Lessons Learned About Turkey And Azerbaijan After Erdogan’s Washingt

Vladimir Socor

The Jamestown Foundation
December 11, 2009

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s December 7-8 visit to
Washington (EDM, December 9) underscored the decline in Washington’s
ability to influence Turkish foreign policy decisions. It is within
this broader context, Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
turned down Washington’s demands for Turkey to normalize relations
with Armenia swiftly and unconditionally. This would have broken the
linkage between the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations and
withdrawal of Armenian troops from certain Azerbaijani districts,
as part of the Karabakh conflict resolution process.

That withdrawal and linkage are top national priorities for Azerbaijan
-a fact that the US administration apparently discounted, amid
pressures from Armenian advocacy groups and parts of Congress.

Breaking that linkage would have undermined Azerbaijan’s position
severely, with potentially lasting effects.

By asking Turkey to undercut Azerbaijan in that way, Washington
jeopardized its de facto strategic partnership with Baku and put
long-term US policy goals in the South Caucasus at risk. The Turkish
government’s disagreement with Washington on this issue, however,
has opened a fresh opportunity for the U.S.-Azerbaijan relationship
to continue on a lessons-learned basis and develop further.

This turn of events is not without irony, given that Ankara is
distancing itself strategically from Washington on a number of issues
that the United States regards as its top policy priorities. This
process gained added momentum in the run-up to Erdogan’s Washington

Thus, Ankara turned down US requests to increase the Turkish troop
presence in Afghanistan beyond the 1,600 currently deployed (a
strikingly low ratio for NATO’s second-largest army after that of
the United States). Ankara, moreover, reaffirmed its caveats against
military operations and combat missions, confining Turkish troops
instead to training and reconstruction projects, even as Washington
urged support for its military "surge" on December 1.

Demonstratively, Turkey abstained from the International Atomic Energy
Agency’s (IAEA) November 27 resolution censuring Iran (while Russia
and China voted in favor alongside the United States). Erdogan had
visited Tehran in October for the signing of economic agreements that
could boost bilateral trade from $11 billion to $30 billion annually
within this decade. The agreements of intent include exploration,
production, and transportation of Iranian natural gas, notwithstanding
U.S. sanctions in that sector. Ankara differs with Washington’s threat
assessment regarding the Iranian nuclear program and is reaching
out politically to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Hurriyet,
December 6; Zaman, December 6, 7).

Ankara is also distancing itself markedly from Israel, Washington’s
closest Middle Eastern ally. Following Erdogan’s war-crimes accusations
against Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum
in Davos, Turkish public television produced an inflammatory serial
in which performers impersonating Israeli soldiers enacted killings
of Arab children. In October, Turkey revoked its invitation to Israel
in the Anatolia Eagle air force exercise, prompting the United States
to cancel its participation, and thus the event as such. Meanwhile,
Ankara conducts a rapprochement with Hamas and other politically
defined Muslim anti-Western forces (Jerusalem Post, December 7).

The Turkish government relies heavily on Russia to turn Turkey into an
"energy hub" -an ambition that tends to work against Western energy
security interests and US-backed projects. In the Black Sea, Turkey
pursues a de facto condominium with Russia, sidelining NATO allies
and partners and frustrating the United States in the process.

Without and beyond any value judgments, however, these trends
demonstrate Turkey’s capacity to pursue policies contradicting those
of Washington, when Ankara’s views and perceived interests so dictate.

Common US-Turkish interests -most saliently on Iraq and the Kurdish
problem- persist despite the multiple disagreements elsewhere. In
the South Caucasus, meanwhile, Washington and Ankara both lost their
former strategic focus and clear definition of common interests.

Course corrections are possible, however.

Ankara’s decision to rally to Azerbaijan’s support in the negotiating
process, despite US calls for a premature agreement with Armenia,
is a case in point. On the eve of the Erdogan-Davutoglu visit to
Washington, Davutoglu summed up bilateral relations as: "The United
States always wants something from us" (Zaman, December 6). Such a
situation inherently provides Turkey with ample bargaining power and
even counter-leverage, which it has employed in this case with regard
to Azerbaijan.

At least for now, Ankara’s move has prevented Azerbaijan’s isolation in
the Karabakh conflict-resolution process. Isolation could have forced
Baku to turn toward Moscow as arbiter of last resort in the Karabakh
conflict, which ranks as Azerbaijan’s uppermost national priority. And
such an about-turn could have compromised the energy security and
regional security agendas for Europe and the South Caucasus-Caspian
region. Washington and Brussels discounted the danger signals from
Baku and underestimated the mounting sentiment of alienation there.

The problem can soon return, if Washington and Brussels renew
pressure on Turkey to open the border with Armenia unconditionally,
at Azerbaijan’s expense, before next April’s climactic debate on an
Armenian genocide resolution in the US Congress.