Washington’s allies are deploring the Biden administration’s mismanaged withdrawal from Afghanistan, and they’re worrying publicly about its implications for Nato. Russian leaders, resisting the urge to gloat, express well-founded concerns over the spread of jihadist terrorism northward into Central Asia. And China is moving in, cutting deals with the Taliban to mine lithium and other critical minerals. The reaction in Turkey has been more ambiguous, but also more interesting.
Early in the evacuation, Turkey sent soldiers to Kabul to secure the airport. It is already clear that Turkey’s Islamist government is ready to recognize and work with the Taliban — while also loudly discouraging Afghan refugees from trying to enter Turkey. These policies could be viewed as a rebuke of Turkey’s Nato partners; after all, they have been at war with the Taliban for nearly two decades. But with Washington already cooperating with the Taliban and talking about continuing aid and assistance, it would make little sense for Turkey to object to diplomatic engagement on principle.
In truth, Turkey has made these moves independently of American influence. The abdication of US leadership in Afghanistan and in Nato more broadly, the EU’s refusal to admit Turkey as a member state and Turkey’s decades-long drift from the Nato consensus effectively leave Turkey free to make her own foreign policy. The results may be interesting.
Washington’s influence in Ankara has served to restrain Turkish foreign policy. It has kept President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regional ambitions within certain limits — while also serving as a convenient and clarifying focus of resentment. For much of the post-Cold War period, Turkey has chafed against American unilateralism. This urge to spite the US has often pushed Turkey into closer relations with her historic rival, Russia, from the Turkish parliament’s refusal to authorize US military action against Iraq in 2003 to the thwarted Turkish military coup of July 2016, when Erdogan found Putin’s Russia far more cooperative than the Obama administration. Even the assassination in December 2016 of the Russian ambassador to Turkey by a Turkish national screaming ‘Allahu Akhbar’ reinforced Turco-Russian cooperation: the assassin was deemed to have ties to FETO, the terrorist organization tied to the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. Gülen was charged with orchestrating the thwarted military coup — and Washington, to this day, refuses to extradite him to Turkey.
In Syria, Turkish and Russian interests clash, but the presence of US forces and US support of Turkey’s Kurdish enemies have also served to buffer Russo-Turkish tensions. American mediation helped defuse the crisis after a Turkish pilot shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border in November 2015. But American support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, dampened Turkish objections to Russia’s support of the Assad government by focusing Ankara’s ire on Washington instead.
After the Trump administration withdrew US forces from northern Syria in October 2019, there was a serious flare-up between Ankara and Moscow. A ceasefire was negotiated in March 2020, following a Russia-backed Syrian airstrike in Idlib that killed more than 30 Turkish soldiers. (A similar situation occurred in 1917: when Russia’s inward turn after the October Revolution erased its Syrian buffer zone, the resulting vacuum nearly brought Britain and France to blows over Syria.)
Russo-Turkish tensions over Syria have since settled down. Erdogan has quietly but firmly abandoned the aim of toppling Bashar al-Assad’s pro-Russian government. Putin has mostly given the Turks free rein against Kurdish militias in northern Syria in exchange for Turkish indulgence of Russian and Syrian government operations south of Idlib — including tolerating Turkish drone strikes on the YPG in late August 2021, while the eyes of the world were on Kabul.
What is novel about the cynical Turco-Russian modus vivendi in Syria is that it is largely bilateral, with scarcely a nod to US concerns. Less than six years ago, after Turkey had shot down that Russian warplane, there was genuine concern that Turkey might invoke Nato’s dreaded Article Five against Moscow. Today, Turkey and Russia conduct drone or airstrikes in Syria without reference to Washington or Brussels, and hardly anyone notices. This arrangement seems to work — for now. It is not hard to see how it might fall apart.
Turkey’s leaders are relieved they no longer need permission from Washington to settle regional scores. But this goes both ways. They should be careful not to press Russia’s buttons too boldly now that they cannot count on US support. Ankara is already in Washington’s doghouse after Turkey’s multibillion-dollar purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-ballistic missile defense system caused the Trump administration to impose sanctions and limit Turkish access to US military hardware. By announcing recently that a second batch of S-400s will soon be shipped to Turkey — a story Ankara refuses to confirm — the head of Russia’s arms export agency has poked a tender place in US-Turkish relations, likely on instructions from the Kremlin.
Turkish and Russian statesmen are also testing each other’s sore points. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, has criticized Russia’s ‘illegal annexation of Crimea’. Turkey is building homes for Tatar refugees from Russianized Crimea and selling military drones to Ukraine. For Russia, Turkish intriguing in Ukraine calls up demons dating back to the Crimean War. These tensions could be a harbinger of things to come. The current crisis will likely blow over, but others will surely follow — neither Cavusoglo nor Erdogan likes to back down.
Putin’s imposition of a COVID ban on travel to Turkey last spring, meanwhile, hit Erdogan’s government squarely in the pocketbook on the eve of summer travel season, as Russian visitors now provide a huge share of Turkey’s critical tourist revenue. Although the ban was lifted in June, it was only the latest in a line of travel restrictions Putin has imposed on Turkey. The era of good feelings which began with the two countries ending all visa requirements in 2010 seems to be over.
The easing of travel between Russia and Turkey was inspired at least in part by their shared resentment of the more onerous visa and entry rules in the EU and US. Visa-free travel allowed Russians and Turks to pursue exchanges in everything from trade, culture and education to mass tourism. Now that free travel has broken down between even the US and EU because of COVID, there is no special reason to open links between Moscow and Ankara, which gives each country levers to pull if tensions flare up again in Ukraine or Syria.
Turkey has borne the brunt of the Syrian migrant crisis and is home to nearly four million Syrian refugees and 300,000 Afghans. Erdogan’s government started building a barbed-wire border fence with Iran to deter Afghan refugees long before the US withdrew from Afghanistan, even while Greece and Bulgaria build their own barriers at the Turkish border. Putin has warned that Russia will not allow an influx of Afghan ‘militants under the guise of refugees’. In an era of increasing migrant and refugee flows, and increasing weariness with immigration among western publics, it is now every country for itself.
Without a shared antipathy to the American hegemon, seemingly inexorable trends from recent years could slow down or even go into reverse. And Turkey’s far from the only example. For all the fashionable talk of ‘DragonBear’ cooperation, the Belt & Road integration of Eurasia, and well-publicized joint Russo-Chinese military exercises, Russia and China may soon discover that their economic and strategic interests do not always align, whether in Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Far East or Europe. The current Sino-Russian cooperation against the US will likely yield way to robust competition in everything from energy and mining interests to arms sales, if not to great power confrontation and conflict.
As globalization goes into reverse, with border walls rising, supply chains fracturing and old trading patterns disrupted, opponents of the US-dominated world order are celebrating new opportunities. They may soon have cause to regret that the longed-for American comeuppance is coming so spectacularly true. Like a dog that has forever chased after a lumbering monster truck, they finally have the metallic carcass in their teeth. Now they must figure out how to digest it.