The 15 July 2016 failed coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and, on the other hand, Ankara’s recent re-orientation of its foreign policy towards Russia, Israel and Iran, including its August military intervention in Syria are seen by most analysts as signs of a changing trend not only in Turkey’s political and social history but also in the geopolitical balance of the whole region.
Only weeks after the failed coup, President Erdoğan’s position became stronger than ever, with his approval ratings reaching new highs. The fact that the Turkish president has benefited from the failed coup made some observers even suspect that he staged the entire operation.
At the same time, Ankara began to take new initiatives on the foreign scene. Turkish forces began an offensive in Syria, officially against Daesh (IS, ISIS/ISIL), but in fact against the American-backed Kurdish forces. On the diplomatic field, Turkey’s sudden rapprochement with Russia made the West worry and the reconciliation with Israel happened also surprisingly quickly.
The changes were seen as necessary for Turkey since, before the recent developments, Mr. Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian stance and confrontational approach has left the country diplomatically isolated. Turkey was on bad terms with Russia and Israel, President Erdoğan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood antagonized Egypt, while his Syria policy failed to remove Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Turkey’s fear of Kurdish nationalism has also affected its alliance with the United States. Washington supports Syrian Kurdish militias, but Turkey sees them as an extension of the PKK armed group, which last year resumed its attacks on Turkish security forces. The relationship with the European Union was also affected by the stalling of Turkey’s membership application and recently by the refugee problem.
I. Turkey after the failed coup: a stronger regime and a new “democracy”
For many historians and analysts of the Turkish internal scene, the so-called “Gülenist” coup attempt is one in a long history of political wars. In its recent history, Turkey had seen four previous military coups, in addition to several unsuccessful attempts. Raising a “cadre” within the state has been a national ambition pursued by almost every group, such as Kemalists, nationalists, leftist, rightists, Sunnis and Alevis. The recent coup is, according to Turkey observers, another episode in Turkey’s history of competition for the control of the state. This time, those who wished to control the state were part of the Gülen movement[1], a group which aims to establish “a new Muslim age”, in fact to resuscitate the Islamic caliphate.
The modern state of Turkey, from its beginning in 1923, has centralized control over all bureaucracy, security forces, education (including universities), foundations and wields huge influence over media and the economy. Since the state is so powerful, centralized and definitive, it is desired and fought for at all costs by its political actors, military officers and shadowy and secretive networks. The phenomenon is known as prebendalism[2] in which the grabbing of state power and revenues is only possible through a complex network of clientele relationships and can only be maintained when a term in office predominantly serves the interests of that network and its wider constituency. It is executed within a modernist story of strong state, effective bureaucratization, grand nation designs, brutal maintenance of differences and elimination of threats.
The Gülen movement: the first contender for the state in the 21st century
The Gülen movement began as a grassroots movement in the 1970’s with the Islamist political party, Milli Gőrüs, an Islamist movement with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood (AKP emerged from Milli Gőrüs to restore Islamic religion and culture). The foundation of Gülen’s teachings is that state and religion should be reconnected and the country re-emerges as part of a pan-Turkic regional power.
Fethullah Gülen teaches a Hanafi version of Islam, deriving from Sunni Muslim scholar Said Nursi’s teachings. Although he never met Said Nursi, Fethullah Gülen is his most influential disciple. Gülen stated that he believed in science, interfaith dialogue among the People of the Book and multi-party democracy.
While his ideas are rooted in Sufi mysticism, Gülen’s teachings have gradually come to focus on reforming civil society through Islamic spiritualism. The religious movement he founded (Hizmet meaning service in Turkish) has sought to train a new “gold” generation (Altin Nesil) that is both faithful to Islamic Turkish traditions and modern in its political and economic outlook. Fethullah Gülen formed his first group of disciples in the 1960s when he worked as an imam for the State in Izmir. By the following decade, the movement’s ideas had spread to other regions in Turkey. When Turkey adopted a series of market-oriented reforms in 1980, a newly affluent middle class emerged that began to financially support the Hizmet movement’s activities. Turkey’s economic growth, coupled with the deep Islamic faith of its people, enhanced the popular appeal of the market-oriented religious movement. The subsequent opening of the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia in 1989 allowed Gülen’s followers to globalize their  economic and religious activities.
