20 March 2018 07:17 PM



Erdogan Visit: A Diplomatic Disaster

NEW DELHI: All that could possibly go wrong with a dignitary visit went wrong even before Turkish President Recep Erdogan arrived in India. It was touted as a visit by a leader who seems to be set to stay, right wing, authoritarian, controversial but clearly there was, or at least should have been, a reason for the effort undertaken by both governments to facilitate Erdogan’s trip to India.

However, by the time he left New Delhi-Ankara relations were left in tatters with both sides clearly wondering what had been achieved by the diplomatic exercise.

The world is re-assessing its relations with Turkey after Erdogan swept back into power. Even the European Union that had drawn a distance away has had discussions on its relationship with the authoritarian President accused of violating citizens rights, with a larger meeting scheduled on precisely this issue. US President Donald Trump has moved to improve relations with Turkey, a strong voice in West Asia and an enemy of America’s declared enemies like Syria.

Clearly the effort undertaken by New Delhi was to follow the same footprints, and reach out to Erdogan despite his dismal record in human rights, and in bolstering the war in Syria. In fact several Syrian diplomats and political leaders have spoken to this reporter about the role played by Turkey in supplying arms and money to prop up the insurgent groups, and thereby strengthening the Islamic State steadily over the years. This has been documented extensively and is now part of accepted records. In fact, the Kurds have held press conferences and issued statements of how Erdogan used the excuse of IS to bomb the Kurds and thereby weaken the fight against the Islamic State.

New Delhi while keeping relations open with all, had been supportive of Syria through the war. Perhaps not to the extent that Damascus expected, but to a point where India kept its head over the controversial waters and kept relations with the Assad regime intact.

Erdogan’s visit has cut both ends. Syria and Iran in particular are extremely unhappy about the New Delhi decision to invite and entertain Erdogan at this stage, when the US attack on them has sharpened. And relations with Turkey have dipped considerably to what Syrian leaders insist is a point of no return.

Turkey is also seen as a new”friend of Israel” in West Asia, a position that might endear Erdogan to the west but that certainly makes him suspect in the eyes of most countries in the region. Ties between the leaders are on a fairly sound footing now. This, diplomatic sources, was also one of the reasons why New Delhi extended the invitation seeing it to be part of the US-Israel-Japan-Australia- possibly Turkey axis that is being explored here.

However, New Delhi itself queered the pitch by first inviting, and then scheduling a visit by the President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades to India shortly before Erdogan arrived. On the streets of Istanbul the anger with Cyprus is as palpable, as is the anger in Syria against Turkey. And while of course, India has the sovereign right to do what it wants, in diplomacy relations depend heavily on such sensitivities and niceties. Relations between Cyprus and Turkey are non-existent and this would have most certainly been seen in Ankara as a slight.

Former Ambassador M.Bhadrakumar believes that this is a primary reason why Erdogan threw all caution to the winds and raised the issue of Kashmir before he left for India. And he insisted on raising the Kashmir issue, that he would have most probably done so before the visit. Of course Turkey has supported Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir, but here Bhadrakumar points to a willingness by Turkey to dehyphenate India and Pakistan.

As he says, “the Cyprus question is as complicated as our Kashmir problem – where religion, ethnicity, national identity and geopolitics get hopelessly intertwined. Turkey’s stance on Kashmir became ‘pro-Pakistan’ in a pronounced way following (non-aligned) India’s robust support for (non-aligned) Cyprus against the Turkish invasion and occupation in 1974. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan happened to be one of the handful of countries that supported Northern Cyprus.Nonetheless, Turkey’s antipathy toward India mellowed over time and its militant secularism put limits on its friendship with Pakistan. When Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit accepted PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s invitation to visit India in 2001, he spurned an invitation by then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to visit Pakistan as well.”

This visit has set the clock back as Eerdogan’s controversial remarks offering to mediate on Kashmir, and his declared warmth towards Pakistan, came to the forefront. This placed New Delhi too on the defensive, and although protocol was followed, and meetings took place it is clear that Erdogan has returned to Ankara with Kashmir and not New Delhi on his agenda. This will also be an issue that will endear him to other countries in the region, and as the sources here said, something that “we will hear more about from Turkey.”

In the process, the visit has :

  • Angered allies like Syria and Iran, the last having been accused by Erdogan of trying to destabilise the region of what he insultingly described as “Persian nationalism.”
  • Pushed Erdogan further towards Pakistan with Cyprus re-emerging centrestage as a bone of contention. And if anyone was in doubt Prime Minister Narendra Modi clarified it further by referring to 1974 where he reminded the visiting leader from Cyprus---a visit keenly watched by Turkey---of how “India took a firm stand in support of the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the Republic of Cyprus .
  • Clearly botched up what might have ensured stronger Anakara-New Delhi relations hitting Pakistan’s equations with Turkey to some extent.
  • And ensured that Turkey takes up the issue of Kashmir at different levels. As Erdogan is not the kind of leader to let Cyprus pass.