"A rupture between Ankara and Moscow possible"

Influential U.S. think tank RAND Corporation's last report on Turkey presents a significant degree of skepticism over the sustainability of Russia-Turkey rapprochement. According to RAND's Turkey expert Stephen J. Flanagan, Russia sees Turkey very much as a junior partner and a rupture between the two might occur over Syria.

The U.S. think tank RAND Corporation's last report on Turkey published last month, focuses on the disruptive developments of the recent years between Ankara and Washington which increasingly led the Turkish government to seek a strategic partnership with Moscow. However, the report presents a significant degree of skepticism over the sustainability of Russia-Turkey rapprochement especially because of the divergent interests in Syria.

The report titled as "Implications for the U.S.-Turkish Strategic Partnership and the U.S. Army", was put together by a team of experts led by senior political scientist and longtime Turkey watcher Stephen J. Flanagan. I met Flanagan 10 days ago at the Swedish capital Stockholm where the German Marshall Fund's Trilateral Strategy Group met to discuss critical issues affecting Turkey and Transatlantic alliance.

When we sat down with Flanagan to talk about prospects for the Turkey-U.S relations in 2020, the tensions between Ankara and Moscow over Syria's Idlib was not this much heightened. It is yet to be seen whether the Syrian shelling, which killed five Turkish soldiers and three civilian personnel in Idlib on Feb. 2, will leave irreparable damage over the Astana process and Sochi Agreement that brought Russia-Turkey-Iran together in a rather odd alliance for Syria.

Even in the absence of a major disturbance like the recent one we have had in Idlib, Flanagan was almost certain that a rupture between Ankara and Russia was in the horizon. "Russians can't be both Assad's and Turkey's best friend in northern Syria. Russia has had this wonderful strategy in the region being friends with everyone, yet not making a lot of hard decisions. It has been playing both sides. But maybe the time to take sides is coming," he told me on Jan. 24.

This is exactly why, Flanagan and his colleagues who penned the report, argue that the U.S. decision makers should continue engagement with the Turkish Armed Forces to counterbalance Russia's influence in Turkey. According to them, Turkey's ongoing dependency on U.S.-origin military equipment is still a high-value tool for U.S. policymaking.


Q: Although in the report although you don't say which of the four scenarios you envisage will prevail, I had an understanding that Turkey will swing between the first scenario of being a difficult ally and the third scenario of balancer. Is that right?

Stephen J. Flanagan: I think that is right. That is my assessment at this point. But we looked at the results of the 2018 elections and argued that it is clear that there is still 46 percent of the Turkish population saying they want something else, even in a vote that was constructed to make sure in every way that the AKP would emerge victorious. In the case of İYİ and CHP, they say they want a better relationship with the NATO and the EU. And the HDP talks about a better relationship with the EU. Those would argue that this Eurasian ambition was folly and Turkey's future is with the EU. If there should be any balancing, it should be towards that vision. And when you remember how the AKP started, it was this modernizing party which supported the vision of Turkey being integrated into the European space but at the same time deepening its relations with historic partners in the region. Turkey could be both as opposed to what we see now.

The 2019 local elections also reinforced the idea that you could see a democratic resurgence. The splits of Davutoğlu and Babacan are another reflection that there is still commitment in the wider population - especially among young people no matter how pious they are - to be a part of this global community. There is a certain discontent with this notion of Turkey being all alone. The only friend is Azerbaijan. That is not a viable position for Turkey.

In the late 90s during the end of the Cold War era - I was working at the State Department at the time - the U.S. really did welcome the idea of Özal to stabilize Caucasus with Turkish influence. If anything there was a disappointment that Turkey at that time did not have the capacity.


Q: How do you think the Trump-Erdoğan relationship is affecting the state of play between the two countries? Don't you think President Trump, in an odd way, has been helpful in avoiding a train crash?

Stephen J. Flanagan: He has...ironically, even though he somewhat misunderstands some of the reasons behind President Erdoğan and others have made. Remember what he said; Erdoğan had to bring the S-400s because Obama denied giving Patriots to Turkey. These are half-truths. He neglects that there were all these efforts during the Obama administration and earlier on in his own administration to come up with an arrangement of Patriots as an alternative to S-400s. And he seems to have some sort of admiration for Erdoğan for whatever reason. I don't know his psychology.

Q: What could be reason behind his admiration?

Stephen J. Flanagan: Well, it seems that he likes this notion of strong leaders.


Q: Nothing beyond that...?

Stephen J. Flanagan: There is some people who speculate that there is something related to business. There is some connection between the son-in-laws. There is certainly no evidence as such I have seen. And also the whole thing about the Zarrab case, Trump's personal attorney Giuliani representing Reza Zarrab earlier in the case. You can get into all sorts of conspiracies. But to me, this is all speculation. I do think that Trump thinks Turkey as this great country. He has properties there. Also in some ways two of them (Trump and Erdoğan) agree on Russia; we should not have this confrontation with Russia.

In CAATSA and the recent NDAA that passed in December, there was a further affirmation telling President Trump that - both Democrats and Republicans - they really want to see action. As I look at the language there is a waiver that President can provide. But the waiver is written in a specific way to preclude the waiver to be given to Turkey. It would allow for a country like India. Countries that are not members of NATO.

Q: What would trigger the imposing of sanctions? First the U.S side was talking about the deployment as the reason for sanctions. That already happened 7 months ago. Now there is talk that sanctions might follow if Turkey activates the system. Why is all this vagueness?

Stephen J. Flanagan: This administration - not only Trump - certainly former Secretary Mattis too- has been against the sanctions. But, the NDAA actually calls for the termination of S-400s. They were very specific about the language at the Congress.

Flanagan served in several senior positions in government, most recently as special assistant to President Obama and senior director for defense policy and strategy at the National Security Council (NSC) Staff from April 2013 to September 2015.


Q: You quoted the unease that the mid ranking officers in the Turkish army have regarding the Turkish General Staff's (TGS) leadership's passive stance on the purge which has started after the coup attempt of 2016. How real is the possibility of a new coup attempt? What are your findings?

Stephen J. Flanagan: Earlier in my career I had some good discussions with the TGS staff. For this report, we talked to some U.S. officials and observers. We relied on others' perceptions. There was certainly no official that suggested there might be another coup attempt. But there was suggestion from those observers that there was this lingering discontent within the military. We would not rule this out. Our impression from talking to Turks who know people in the military that there is still some concern that there are people in the military thinking the politicization of the command has gone too far.

Q: Your report refers to Defense Minister Hulusi Akar as a key partner for the U.S. inside the Turkish government. Furthermore, you recommend the U.S. administration to keep reinforcing that channel.

Stephen J. Flanagan: Many people in Washington, particularly at the U.S. Congress, say that "Turkey is not a reliable ally anymore. This coup attempt made things worse. We have now human rights issues and concerns regarding press freedoms. We should forget about Turkey." So we wrote the Akar bit to say "Let's not let these impulses to guide us and let's look at the long-term strategic interests." We concluded that we still have many common interest. We certainly have deep divisions on certain policies over Syria and Israel. But on the other hand there is still some interest on working together in countering terrorism and to counter Iranian influence.


Q: What about the personal ties between Erdoğan and Putin? Do you see an unbreakable connection over there? Is this Turkish-Russian collusion as long-lasting?

Stephen J. Flanagan: Erdoğan has this close relationship with Putin. But I am sure that some of his close advisors warn him that Russia sees Turkey very much as a junior partner. We cited this famous speech that General Gerasimov gave right before the beginning of the reconciliation period in 2016 when he said that "No-one can possibly stop Russia from doing whatever we wanna do in the Black Sea region. We would swat them like flies." To us, it was a classic reminder that Turkey has to be conscious of the military balances. Turkey is now much less able to counter Russian influence in the Black Sea. If there were a change in government or Erdoğan himself made an adjustment...

Q: Under which circumstances may this become a real possibility?