Temsil instead of Dawa
The specific strategy of Hizmet replaces the traditional spreading of the religious ideas through dawa or tabligh (the conventional methods of preaching and spreading Islam). Instead, the Gülenists spread their teachings by temsil, the personal example (in fact, temsil works as a kind of soft power). In practice, this method requires that the religious messenger lives Islam fully by becoming morally upright, honest, and well-educated, and by behaving toward others in a benevolent and virtuous way. The practice rests on the assumption that people will be spontaneously drawn toward religious faith through the superior moral and civic example of the cemaat (community), rather than through the imposition of religion. In reality, former members of the movement familiar with its inner workings characterize it as a sect, an organization with two sides: one that faces the world and another that hides from it.
The Hizmet movement and the manner in which it functions have interesting parallels with the Jesuit congregation. Indeed, the structure and dispensation of the movement owes some of it inspiration to the Western missionary schools established in the latter days of the Ottoman Empire. Gülen ingeniously adopted the Jesuit practice of active proselytizing for the purposes of educating a new generation of modern Turkish and other Muslims. Much like the Jesuits before them, the Fethullahci have developed a program of “total” education, which included not just classroom study but also provided dormitory housing and weekend activities for many of its students.
On the way to control the state
Beginning in the 1970s, Gülen began establishing a worldwide network to promote Islam and Turkish nationalism with hundreds of schools in over 110 countries.  Gülenists operate an Islamic bank with over $5 billion in assets and own significant print and broadcast media properties, NGOs, think tanks and a publishing company. Their holdings are valued at up to $50 billion.
In Turkey, the Gülenists controlled the majority of schools, universities and dormitories. They donate up to one-third of their income to the movement. In the early 2000s in Turkey, Gülen and the AKP together controlled the police, the intelligence services and the media and actively recruited diplomats for their utility as foreign intelligence satellites.
Members of the Gülen movement extend Turkey’s influence across the globe and use media outlets and multiple organizations that facilitate the dissemination of their message worldwide.
During the early 2000s, Erdoğan was close to Gülen and the two leaders were in common opposition to secular Kemalist forces in Turkey. They also shared the goal of transforming Turkey into a state of Turkish nationalism with a conservative religiosity at its core. Though he did not enter politics himself, Gülen and his followers supported the AKP when the party was founded and later came to power.
Members of the Gülen movement were also linked to two investigations in Turkey – the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases – that looked into alleged attempts to overthrow the AKP government and Erdoğan. The Ergenekon case included the arrest of Ahmet Sik, a journalist who wrote a book about the Gülen movement and the alleged influence it wielded in the Turkish security forces. Critics say the Ergenekon case was merely a pretext to target dissidents.
The first visible signs of a clash between a new secretive network and the elected AKP government were in February 2012. At that time a prosecutor went beyond his remit and requested to question the head of Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) Hakan Fidan on a peace process he had led in direct talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK). When Fidan refused to give a statement, a group of police officers attempted to arrest him, which would have been a major blow both to Erdoğan and the Government’s entire attempt to address Kurdish issues.
Then in December 2013, anonymous social media accounts started leaking phone conversations and recordings not only between President Erdoğan and his son, but also ministers, and even security meetings over Syria that included ministers, the head of MIT and military officers. Some of the leaks continued to fuel narratives around the Government policies on Syria and even included claims of weapons being sent to Nigeria, hinting that AKP was supporting Boko Haram. On 19 January 2014, a group of Gendarme soldiers stopped trucks heading to Syria accompanied by MIT agents following the request of a prosecutor who again went beyond his remit. The entire operation and attempted case against the Government were clearly political and reflected a serious clash within state structures.
The relationship worsened when Gülen criticized Erdoğan for his handling of the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and Erdoğan said Gülen and his supporters were trying to bring down his government through a corruption probe that implicated several officials and business leaders with ties to the AKP, and led to the resignation of AKP ministers. The government has also accused members of the Gülen movement of wire-tapping government officials.
