In an interview with EADaily, Ruben Safrastyan, leading Armenian Turkologist, Director of the Institute for Oriental Studies, National Academy of Science of Armenia, addresses pressing domestic and foreign policy problems of Turkey.
Mr. Safrastyan, what is your assessment of the Russia-Iran-Turkey triumvirate in Syria? Is that format vital? How durable is it?
The countries in that format have made a step towards peaceful settlement in Syria, which is an achievement, of course. As for the prospects of that process, I’d like to make very cautious assessment. It is untimely to speak of its success. Nevertheless, at the given stage, there are positive shifts in the peace process of such complicated problem as the Syrian crisis is.
As for the countries of that triumvirate, I think Russia has the key part in it. Actually, Russia has become one of the countries to play a significant role in the Middle East now. A few years ago, it was hard to imagine that Russia could restore the Soviet Union’s positions in the Middle East at least to some extent. Nevertheless, Moscow did it and is now the political, diplomatic, and military driving force of that triumvirate.
As for the other participants – Iran and Turkey, I’d like to outline the following circumstances. An insight into Turkey’s actions in Syria will show that it is an aggressor. It has occupied part of the country’s territory and I am sure that sooner or later that issue will be put on the diplomatic agenda. Iran is in Syria at the request of Syria’s government. Actually, it acts quite legally. The same does Russia.
I would like to speak of certain geopolitical component of that process. Initiating the peace process, Russia actually does not settle its own geopolitical issues. It is just trying to help the legitimate authorities of Syria settle the conflict in their territories. Meantime, Turkey is settling its own geopolitical problems…
Russia is trying to strengthen its positions in the region, isn’t it? Cannot it be seen as a geopolitical interest too?
There is a factor we should take into account – trying to strengthen its political positions in Syria, Russia is not trying to interfere with the domestic problems of that country. Meantime, Turkey participates in the process to settle the issue of the Kurdish autonomy in Syria, oppose the Kurdish movement that it considers a real danger for itself. As for Russia, it has no such problems. Here is the fundamental difference between them.
When that triumvirate was just taking shape, there was an impression that Russia is a kind of “good police officer” with regard to Turkey, while Iran is the “bad” one. Now, there is an impression that approaches of Russia and Turkey have come closer than the approaches of Russia and Iran are. How grounded is that assessment?
The question needs to be restated. Here is what I mean: the three sides that initiated the process have real discrepancies. These are geopolitical discrepancies, but Iran and Turkey have inter-confessional discrepancies too. Russia and Iran have no serious difference. That is, the union of the three countries is of tactical nature, I think. The Russian-Iranian union has no strategic prospects in the Middle East. In the meantime, the discrepancies of Turkey and Iran are known – they are geopolitical, economic, and inter-confessional. I think they have launched temporary tactical rapprochement of their positions to initiate the peace process. Hence, I’d reiterate that I see no prospects for that “triple alliance” to survive.
Can Armenia take advantage of the Russian-Turkish rapprochement to achieve reopening of the Armenian-Turkish border?
I do not even think about it, since there are no real prospects therein. As far as I understand Turkey’s policy, it sets separately its relations with Armenia and all its other geopolitical positions. Turkey’s stand on Armenia was established yet in 1991 when Ankara recognized Armenia’s independence but refused to establish diplomatic relations with it. I think it was in December 1991 that Turkey laid basis of its policy towards Armenia building on the idea that Yerevan needs normalization with Ankara and not vice versa. Therefore, Turkey will further be using the circumstance that Armenia has no access to the sea and that two of its four neighbors have blocked the borders with it. Turkey will be using and pressing Armenia to make it change its policy towards Turkey.
Only towards Turkey or towards Azerbaijan too?
Both, Turkey and Azerbaijan. The three major problems Turkey is trying to solve by exerting pressure on Armenia is the problem of recognition of the Armenian genocide, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue that is directly connected with Azerbaijan, and the Kars Treaty issue.
Will the change of the administration in the U.S. have any impact on the American-Turkish relations? At the end of Barack Obama’s presidential term, the chill in their relations became evident.
At the moment, I’d refrain from making any far-reaching conclusions. However, Donald Trump’s Administration and Turkey have expressed certain desire to normalize their relationships. There is willingness on both sides, but there are still the problems and discrepancies that existed yet under Obama. For instance, Turkey demands preacher Fethullah Gulen to be extradited. Obama’s Administration opposed it. I do not know if Trump’s Administration will do it, since Turkey has again appealed for his extradition to the U.S. Administration under Trump.
The second problem is that Turkey and U.S. have declared they are supporters of the security zones in the territory of Syria. Turkey had come out for that for a long time. Recently it has certainly sidestepped that program and its demands after suffering casualties (about one hundred people). I do not think that Trump’s Administration will hail Erdogan for supporting political Islam, having ties with radical Islamic organizations and seeking Islamization of Turkey.
Do you anticipate any changes in the issue of the U.S. support to Kurds? This issue too triggers nervous response of the Turkish authorities that demand U.S. to choose its ally in the region.
It is so far early to make any conclusion about how the new administration in Washington will deal with Kurds. It is one of the most complicated issues in the region. I think the new administration has no preferences, since it is still studying the issue. At the current stage, I see no new signs that would speak of any definite stance on the issue.
At the beginning of Erdogan’s tenure, Turkey was considered to be a U.S. satellite waging a distinct pro-Western and pro-American policy. Did Erdogan’s Turkey manage to get rid of Washington’s influence and become an independent player?
It is a good and complicated question. One can make a different assessment, of course, but it is important to give a balanced assessment to all this. On the one hand, Turkey is a NATO member, a U.S. ally that received military aid from the United States etc. That is, nothing has changed here. On the other hand, Turkey is trying to play its game. Certain actions by Turkey show that on some strategically not large areas it acts independently, without coordinating it with the United States.
Second, domestic political processes in Turkey, particularly, the strengthening positions of political Islam will hardly be welcome by U.S. Meantime, Erdogan is building his domestic policy on Islamization acting in the way U.S. and Eastern Europe do not like. As for the foreign policy, he is trying to play independently. In particular, Erdogan deliberately spoiled the relations with Israel to increase Turkey’s authority in the Islamic world, which could not but anger the United States.
Arguably, in foreign policy Erdogan’s Turkey is ready for actions that will frustrate the United States. However, strategically, Turkey does not weigh refusal from the NATO membership and close relations with U.S. so far.
The date of the constitutional referendum in Turkey has been announced already. Is the outcome predetermined, considering the current domestic political situation there?
Yes, I think so. A new political regime – regime of Erdogan’s sole power – is being established in Turkey. Actually, he is trying to create a new Turkey – Turkey of Erdogan, not Ataturk. He is trying to replace the unreplaceable leader. I think he has set a goal to become the second Ataturk by 2023 – the centennial of the Turkish Republic. If he reaches that time, indeed…
Interviewed by Hayk Khalatyan for EADaily