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Turkey has grown closer to Russia, despite their differences over Syria and NATO. Political analyst Ekrem Ekici says this growing alliance is based on natural gas exports and the sale of weapons systems like the S400

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BEN NORTON: Now, let’s continue our discussion here. This is an interesting and important topic, and it’s a contradiction in that it’s something that I think is not well understood, and that is Turkey’s growing alliance with Russia. Turkey is, of course, a strong NATO member. Turkey has the second-largest standing army in NATO. It’s a close U.S. ally. However, in the past few years, even though Turkey and Russia have been completely opposing sides of the war in Syria, they have come to a much closer alliance. What is your take on this?

EKREM EKICI: Well, absolutely. To explain this better we should remember two incidents that took place in Turkey in 2015 and ’16. In October 2015, a Russian SU 24 fighter jet was downed by the Turkish forces, and this immediately created a massive crisis between Turkey and Russia. If you look at the statements of the state officials or AKP representatives after the incident, that it was not, this, the order was not given by the AKP. So this was presented as a fact that this, this operation, this, this move was taken, taken by groups in the Turkish army who were against AKP, and who wanted to undermine the relations between Turkey and Russia.

And that was a turning point between, in terms of these relations between Turkey and Russia, because after this point, actually, Turkey and Russia started to more closely cooperate in the region in terms of the Syrian conflict. And also, we should also consider the fact that Turkey and Russia has historic ties and large economic partnerships. For example, there is, there’s a massive project, a massive pipeline project, which will, which is already being constructed under the Black Sea. Russia will sell natural gas to Turkey through a pipeline which is going below the Black Sea region. Also, Russia will construct a power plant in southern Turkey, in Akkuyu region, which also created a massive stir in Turkey. And we are talking about Turkey, is one of Turkey’s major trade partners.

So all this considered, this allowed AKP to move closer to Russia. And the most critical point in Russia-Turkey relations in terms of the general international society was the announcement in December 2017, last year, that Turkey signed a protocol with Russia to buy S400 surface-to-air missile systems. So that’s created an anxiety in NATO, because Turkey is a NATO member, and it’s buying a technology, an air defense technology, from Russia, which is completely incompatible with NATO’s technology. So these S400 missiles can gather data about the, about aircraft in the vicinity. So with that in hand, Turkey is also in the program of F-35 fighter jets, which will be the mainstay of NATO’s air defense system in the next 30 years. So Turkey, Turkey is supposed to buy 116 F-35 systems. So this creates an anxiety in NATO, because the purchase of the S400 missile systems will allow Russia to gain knowledge about the, about the new air defense systems of NATO. We’re talking about the F-35 fighter jets. So this puts Turkey in a very, very controversial position, in terms of its, its allies and NATO.

BEN NORTON: Yeah. And can you talk about the political reasons as to why you think this is happening? I mean, clearly Turkey and Russia are acting in their own national, you know, capitalist interests. So why do you think that Turkey, as a U.S. ally that is a key member of NATO, is buying this Russian military technology?

EKREM EKICI: Well, for this we should also think about the failed coup attempt back in 2016. After this coup attempt, and after the survival of the government and Tayyip Erdogan himself, AKP and Erdogan started an anti-Western discourse, stating and thinking that this coup was supported, at least the Western countries closed their eyes, to this active assault against the Turkish government. So this made Erdogan want to move closer to Russia. This is one of the factors. Secondly, Turkey thinks, AKP government thinks, actually, closer relations with Russia could be, could be used as leverage against, against NATO, which forces Turkey to be a satellite for their interests in the region.

And AKP, AKP is capitalizing on that, and shoving the partnership and the close relations with Russia as a stick towards NATO. However, as I said earlier, this, all this can happen in a, in a closed framework. So Turkey is a NATO member since 1950s and Turkey is a trusted and strong ally, and it’s an indispensable partner for NATO. So the political implications, or the political meaning of all this, would be that Turkey is trying to create, AKP government is trying to create an area, space for manoeuver, against NATO.

BEN NORTON: Yeah. Then we have to conclude here, but one final question, getting back to Syria. We’ve seen in the Astana peace talks that the U.S. has, in fact, not even at the table. These are peace talks on the war in Syria between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. And we’ve seen, as you mentioned, much more reconciliation and even collaboration between Turkey and Russia inside Syria. So there are reports recently that Russia even told Israel that Russia will try to prevent Iranian influence inside Syria, that Russia is trying to remove Iranian and Hezbollah forces from near the border of the occupied Golan Heights and the border of of Israel next to Syria. And we’ve also seen some collaboration in the sense that, for instance, in Homs, and other areas where you have Islamist insurgents backed by Turkey, Russia and Turkey have made agreements for Turkey to pressure its proxies inside Syria to put down their arms and to instead travel to Idlib, which Turkey at this point largely controls. And these are deals brokered by Russia to prevent more fighting.

So what do you think the end goal of this is going to be? I mean, is Russia going to allow Turkey, as part of the agreement to end the war, to carve up these northern parts of Syria? Is Russia committed to Syria’s territorial integrity? Or do you think that something else is happening?

EKREM EKICI: Well, to respond to that, I would introduce the broader context. So one of the conflict in Syria, which began in 2011, has different dimensions and different aspects which are, which are interconnected to one another. But one of the main reasons why all this is going on in Syria is that the, the fact that the-. It’s about the transportation of the natural gas from Qatar to West Europe. Syria was the only only country here to resist against this project. So the thing is, this was going to obliterate Russia’s influence and Russia’s control over the European energy market. So now Russia, with its position that was gained in the Syrian conflict, Russia is trying to consolidate its position, and it is making itself as flexible as possible to be the main, one of the main actors, which is, which is going to be decisive.

So I see this, these manoeuvers between Russia, Turkey, and Iran in this context. So also, Russia is giving, giving a space to Turkey to control the, the possible insurgences which would stem from modern Syria and contaminates into Turkey. So this is, this is a way of Russia to keep Turkey on its side. So I would say this is, this requires a broader context to comprehend all this seemingly contradictory relationships.

BEN NORTON: Well, unfortunately we’ll have to end our conversation there. It was a very interesting interview, and thank you so much for the analysis. Here at The Real News we were joined by Ekrem Ekici. He is an independent researcher and political analyst, and a co-editor of the new online magazine Rupture. Thanks for joining us, Ekrem.

I’m Ben Norton, reporting for The Real News.

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Ben Norton is a producer and reporter for The Real News. His work focuses primarily on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, media criticism, and movements for economic and social justice. Ben Norton was previously a staff writer at Salon and AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.