All these incidents were seen as clear attempts to lead to an impeachment of the AKP Government. Former Chief of Defense Staff General İlker Başbuğ, who was convicted of heading a ‘terror organization’ and coup attempt in August 2013 then cleared in March 2014, recently said that he had warned Erdoğan that the Gülen movement networks were taking control of the military and ousting non-Gülenists, and that they will next seek to oust President Erdoğan, which Erdoğan shrugged off.
Yet, the March 2014 local election saw a surprising outcome for the AKP with the party winning more than 40 per cent of the vote. That electoral success gave President Erdoğan a strong hand in his clampdown of the Gülen Movement, which he saw to be behind all these incidents.
Erdoğan has repeatedly said that Gülen was running a “parallel state” inside Turkey and his government has cracked down on Gülen-affiliated institutions. Media reports and investigations have shown the Gülenists to be behind a covert organization within the state. In 2015, Ankara hired a law firm to investigate the global activities of the Gülen movement, and expose alleged unlawful acts. The firm’s conclusion was that “The activities of the Gülen network, including its penetration of the Turkish judiciary and police, as well as its political lobbying abroad, should concern everyone who cares about the future of democracy in Turkey”. Turkey officially listed the Gülen movement as a terrorist organization in May 2016.
During 2015 and 2016 Turkey also faced attacks from Daesh and the PKK. Within the context of the renewed war against the PKK, the Turkish military and the AKP government were seen to be moving on from former animosities and the military was once again showing its influence, especially in policies on Kurdish issues. Tensions between the AKP and the Gülen Movement increased partnerships between at least the nationalist wing of the military and the AKP.
A not-so-unexpected coup attempt
The fact that Erdoğan was preparing to purge the army of Gülenist officers was seen as offering a motive for the failed coup, even if analysts and observers of the movement point out that a violent coup is not consistent with the group’s tactics. Moreover, the poor planning and the lack of coordination showed by the too quickly crushed coup are not consistent with the Gülenists’ capacity to play a long game, to exercise patience, to be clear with their goals for their constituents.
The July 2016 coup did not follow the pattern of previous coups and interventions. Some see an answer to this in the news that a legal process that had just began which meant that in a few days time a number of officers were going to be arrested, and in early August, the Supreme Military Council was set to decommission and retire a large number of officers for suspected Gülen ties. The hurried nature of the attempted coup eventually made sense when it transpired that the plotters brought it forward after discovering that their plan was known by the National Intelligence Organization (MIT).
However, judging by the initially disjointed response to the coup by the Erdoğan administration, some analysts stated that the MIT was surprised by the coup attempt and it was even unable to defend its headquarters in Ankara from an attack in the morning of July 16 by military helicopters. MIT’s director, Hakan Fidan, once tipped as an up-and-coming parliamentarian, remained in hiding, contacting President Erdoğan and his Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim throughout the long night.
An explanation for this apparent intelligence failure was found in the fact that the MIT is considered to be highly bureaucratic, its operational traditions archaic, and its network of agents even more limited than its chronically lacking analytical capabilities. Also, while the MIT has never been known for its analytical impartiality, since Erdoğan’s rise to power, the agency has been virtually integrated into the political apparatus of the Islam-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP). The move isolated the agency from the military, which contains large numbers of militant secularists and led the putsch. Finally, in the past decade the MIT has focused largely on the long list of Turkey’s foreign-policy challenges[3] which have prevented the agency from paying much attention to domestic concerns, including factionalism within the military and the police.
An alternative scenario is that Erdoğan conspired with the MIT to allow anti-AKP elements in the military to stage a limited putsch. Its failure, the theory goes, would give the AKP strongman the excuse to carry out extensive purges within the government and the military, thus solidifying his power for years to come.
