Components of the feared S-400 surface to air missiles from Russia have begun arriving in Turkey. The system is designed to shoot down the most advanced North Atlantic Treaty Organisation airplanes, making it an odd purchase for a nation that has been a NATO member since 1952 and is a partner in the manufacture of F-35 stealth fighters. It’s the most decisive sign yet that Turkey has stopped looking West for self-definition. Countries, like human beings, can bear only so many broken promises.
A hundred years ago, an Aligarh- and Oxford-educated Indian named Mohammad Ali Jauhar founded the Khilafat movement from prison. It demanded the British preserve the position of the Caliph of Islam, the Ottoman Sultan. The Ottomans had chosen the losing side in the First World War, and the winners set about dismembering their empire after the war’s end.
Why would any Indian be more concerned about British actions in Turkey than in India during 1919, the year of the Rowlatt Act and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre? In Mohammad Ali Jauhar’s view, the Caliphate was central to global Muslim identity and pride. Identity and pride have little truck with reason.
Gandhi saw in the Khilafat movement a way to unite Hindus and Muslims against the Raj, but the plans of the man who would be called Father of the Indian nation were disturbed by the man who would be called Father of the Turks. Mustafa Kemal, now better known as Atatürk, defeated Armenian, French and Greek forces to carve out viable state, abolished the Sultanate, and declared Turkey a republic. He secularised the constitution, made Turks write their language in the Roman script, promised women equal rights, banned polygamy and even prohibited the wearing of the traditional fez. For Atatürk, the solution to Turkish society’s problems lay in emulating the West in law, in manners, and in dress.
A torn civilisation
And so it was that Turkey waited for Europe’s reciprocal embrace. It became a member of the Council for Europe in 1949, NATO in 1952, applied for EU membership in 1987, and agreed to a customs union in 1995, but somehow, it was never free enough, or democratic enough, to gain entry to the club. Former Warsaw Pact nations jumped the accession queue, while conversation ran dry on Turkey’s induction.
Samuel Huntington, in his book The Clash of Civilisations, classified Turkey as one of the torn civilisations of the world, torn between two continents. I was reminded, while reading Huntington’s analysis, of the first conversation I had about the country. It was with a German housemate who had visited as a teenage student on an archaeological dig, and got into a difficult personal situation. In Istanbul, she said, she might have got professional help easily, but east of that city, Turkey was (she spoke the word with a little shudder) Asia. Part of me thought, wait a minute, you know I’m Asian, right? Another part understood what she meant.
The S-400 purchase is Turkey’s recognition that illusion never changed into something real. It’s all out of faith, and in a new relationship with Russia, also a torn civilisation in Huntingdon’s classification. In appropriately romantic fashion, the affair kicked off with mutual hatred. Turkey was on one side of the Syrian civil war, Russia on the other. A Turkish F-16 fighter shot down a Russian Su-24 on its border in November 2015. Russia responded by calling Turkey a terrorist accomplice, hitting it with a range of sanctions, and moving S-400 batteries into Syria as defence against Turkish incursions.
Eight months later, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed regret for the incident, and had the two pilots involved in the shootdown arrested. Since then, Russia and Turkey have closely co-ordinated their Syrian strategy keeping in mind the interests of the other party.
Russia must be overjoyed to stick the S-400 knife into the heart of NATO, for it has suffered its own share of broken promises. In the aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s fall, the United States and Europe were anxious to avert a Soviet crackdown of the sort witnessed in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The US President George Bush Sr. assured Mikhail Gorbachev that his nation would not harm Soviet interests. The German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and the American Secretary of State James Baker made specific promises about not expanding NATO. “Not one inch eastward”, Baker repeatedly told Gorbachev at a meeting in early 1990. Germany’s Helmut Kohl, France’s Francois Mitterand, and the United Kingdom’s Margaret Thatcher made solemn pledges of their own.
Within a decade, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were NATO members. Five years after that, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined, as did the former Baltic Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as Russia found itself ringed with hostile armies in its former sphere of influence.
How far will the relationship develop between these two betrayed nations, torn civilisations? And how far will Turkey take its dispute with NATO? Nobody can say for sure, though Erdogan has been threatening a complete break for some time. If the US goes to war with Iran, it could precipitate Turkey’s exit, and confirm its identity as a West Asian country with a small foothold in Europe rather than a European nation that happens to be located largely in Asia.