The failed July 15 coup in Turkey looks to be a watershed, defining moment for the country as well as the wider region. The implications have already been enormous, with large swathes of Turkey’s bedrock institutions – the military, judiciary, education, you name it – being exenterated in the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) revolutionary-sized reprisals to the brief uprising. Indeed, the scale of the AKP’s purges is enough to make one wonder if a coup succeeded after all – just one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s making.
Yet, while the coup and its aftermath may turn out to be a key chapter in Turkish modern history, it remains so far a data-point in isolation. Reams of analysis are making do on a pittance of facts, with varying theories over the genesis, execution and collapse of the failed mutiny – inside jobs, foreign interference, Russian intercepts, among others – all jostling for airtime amid great uncertainty. Little seems knowable, and even less may ever come to light.
Even while the photos, videos, reports, half-truths and innuendo were still rolling in over the attempted coup, speculation was already rife on social media over the possible geopolitical fallout from the failed putsch. One common theme questioned whether Turkey would remain a Nato member, whichever the post-coup configuration of its government. Until recently such speculation would have been patently absurd; Turkey has been an imperfect Western ally in many ways, but in practical terms no less so than more than a few other Nato allies at varying points in the alliance’s history. As a bulwark abutting the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Caucasus, and with Nato’s second largest military, there was something fantastical about unserious navel gazing over Ankara’s Nato credentials.
Even now, with hundreds killed or wounded during the coup attempt and, in its aftermath, the AKP taking a cleaver to the organs of the Turkish state, there is little to suggest Turkish Nato membership is in any immediate danger. Barring extreme events (admittedly not beyond the province of our times) – such as the US being targeted in the AKP’s flailing retribution – it remains unlikely that Ankara’s position within the alliance is likely to be functionally attenuated by any party other than Turkey itself. Yes, Nato is a values-based club, as the first two articles of its founding charter demonstrate, but it is foremost a means to incubate liberal democratic values, not to serve as a transnational guarantor of them.
Foreign policy flailing
But that does not mean that the coup’s effects will not be felt outside the country’s borders. Amid (unreliably sourced) claims that Moscow may have tipped off Erdogan to the impending coup on July 15, made all the more suspicious by the apparent arrest of the same Turkish F-16 pilots credited with shooting down the Russian SU-24 last year, there’s a decided feeling that post-coup Turkey will find itself more comfortable dealing again with Russia – a careening volte face following months of extended mutual acrimony. Days are early, but the evidence is mounting that this is the case. Turkish and Russian officials are planning to meet in St Petersburg in early August, the first time in about a year, where Russian sanctions against Turkey are widely expected to be loosened or lifted altogether. Already, reports are filtering out that Moscow and Ankara are already preparing to restart the once-moribund “Turkish Stream” pipeline project, which was thought to have collapsed in the aftermath of the SU-24 downing. And while both countries are facing increasingly choppy economic waters, Erdogan and Putin are increasingly in positions to not only put state money into their pet projects, but cajole increasingly dependent private companies to follow suit.
That does not mean that Turkey has learned to reconcile its own geopolitical aspirations with Russian pretensions to regional primacy. In basic terms, the underlying structural elements that brought the two powers to the cusp of open conflict have not disappeared so much as been thrust aside for the sake of strategic expediency. Consumed by raging internal discord – the extended war against Kurdish insurgents, the increasing frequency of terror attacks orchestrated by Islamic State, the broader crackdowns on political dissent, and now the unrest linked to the attempted coup – Ankara’s once-ambitious foreign policy agenda is among the least of the AKP’s immediate concerns.
Russia, whatever the threat it posed to Turkish grand strategy, is both a menacing and very expensive adversary to have – particularly when the chief upsides to confrontation are more symbolic than tangible. More to the point, without a land border with a major military power, restoring cordial relations with Russia ensures that the evisceration of the Turkish military (among other institutions) has few immediate strategic consequences.
While the Turkish government will look to avoid losing face in the process of revitalizing their moribund relationship with Russia, the urgency of smoothing over relations with Moscow will likely mean Ankara will be willing to surrender certain strategic concessions in return. In Syria, Turkey is no longer under any illusion over its ability to control the situation there, and has essentially ceased in its campaign to prod the wider West into a more active role in shaping the strategic landscape in its favor. By extension, Turkey has ceded Syria to the incumbent regime of Bashar al Assad – whom it had previously vowed to see unseated – and Damascus’ Russian patrons. This was already the de facto Turkish posture in Syria, particularly since the Russian military swiftly installed S-400 air defenses in northeastern Syria, establishing a comprehensive anti-access/area denial presence, shortly after Turkish-Russian tensions spilled into the open last year.
Following the recent attempted coup, what Turkey may have acceded to grudgingly before will likely become a matter of diplomatic niceties. The Turkish government may issue the occasional protest over Turkmens in the Middle East or the fate of its Tatar kin in Crimea, but in the aftermath of the coup all have taken a firm back seat to the AKP’s domestic political project.
Russia may be a beneficiary of Turkey’s inward turn, but other states are likely to see their geopolitical position decline. In particular, the South Caucasus states – Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia – all have reasons to be wary of these new developments in Turkey. While Turkey’s “zero problems” foreign policy strategy has become something of a joke to many observers over the past few years, it was still in many regards a reflection of some reality in the South Caucasus, which had variously benefited from Turkey’s regional rise.
Azerbaijan and Georgia have been especially keen to ride along as Turkey’s footprint expanded. Budding trilateral relations were regarded positively in Tbilisi and Baku, which saw major long-term economic and strategic opportunities in the emergence of Turkey as an established regional power. To some watchers in both countries, Turkey looked like it had the long-term potential to challenge Russian primacy over the region, and after the Su-24 shootdown Ankara even appeared momentarily interested in the job. Turkish advocacy for Georgian Nato membership went from rote to passionate, Turkish naval vessels began taking part in joint Nato cruises of the Black Sea, and analysts in Tbilisi began privately kicking around the idea of hosting Turkish troops or materiel in the longtime Nato-aspiring country.
For Azerbaijan, a withdrawn and weaker Turkey is an even more troubling prospect. Turkey, which has a defence treaty with Azerbaijan, is counted on in Baku to come to its aid in the event of a flare-up in fighting with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Yerevan, whose forces control Karabakh, has its own military treaty with Russia. Not only is Turkey’s gutted military even less capable of backing Azerbaijan in the event of a fresh conflagration, but Ankara may think twice about honouring the ultimately ambiguously-worded treaty with Baku using military forces against a dominant Moscow. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s energy export strategy, such that it is, depends on pipeline routes transiting Georgia into Turkey, from where it is ferried to Western markets. The return of the Turkish Stream pipeline project, should it be realized, would undercut the EU’s vaunted “Southern Gas Corridor” and compound Azerbaijan’s already mounting energy crisis. In all likelihood, foreign policy shifts in Baku towards Moscow will only accelerate, and perhaps to the point of near-irreversibility.
Bad news for Azerbaijan does not mean good news for Armenia. A more docile Turkey and a more pro-Russia Baku may help lessen the risk of a regional war, but it may also make Moscow more receptive to Azerbaijani lobbying. And the structural crisis contributing to a pervading sense of fatalism in Armenia – which has given rise to a fourth summer in a row of unrest – has little chance of being dislodged with Russia so firmly invested in an entrenched, corrupt status quo. Counterintuitively, one longshot idea to give Armenia a chance to escape the prison of its extended malaise, normalization accords with Turkey are even less likely as Ankara backs down, as the AKP would be unlikely to overrule both Moscow and Baku on such a geopolitically unsettling affair.
Nothing in the region is written in stone, and Turkey’s rapid strategic turnaround is proof enough of that. It’s within the realm of possibility that a month from now, or six, or a few years, that Turkey will once again see its position rapidly change. But under the current circumstances, the near- to medium-term future of the region looks to be one without a robust Turkish foreign policy, with all of its attendant effects.
Michael Hikari Cecire is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Colchis columnist. Follow him on @mhikaric