By Tom Luongo
When this time period is chronicled and studied astute historians will point to the failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as one of the major turning points in Middle East politics.
It was that failed coup, likely engineered by the United States, which began Turkey’s public shift away from NATO and into further alliance with Russia, Iran and the rest of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The shift began earlier in 2016 as Erdogan realized he was being set up to take the fall for creating ISIS. And he began making overtures to Russia to mend relations after shooting down a Russian SU-24 over Syria in November 2015.
Since the events of 2016 Turkey has continually defied both the U.S. and the European Union on everything from refugee quotas to blocking support for ISIS during the siege and liberation of Aleppo last year.
The pro-Assad coalition would not have been able to achieve the gains it has in 2017 without Turkey’s implicit and, at times, explicit support. By joining the Astana peace talks and being a signatory on and enforcer of the four ‘de-escalation’ zones, Erdogan made it clear to all that he was no longer supporting the U.S. and NATO’s goal of regime change in Damascus.
To make matters worse for the U.S. in Syria Turkey continues to defy them, their NATO ally in very public, if not outright disdainful, ways.
In just the past couple of weeks we’ve seen Turkey make several major moves. First, it played host to Iran’s Defense Minister, discussing further security ties. Let’s not mince words, they discussed the U.S.’s likely push for Kurdish independence and controlling the flow of ISIS fighters as their positions collapse in Syria.
In direct defiance of the latest round of sanctions put on by the U.S., Turkey, Iran and Russia signed a $7 billion oil and gas development deal inside Iran. Remember also that it was Turkish banks that were laundering Iranian oil money using gold as an intermediary while Iran was cut out of the SWIFT electronic payment system by the U.S. from 2012 through 2015.
While the U.S.’s position on the standoff between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council headed by Saudi Arabia is, at best, complicated, it was Turkey’s rapid response to Saudi provocation that stopped a potential regime change operation from unfolding there.
Getting Turkey’s support, along with Iran’s, helped stabilize Qatar’s position while it could react and find work-arounds for the sanctions and isolation by the GCC. The longer this goes on the easier it will be for Qatar to find ways to cope with the various embargoes.
The news this week that Qatar is normalizing relations with Iran further solidifies both Qatar’s and Turkey’s growing independence from old alliances. The geopolitical world is shifting rapidly. Qatar may still have to de-peg its Riyal from the U.S. dollar at some point, but it will hold off on doing so for as long as it can.
If the U.S. responds to Qatar’s further friendship with Iran, with further financial isolation based on the new sanctions law then it will open the door for Qatar to de-peg without much political cost.
Remember, with the collapse of ISIS in Syria, Israel is not happy and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s temper tantrum at Vladimir Putin over Iran’s presence in Syria speaks to his feeling confident the U.S. will back him up on further aggression.
A free and rebuilding Syria, with the Russians there as a near-permanent presence, is what is forcing these changes in relationships. Saudi and U.S. influence in the region is waning. Turkey is ready to chart a path independent from NATO. They are building the ties now to bind them with the rising regional powers, Russia and Iran.
With military realists in charge of the Trump administration (no matter their neoconservative bona fides) it is unlikely that this trend will be derailed by further U.S. military adventurism.