Authoritarians of the World, Unite!

Putin Erdogan

Syria has been Russia’s anti-Afghanistan, at least thus far. The Russians have been able to prop up their Muslim client regime, while at a relatively small price (politically, financially and militarily) kicking some other Muslim ass. Better still, they have been able to present themselves as strong, decisive, “don’t mess with us” kind of folk and at the same time rub America’s face in it. The United States might have been somewhat humbled in Afghanistan and Iraq, but only Syria has been a true proxy war, turning as it has into a late revenge for the Soviet Union’s Afghanistan misadventure, at least as much as you can get a revenge without there being American boots on the ground.

On the other hand, it did not start too well for Russia’s Syrian relations with Turkey, seeing that the two powers had different – though not necessarily incompatible – interests in Syria: Russia in keeping Assad up and Turkey in keeping the Kurds down. But after all the ups and downs, now this:

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads to Russia this week as part of efforts to rebuild ties shattered by Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane last year — just as Turkey’s relations with traditional allies the United States and Europe show increasing strain amid Ankara’s crackdown following a failed coup.

Tuesday’s visit to St. Petersburg for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin will be Erdogan’s first foreign trip since the abortive July 15 putsch, in which a group of renegade Turkish military officers attempted to seize power using fighter jets, helicopters and tanks in a night of violence that left more than 270 people dead.

Both Turkey and Russia, which once described themselves as strategic partners, have been hurt by their roughly seven-month rupture in relations: Russia’s ban on the sale of package tours to Turkey and an agricultural import embargo dealt a painful blow to the Mediterranean country, while Moscow also paid a price as the spat shelved a much-touted Russian natural gas pipeline to Turkey and other lucrative projects.

A lot has changed in those seven months, including the failed coup and the successful purge, which has put Erdogan offside with his traditional allies. No Western government has actually supported the coup, but according to Erdogan they haven’t condemned it quickly and strongly enough, not to mention their squeamishness about Erdogan’s subsequent crack-down. There is now little prospect of any progress on the decades-long project of integrating Turkey into the European Union. For the Europeans, Europe increasingly ends at the Bosphorus. Which leads to Russia.

It has been Russia’s dream since the time of Peter the Great to gain the control of the Dardanelles and thus for the third Rome (Moscow) to resurrect and incorporate the second Rome (Constantinople) into its empire. But Russia’s military might has always fallen short of its southern ambitions. Needless to say, Russia and Turkey have been traditional enemies throughout the centuries of the Ottoman Empire, in the two world wars and during the Cold War, when Turkey acted as the southern anchor of NATO. On top of that, Russia has a historical problem building friendly relations with Muslim powers in light of their own domestic problem with a growing and restive Muslim population along its southern borders.

To counterbalance all that there is the natural affinity between the strongmen who crash their domestic opposition and get the job done, whatever it takes. Putin is much more a soulmate for Erdogan than any of the democratic Western leaders. This is an unfortunate development at any time, but even more dangerous now that another strongman – one who has expressed support for and affinity with both Putin and Erdogan, as well as his disdain for NATO – is possibly the next President of the United States.

The West increasingly looks like a weak horse; disconcerted, disunited and morose. No wonder its rivals are watching and circling – and taking advantage.