parliamentarian and current scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) brilliantly characterized it, Erdogan is using “hostage diplomacy” to gain leverage over the United States. Most famously imprisoned and now on house arrest is American Pastor, Andrew Brunson, who has worked in Turkey for over 20 years, and is accused of having ties to the Kurdish armed group the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Islamic scholar, Fetullah Gulen, which Erdogan blames for the coup. Vice President Mike Pence avowed, “to president Erdogan and the Turkish government, on behalf of the president of the United States of America, release pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences. If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.” The Trump administration did sanction two top Turkish officials in addition to doubling tariffs on steel and aluminum against Turkey, but Erdogan seems determined to ignore US pressure. Turkey responded by imposing its own sanctions on two US officials. Another hostage is Turkish-American, Serkan Golge, a physicist who worked for NASA’s Mars Program.
Hamas has been on the foreign terror list by the United States since 1997, yet Turkey’s Erdogan openly embraces the violent organization. In 2017, Erdogan reiterated his support saying “Hamas is not a terrorist organization.” Erdogan’s hypocrisy of fighting terrorists while aiding and abetting a recognized terrorist organization reflects the path of his neo Ottoman Islamic ideology. Hamas is clearly a threat not only to Israel but as well as the Palestinian people, and Erdogan is banking on the tension in Gaza. His desire to be the custodian of Jerusalem and to become the savior of the Palestinians through the creation of an “army of Islam” to destroy Israel is something the US must wake up to before it is too late.
Islamic State (IS)
Countless reports have been published on linking Turkey to either directly assisting the Islamic State or turning a blind eye. Turkey’s main goal, as it is today, is to weaken the Kurds in Syria at all costs even if it means allowing the brutal terrorist organization to roam free within Turkey and across its borders. In 2014, Turkish forces watched on top of a hill as Kurds were besieged in a small Syrian border town, in Kobane. In addition, Turkey has profited from illicit oil deals with the Islamic State, the deals were not limited to Turkey and IS but Erdogan’s family and the terror organization as well. In 2014, former Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu stated that “ISIS is not a terrorist organization. It’s a group of people bound together with discontent and anger.” In a report titled ISIS in Turkey published in May 2018, it stated that “had Turkey not been so tolerant of ISIS activities within its borders, including recruitment of thousands of foreign fighters, ISIS would not be as powerful as it is today.” Moreover, Turkey continues to undermine US operations in Syria against IS as it targets the Kurds organized under the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF.