The Syrian civil war has been a catalyst for Russian-Turkish rapprochement, much to the concern of Turkey’s NATO partners. This, coupled with Ankara’s current strained relations with its traditional Western allies, is raising the prospect of a nonaligned Turkey.
Foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Russia are meeting Saturday in Moscow under the auspices of the so-called Astana process that's aimed at resolving the Syrian civil war.
Ahead of the meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with new U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. A myriad of differences continue to strain ties between the two NATO allies.
Speaking to reporters, Cavusoglu dismissed a threat from some U.S. lawmakers that additional measures might be taken against Turkey in light of its prosecution of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson on terrorism charges.
“I have openly told him [Pompeo] that sanctions should not be on the agenda," he said. "These would trigger countersteps from us that would not be in our interests,” Cavusoglu said.
Washington also threatened further sanctions over Ankara’s planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system.
“The S-400 sale is done," added Cavusoglu. "We can only talk about what we can do with the U.S. in the subsequent process."
Washington has indicated sanctions could be triggered when the missiles are actually delivered to Turkey. Moscow has already announced it is working to bring forward the delivery date to next year, from the originally planned 2020.
A picture of the Iranian, Russian and Turkish presidents at an Ankara summit on Syria this month exemplified Western concerns of Turkey’s eastern drift.
But a top Turkish presidential adviser sought to put a different spin on the image. “To me, that photo-op underlines the strategic importance of Turkey and shows its rise in foreign policy. This is not a shift of axis,” international relations head Ayse Sozen Usluer said in an interview with the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper Friday.
In the same interview, Usluer suggested critics of Ankara’s Moscow rapprochement were trapped in the past.
“For the last 10 to 15 years in particular, Turkey has not felt the need to choose between the West and the East, or between the U.S. and Russia," he said. "Turkey no longer sees its foreign policy within the framework of the Cold War or East versus West alliances."
Usluer’s comments coincided with pro-government media political commentators increasingly promoting the idea of a nonaligned Turkey.
“Pro-government commentators are saying India, Egypt, even Cyprus did this before. Why can’t we do it now?” said political commentator Semih Idiz of the Al-Monitor website.
“I don’t see this as realistic," he said. Governments' policies "are determined by the geography they find themselves in. I don’t think Turkey is in a situation or place in the world that it can be a nonaligned country."
Turkey borders Iran, Iraq and Syria, and for the nearly three decades, conflicts have raged along on its southern border. Analysts suggest pursuing an increasingly independent diplomatic role will be challenging.
But Turkey’s geography also gives it leverage.
“We call it balance-of-power policy, like in the 19th century. Turkey can play the mediation between the rival counties,” said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. “But we can never abandon our international alliances. We have always had alliances with our allies. We were never alone, back to World War II and the Crimean War of the 19th century.”
The current situation may well suit Moscow.
“For Russia, the target is not to fully disrupt U.S.-Turkish relations, but to keep this relationship weak,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served in Iraq and Washington. But given that Ankara and Moscow are on opposing sides in the Syrian civil war and remain regional rivals, Selcen suggested Turkey would have to eventually return to its Western allies.
“Anyone looking at the map, even with no knowledge of history, can come up with the conclusion, yes, Turkey should have rational relations with Moscow and Tehran,” said Selcen. "But it cannot extend beyond a certain operational or tactical basis, given the long-term contradictory goals of those powers, especially in Syria."