MEMRI Daily Brief No. 236 – The Chimera Of Turkish Utility (To The United States)

By: Alberto M. Fernandez 20 Oct 2020

The story is told that when American planners were upbraided about unintended consequences in arming jihadi fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Americans answered that the strategy worked as it was supposed to – “it hurt and bled the Soviet Union. Period.” This is a supremely cynical form of revisionism allowing one to ignore all sort of inconvenient forms of blowback.

This old story came to mind when listening to Western defenders of Erdogan’s Turkey, particularly in its recent actions in the Caucasus where it is aiding and abetting a war killing Armenian Christians. The argument goes something like this: “Turkey is opposed to Armenia, which is allied to Russia, Syria, and Iran. These are America’s adversaries, so this action by Turkey helps American interests. Period.”

While Turkey’s encouragement and arming of Azerbaijan has led to the killing hundreds of Armenians and reclaimed some territory in the disputed (internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but heavily populated by ethnic Armenians) Nagorno-Karabakh region, it is not at all clear that Russia, Syria, and Iran have been so damaged by Turkey’s latest round of aggressive power politics.

Turkish (and Israeli) drones have blown up a lot of Armenian armor provided by Russia, but we have been seeing advanced technology blowing up Russian-supplied tanks and artillery for decades now in the Middle East. What this bloody little war in a volatile corner of the world has done is dilute Armenian independence, making it more, rather than less, dependent on Russia. It has also weakened reformist Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power in a 2018 “Velvet Revolution” against an entrenched pro-Russian elite. This is an outright gift for Russia, which wants to prevent Pashinyan’s Armenia from leaning towards the West. Even as Russian tanks explode, Moscow becomes the key player in the Southern Caucasus, the spoiler for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is clear even if the Russians may be publicly uncomfortable explaining the ambivalence of their relations with Turkey.

Armenia is allied with Assad’s Syria, but this is an alliance of two ramshackle powers of little strategic value to each other. And it is worth recalling that while Turkey takes actions that supposedly hurt pro-Assad Armenia, it has helped pro-Assad Venezuela in much more lucrative ways. Turkey’s imports of Venezuelan gold – which comes from a conflict zone rife with human rights abuse and Colombian cartels – rose from zero to almost a billion in 2018, with the concern that Turkey was the key middleman in helping this triangular traffic with Iran.

Latin American media in 2019 showed the smiling Venezuelan Minister of Industries and National Production Tareck El Aissami, scion of a well-known Libano-Venezuelan Baathist family, visiting a Turkish gold-smelting plant as part of Turkish-Venezuelan cooperation. The notorious El Aissami is well known for his close ties to Hizbullah and the Assad regime, as well as for accusations against him concerning corruption, money laundering, and drug-trafficking.

Turkey’s Caucasus intervention has actually helped Russia’s interests, and whatever damage it has inflicted on an ally of the Syrian regime seems to be more than outweighed by the help it has given to another ally of the Syrian regime in the Western hemisphere. And as far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned, Venezuela is a much higher priority than Assad-Armenia relations.

But is it with Iran that Turkey’s Armenian adventure has played its most “positive” role? The idea here is that Turkey’s intervention on behalf of Azerbaijan has stoked irredentist pan-Turkic aspirations among Iran’s restive Azeri minority. Let’s give Turkey full marks for bringing this about, even though internal ethnic tensions, including among the Azeris who make up 16% of Iran’s population, are nothing new within the borders of the Iranian regime. The tangible result of this unrest seems to have been to shift Iran’s position – at least publicly –closer to Azerbaijan and away from Armenia.

The upshot of all of this turmoil seems clear. The losers, so far, are Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. Turkey and Azerbaijan, and I would add Russia, are all beneficiaries. Assad’s broken Syria is inconsequential to the discussion and Iran, at worst, has been forced by internal security concerns from leaning too openly towards Armenia to appearing to lean more towards Azerbaijan. That’s about it.

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