In fact, while most Western officials were taken by surprise by the developments in Turkey, the possibility of a coup was mentioned by several analysts, as early as October of 2015, when Norman Bailey, of the University of Haifa in Israel and the Institute of World Politics in Washington, stated that Turkey’s “army will step in and take over” if it senses that the country is descending into chaos. On March 12 2016, Russian observers warned that Turkey’s military was “gradually building up its political influence, thus laying grounds for a military coup”. Later in the same month, Michael Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute, asked: “could there be a coup in Turkey?”, and answered that “no one should be surprised […] if the Turkish military moves to oust Erdoğan and place his inner circle behind bars”. And on March 30, Foreign Affairs hosted an article by Gönül Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, in which she explained that Turkey was about to face its “next military coup”. Also, American intelligence analysts were “concerned for months” prior to the coup “about simmering tensions between President […] Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish military brass”.
Defining a new “democracy”
The Turkish failed coup attempt was followed by an authoritarian purge. In the first six weeks, more than 80,000 soldiers, civil servants, teachers, and private sector employees have been arrested, sacked or suspended. Not all of those who have been targeted appear to be connected to the Gülen movement. Many journalists were detained, and around 100 media outlets have been forcibly shut down. Amnesty International has raised the possibility of “mass repression, torture and arbitrary detention” under the cover of the state of emergency declared on 20 July.
The spontaneous civilian uprising against the military coup may have represented an affirmation of the popular will, but the events that followed have deepened the contradiction between Erdoğan’s unquestionable democratic legitimacy and his equally indisputable authoritarian rule.
The events of this summer have taken President Erdoğan’s popularity to a new level: a poll taken several weeks after the coup found that 68% of Turks approve of his handling of the situation, which is more than the 52% of voters who propelled him to the presidency in 2014. Erdoğan’s ad hoc supporters include Kurds – Kurdish nationalists have been sorely mistreated by Gülenist policemen and judiciary officials – as well as secularists who despise the Gülen movement’s secretive, cultish character.
What justifies Erdoğan’s contempt for both the opposition and the law is the fact that he wins elections. From this point of view, the defeat of the attempted coup was the biggest election of all, and his most decisive victory. It was a huge and spontaneous plebiscite.
For the past few years – but especially in the past weeks – Erdoğan has redefined Turkish democracy to give himself a mandate to interpret and even anticipate the will of the majority while being absolved of the responsibility to protect minorities. He presides over a specific form of government that represents a forceful expression of the people’s will – a blunt majoritarian riposte to an imagined democratic gold standard that in reality no longer exists.
According to some analysts, Turkey under Erdoğan may be compared with Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India and Netanyahu’s Israel. In all these places the forms of democracy have been suborned by majoritarian nationalism, bolstered to varying degrees by the security state. In fact, Erdoğan’s program does not look very different to the prospectus unveiled by France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, whose campaign for the presidency looks likely to be defined by his promises to enforce majority prejudice over minority interests.
From this perspective, Erdoğan may be the vanguard of a global trend: the dissolution of the supposedly universal democratic ideal into indigenized “versions” of democracy. Europe and America are hardly exceptions to this tendency. Under the state of emergency that France’s government introduced after the November 2015 terrorist attacks, the rights of French citizens to freedom of movement and association have been formally suspended. (Turkey’s government did the same following the coup.) Xenophobia has once more become an accepted electoral tool.
The reign of Erdoğan and other leaders in his mould is a clear sign that there is no longer a single model of democracy, stamped with EU or U.S. approval, to which all countries aspire. It has been common to contrast the emphasis laid by emerging non-western democracies on the will of the majority with the care taken by “mature” democracies to protect minority rights. But this distinction may no longer be valid. The picture from France, the United States, and to an extent Britain suggests that a powerful majoritarianism has emerged from the crises of the past decade.
For all the democratic shortcomings, Turkey is not a dictatorship and its president has neither stolen elections nor launched pogroms against the country’s minority Kurdish or Alevi communities. Erdoğan still operates under significant political constraints. The country’s Kurdish, Alevi, and secularist communities, who distrust him, add up to roughly half of Turkey’s population of 75 million. For all the AKP’s status as Turkey’s unrivalled party of government, under Erdoğan’s unquestioned dominance, he has not been able to compel parliament to give him the enhanced powers of the executive presidency he covets.
II. Moving East in the geopolitical environment
The immediate reaction to the July 2016 failed coup from American and European politicians provided evidence of their unease: both John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, issued warnings demanding that Erdoğan respect democracy and the rule of law. However, the initial reaction was to change, since Turkey has become central to geopolitics and western leaders want its help to fight Daesh, to minimize the horrors in Syria and to keep Middle Eastern refugees out of Europe.
