Will the latest terrorist attack bring Turkey and Russia even closer together?
Turkey experienced another terrorist attack to start off 2017, following a very bloody 2016 during which multiple deadly terrorist attacks took place. A gunman targeted a popular upscale nightclub in Istanbul about 1 AM on Sunday, killing at least 39 New Year’s celebrants and wounding dozens of other people. In addition to the Turkish victims, foreign citizens from such countries as Israel, Belgium, France, Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon and India were among the dead. The attack occurred despite stepped up security that was put into place after American intelligence officers had issued a warning to expect an attack in Turkey during the holiday season. ISIS, directly through its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and via supportive media, has threatened attacks specifically in Turkey
The gunman reportedly screamed “Allahu Akbar” as he carried out his massacre. Turkish intelligence officers believe that the prime suspect is a member of the East Turkestan branch of ISIS. Officials have released a picture of the suspect whom, as of the writing of this article, is on the run and has not yet been identified by name or nationality.
Turkey's president, Tayyip Erdogan, vowed: “As a nation, we will fight to the end against not just the armed attacks of terror groups and the forces behind them, but also against their economic, political and social attacks.” Noting that the terrorists “aim to create chaos, demoralize our people, and destabilize our country with abominable attacks which target civilians,” President Erdogan added, “We will retain our cool-headedness as a nation, standing more closely together, and we will never give ground to such dirty games.”
World leaders were quick to condemn the attack and send their condolences. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, whom has worked with the Turkish and Iranian governments to negotiate a ceasefire in Syria, sent Turkey's president a telegram message, stating, “It is hard to imagine a more cynical crime than killing innocent people during New Year celebrations. However, terrorists don't share moral values. Our common duty is to combat terrorists' aggression.”
President Putin sent this message against the backdrop of the murder of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, two weeks ago by a terrorist associated with al Qaeda’s Nusra Front (now known as the Fatah al-Sham Front).
When President-elect Donald Trump takes office, he will be facing a situation in which Turkey, a member of NATO with its second largest army, is pivoting away from the United States towards Russia. This has occurred during President Obama’s watch, even though Obama has gone out of his way to effusively praise Turkey’s president. In March of 2012, for example, Obama called Erdogan his “friend and colleague,” adding that “We find ourselves in frequent agreement upon a wide range of issues.” In 2013, during a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden, Obama said that Erdogan was "a strong ally and partner in the region and around the world."
Obama naively believed that Turkey, like the United States, was interested in removing President Bashar Hafez al- Assad from power in Syria as Turkey’s top priority, in order to bring about a free Syria "that is intact and inclusive of all ethnic and religious groups," as Obama put it in his joint news conference with Erdogan. Whatever Erdogan’s original intentions were in supporting rebel groups fighting to overthrow Assad, it did not take long for the Turkish president to realize that Obama was all talk and no action, particularly after failing to enforce his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. Moreover, Erdogan did not see eye to eye with Obama on the handling of the Syrian Kurdish rebels supported by the United States. Turkey regards the Kurds on both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border as a more dangerous enemy to Turkish interests than even ISIS or al Qaeda. Russia has been willing to allow Turkey to handle the Kurds in its own fashion while cooperating with Turkey in an effort to stabilize Syria and fight the common ISIS/al Qaeda enemy. This appears to suit Erdogan at this time, even if it means leaving Assad in power for now. The latest terrorist attack in Turkey, which followed a string of massacres costing civilian lives and taking the life of Russia’s ambassador, has brought the two countries even closer together, pursuing common interests that have overridden their prior acrimonious relationship.
Like nature, power abhors a vacuum. Obama has created a power vacuum in the Middle East through his feckless policies. Putin has rushed to fill it, particularly in Syria. And he has shown ruthlessness in rooting out those he considers to be terrorists. Erdogan perceives Russia as the more reliable and decisive partner, which will not object to his own ruthlessness in dealing with those he considers to be terrorists, whether they be Kurds, ISIS or al Qaeda. In the process, the two countries literally froze the United States out of the negotiations leading to the recent ceasefire agreement in Syria.
President-elect Trump has implied a more realpolitik worldview of his own, including a willingness to join forces with any country, including Russia, against ISIS. With that strategic objective in mind, he may not be particularly bothered by the process of cooperation being shown between Russia and Turkey in Syria. As DebkaFile has observed, “The Trump administration will have to decide whether it is willing or able to haul Turkey back into line or take advantage of the process for America’s benefit.”