Stephen J. Flanagan: Let's say that there was another confrontation with the Russians over Afrin or within the safe zones, if he began to doubt that Russians are gonna give too much power to the Kurds in Northern Syria or allow more autonomy in the interest of keeping Assad happy. Russians can't be both Assad's and Turkey's best friend in Northern Syria. Russia has had this wonderful strategy in the region being friends with everyone, yet not making a lot of hard decisions. It has been playing both sides. But maybe the time to take sides is coming. Or if there was some incident in the Black Sea? How would Turkey react if the Russians moved more forcefully in Ukraine? Turks must be worried on possible implications of that. If they try to push for joint control of the straits for instance.

So all we were saying is that we should not accept the status quo between Turkey and Russia as a permanent condition. Whatever Eurasianists in the Turkish Foreign Ministry and other institutions are telling Erdoğan, there is still a certain suspicion about Russia. And historically, Turkey and Russia have not been the best of friends. There could still be a rupture in the relationship. This is clearly why Erdoğan and his government maintain to retain in the NATO. In the end of the day, last time Turkey was facing military challenges it was looking at NATO to get help against Russians and others. Who really came to the rescue ultimately.

Q: Although the administrations usually try to balance out, in the recent years Washington politics has increasingly become a stage for Turkey bashing. Don't you agree?

Stephen J. Flanagan: In the executive branch of the U.S. government there is still a very strong consensus that Turkey is a pivotal country. Although President Trump would never embrace this, one of the important changes President Obama did in the policy. The Obama administration reiterated the view that Turkey is a strategic ally in a difficult region and they will always be there for us. And of course in 2003 things shook when the Turkish Parliament denied to pass the motion to allow the U.S. forces into northern Iraq. Then the relationship eventually came back at the end of George W. Bush administration. Obama came and talked about special partnership not just because of where Turkey was in the world but for what Turkey is as a country. I served in the Obama administration in the second term. We understood certainly that many Turks don't like this notion of being a model for the Islamic world or at least in the greater Middle East. On the other hand, it is in fact an example of how you can be a Muslim country but also a modern country integrated into the world community successfully.

Military to military relationship is still very good. On the other hand, there had been an effort to revive the strategic partnership dialogue and to have it broadened. There was always recognition that the civil-military relations in Turkey was not perfect. There was some discomfort with that. It would not be a bad thing if Turkey had a more Western orientation in civil-military relations. In some ways this was what AKP was doing in some early stages.


Q: The report openly concludes that the U.S. policymakers should be ready for a temporary - or even a permanent - shut down of İncirlik Air Base in Adana? How likely is this shut down?

Stephen J. Flanagan: It really depends on the regional security situation.

Q: Is İncirlik the biggest leverage that Turkey has over the U.S.?

I wouldn't say it is the biggest leverage. But it is certainly an important leverage. President Erdoğan and others probably know that it is certainly much difficult for the U.S. to conduct some of its operations without that base, certainly the counter ISIS mission might have been much more complicated. Otherwise your operating plans should have been moved to far places like Kuwait in the Gulf. That makes it much more stressful. İncirlik is a regional hub, even to supply to Afghanistan. And it worked despite whatever tensions we have had. But certainly Erdoğan was suggesting if the sanctions were imposed, he might think about it.

I have certainly seen evidence of how high-headed and impulsive he can be. He might well just say "My friend Donald has failed me once more and I am not gonna take it anymore. Deny the Americans the right." If Turkey said that certainly the U.S. would leave. But there are other highly sensitive considerations that I cannot talk about.

Q: If you are referring to nuclear weapons at İncirlik...I know present or former government officials are not permitted to talk about them publicly. But President Trump already admitted the presence of those nuclear weapons in front of cameras.

Stephen J. Flanagan: (Laughs) That is true. I know. Let's say that there are nuclear weapons (continues to laugh) Turks and Erdoğan may actually see them as beneficial.

Q: If the U.S. leaves, do they have the nuclear weapons behind?

Stephen J. Flanagan: No not that the U.S will have to leave them. But the idea that perhaps it is a useful thing if Iran pursues a nuclear option. Turks can deter Iran. I really should not be saying more on this.

October 21, 2021 It was too good to be true