In this context, the Turkish government took several steps that illustrate a significant change in the geopolitical environment. The most important steps were taken towards normalizing and improving Turkey’s deteriorated relationship with Russia and Israel, as well as opening a development course with Iran. On that basis, Turkey was able to launch its own military intervention in Syria, which, while officially directed against Daesh, in fact aims to secure Turkish interests in the area.
Erdoğan’s flirting with Russia and Iran is already considered a “win-win” policy. If Turkey was sidelined by the West, he would have done the necessary groundwork to be on the same page with Russia and Iran in a new international alignment that would replace Turkey’s Western vocation. His flirting with Russia and Iran would also work as leverage in getting the United States and Europe to support him.
Turkey could not be at odds with the U.S., Russia and Israel at the same time. The United States was quietly pleased with the break between Turkey and Russia, and with Turkey’s willingness to send at least limited forces into Syria. From the U.S. position, an anti-Russia Turkey is a pro-U.S. Turkey. But to stabilize its position in the region, the U.S. put pressure on Turkey and Israel to reach reconciliation.
While reaching an accommodation with Israel is risky for Turkey, given Turkey’s isolation in the region, it needed U.S. support and the U.S. wanted Turkey and Israel operating together. The Turks needed some cover, so they will be able to get supplies to Gaza and call it a weakening of Israel’s blockade. The economic and strategic benefits to Israel are substantial.
But this agreement left the Turks with a hostile Russia, locked into the American alliance with Israel and an anti-Russian alliance with Poland. If they allowed this to continue, they would wind up in pretty much the same position as they were during the Cold War: a pawn of U.S. policy. So, Turkey coupled the agreement with Israel with the reconciliation with Russia.
Erdoğan’s success was illustrated by his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the G20 meeting in Hangzhou (China). During the meeting and later on, Obama spoke only about his support for Turkey and did not mention the crackdown on the media and the mass arrests after the failed coup. In his turn, Erdoğan thanked the U.S. president for his “support against this coup attempt”, in stark contrast to the language he and his loyalists used earlier in blaming America for the failed coup. On Sept. 6, The New York Times published an interview with Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus, who also said that the “official position is clear. We don’t see any evidence that U.S. officials supported the coup d’état.”
At the same Hangzhou G20 gathering, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the first foreign head of state that Russia’s president Vladimir Putin spoke to, after their August 9 meeting in St. Petersburg, during Erdoğan’s first foreign trip after the failed coup in Turkey.
1. The new Turkey – Russia relationship
Efforts to reset the Turkish-Russian relationship after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane have been underway since before July’s attempted coup. The stakes of reviving the relationship may now be significantly higher, as anti-American sentiment is on the rise in Turkey.
An underlying motive for the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey is the fact that both consider themselves two great powers with close historical, cultural and geographical ties with Europe that have never been recognized as part of it. After the Cold War they were not included in the “Big Europe” project. Paradoxically, it was Putin and Erdoğan who at the early stages of their rule invested the most efforts to “fit in the project”. Thus they both have similar trajectories of disappointment.
The high level meetings between the Russian and Turkish presidents were followed by the announcement, in August, that Ankara has given Russia the go-ahead to use its Incirlik air base for operations in Syria, though no official request from Moscow to use the strategic military facility has been made.
Military exchanges followed with the September 15 visit of Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov to Ankara, after an 11-year hiatus. According to Turkish military sources, the visit was a signal of the Russian Federation’s acknowledgement of Turkey as a “major power” in the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has much to gain from strengthening his relationship with Erdoğan at such a politically sensitive moment, specifically, the opportunity to undermine the unity of both the European Union and NATO and absorb Turkey into Russia’s sphere of influence. That may be why Russia was one of the first countries to issue an official condemnation of the coup on July 15, a gesture that Turkey noticed and appreciated.
