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Turkey Blinks?

Walter Russell Mead

Russia and Turkey spent the weekend trading shots—literally as well as metaphorically. On Saturday, Russia condemned the presence of Turkish troops in Iraq, and called on them to leave. In doing so, Moscow continued to double down on the Shia alliance, backing Tehran’s clients in Baghdad against a NATO member. Then on Sunday, a Russian destroyer fired warning shots at a Turkish fishing vessel that approached to within 1,800 ft. of it in the Mediterranean. Now, Turkey may be backing down. As the WSJ reports:

Turkey on Monday pulled a small military convoy out of a training base in northern Iraq that has become a new flash point as regional powers exert their influence, but refused to buckle to increasing pressure from Baghdad and Moscow to remove all its troops.

About 10 Turkish military vehicles left the camp in the early morning, according to Turkish and Iraqi officials, and they are moving to another base in northern Iraq. While Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the move was meant to address Baghdad’s concerns, he added that Ankara had no plans to leave the disputed base.

Perhaps not—and Baghdad still isn’t happy with Turkey’s presence even after this move. But it does look like a step backward.

Erdogan has made some mistakes that have left him vulnerable, and he is deeply distrusted by his allies. Neither Europeans nor Americans think of President Erdogan’s Turkey as a reliable partner or a smart actor. His contempt for democracy at home, his apparent track record of support for dubious actors in Syria, his inability to develop a coherent approach to the Kurdish issue, and a growing reputation for hotheaded impetuosity mean that Turkey’s allies are not fully committed to a country facing a very difficult regional situation. There are some signs that Turkey is belatedly trying to re-establish the relationships on which its security ultimately depends, but will it be too little, too late?

In fairness to Erdogan, the mixed signals and half steps that have characterized President Obama’s approach to Syria and the regional crisis don’t help, and the Europeans aren’t winning any prizes for vision and competence, either. Russia, Iran, and Syria all have a clearer vision of what they want and what they are willing to do to get it than either Turkey or any of its historic allies. Turkey’s error was to misread American incompetence and European irrelevance as factors that increased his maneuvering room in the region and to think that the moment for greater Turkish activism had come. Actually, the weak performance and lack of strategic focus of Turkey’s allies weakens Turkey’s position, and so a smarter response for Turkey would have been to keep a lower profile and take a more cautious stance.

In some ways, Turkey must now play for time and wait for January 2017, when a new administration in Washington, whether under Secretary Clinton or one of her leading Republican rivals, will begin to deal with the mess that President Obama seems determined to leave behind him.

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