First came Erdogan’s carefully worded apology in June for ambushing and shooting down a Russian plane last November. The Turkish economy was reeling under the ban on trade and tourism that Moscow imposed after that. Then came the attempted military coup in Turkey on July 15 and 16, when the Turkish president realised he didn’t have a friend left in the world apart from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The US government almost certainly wasn’t behind the coup, but it was clear that it wouldn’t have minded terribly if Erdogan went. All Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbours, Iran, Iraq and Syria, see Erdogan as an enemy, and so does about half of his own population. (His fiercely pro-religious domestic policies have split Turkey right down the middle.)
He is involved in an unwinnable war with Turkey’s own Kurdish minority and the rebels he backed in Syria are losing the war there. This is a man desperately in need of friends.
Erdogan has only himself to blame for his isolation. It was his Sunni religious enthusiasm, not Turkish national interest, that led him to back the Syrian revolt aimed at overthrowing Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite (non-Sunni) leader. He kept the Turkish-Syrian border open to supply the Syrian rebels, including Islamic State and the local affiliate of Al-Qaeda. Last July, he restarted a war against Turkey’s big Kurdish minority to appeal to right-wing Turkish nationalists and win a close election. He has also bombed and shelled the Syrian Kurds along Turkey’s southern border, who are America’s most important allies against Islamic State. And he deliberately shot down a Russian bomber because Russia was helping Assad survive.
In other words, Erdogan is an impulsive short-term thinker with no grand strategy. That’s why he had to fly to St Petersburg this week to visit his “dear friend” Putin. And Putin is always happy to score points against the West.
So what will be the price of his “friendship” with Putin? First and foremost, it will be an end to Turkish support for the Syrian rebels, particularly for the fanatics of Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda affiliate (currently trading as Fateh al-Sham). At a slightly later date, Erdogan will be expected to downgrade his relations with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the revolt’s main Arab backers, and reopen contacts with the Assad regime.
In the long run, Moscow hopes, the result will be a decisive Assad victory in the Syrian civil war. Even a month ago, that seemed improbable, but Turkey is the only route by which money and weapons from the Arab Gulf states can reach the rebels.
There is inevitably a flutter of concern in Washington. But the hawks in Washington need not worry about Nato’s future. Turkey and Russia are not getting married. Turkey’s fundamental strategy for the past two centuries has been to have a powerful foreign ally to counterbalance Russia.
Erdogan is not planning to break his country’s strategic ties with the US and the humble pie he is being forced to eat may hasten an end to the killing in Syria.