Unlike Western capitals, Moscow has not bothered much with rule-of-law considerations. A trend toward a more authoritarian leadership in Turkey, one with fewer checks and balances than in any Western democracy, is not something to worry Russian President Vladimir Putin much. On the contrary, it helps him demonstrate that the Russian style of muscular governance is useful to Turkey, at a time when the EU and the United States keep reminding Ankara of their own brand of liberal democracy. While the Turkish leadership is forging ahead with the reformation of the armed forces, the elimination of conspiratorial forces within the state and the society, and the organization of an executive presidential system, closer in nature to the Kremlin’s political architecture than that of France or the United States, Ankara needs demonstrations of support from third countries.
As such, an opportunistic convergence of minds might therefore emerge between the two leaders, with each one having his reasons.
The changes in the Eastern Mediterranean are of great consequence for Russia, because of the territorial proximity and its trade routes and energy exports passing through the region. Current and future such routes pass through Turkish territory and adjacent waters, making relations with Turkey even more important.
Russia’s recent moves in the Middle East, especially the re-thinking of its relationship with Turkey evoked for some analysts the famous “Will of Peter the Great”[4], the centuries-old orientation of Russia’s foreign policy aiming to control the Baltic, as well as to gain access to the Southern warm seas, to control their straits and to get closer to Constantinople and India (because whoever heads these countries is the real master of the world).
The “Will” also mentioned the necessity to use Syria in order to maintain open the ancient trade route of the Levant, an orientation that is now visible in Russia’s consolidation of its strategic partnership with Turkey and Israel, as well as in the developments in North Caucasus and in the Russia-Iran relationship.
The Pan-Turanic plan
From Turkey’s point of view, the new relationship with Russia may offer the opportunity to develop the so-called Pan-Turanic[5] plan to achieve a great Turkish, Sunni and neo-Ottoman empire between Anatolia and Central Asia.
Shortly before becoming Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2009, Ahmet Davutoğlu had explicitly stated: “We are the new Ottomans. We will re-conquer what we lost in 1911 and in 1923 and we will find again our brothers between 2011 and 2023”.
Aleppo and Mosul, the Uygurs of Xingkiang to be “moved” to Syria, the Asian Turkmens and part of Iraq are all the pieces out of which President Erdoğan’s AKP wants to rebuild a new great Turkish, Sunni and neo-Ottoman empire. Aleppo, Latakia and Idlib will be the 82nd province of Turkey, but this is obviously not convergent with the interest of Russia which, however, accepts Syria’s de facto breaking off between Turkey, the United States and NATO.
Paradoxically, President Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman approach has much to do with that of his now-enemy Fethullah Gülen. They both want to restore the traditional links between the Turkish populations, the use of the Turkish language, the Sunni Islam and the Ottoman Caliphate.
For many years Gülen and his cemaat (community) of about 3 million members have been an apparently secular missionary movement which, however, wants to re-establish Islam throughout the pan-Turkish region having Sufi roots, as has often happened in Turkish nationalism. It also wants to ultimately superpose the plan of a new Sunni Caliphate on the plan for an expansion of the Turkish national power.
President Erdoğan wants to recreate a great Pan-turanic umma from China (notably the Xingkiang province, inhabited by Turkic population, mainly the Uyghurs) up to Eastern Europe. However, President Erdoğan mainly wants to “Turkify” the Muslim Brotherhood, which is still one of his tools, and not the quietist mystic Islam of Gülen’s movement. He wants to create a specific, neo-Ottoman and nationalistic political Islam, thus closing the door both to the EU, which has not yet realized it, and to NATO itself, which would become a useless alliance for the Turkish Pan-Turanic and Eurasian project.
The Pan-Turanic plan would also explain the ambiguous attitude shown so far by Turkey vis-à-vis the pan-Sunni, though not Turkish, Caliphate of Daesh. In Syria, President Erdoğan is using those that the West calls “moderates” in public, while de facto supporting the jihadists.
Russia and China have the power to manage and influence Turkey’s new “great game”, while the United States, NATO and the European Union do not have this power.
Turkey in Eurasia: the Kremlin’s perspective
Russia may go for a long-term game-changing move and lure Turkey away from the West as part of a broader geopolitical reconfiguration.
Since Russia and Turkey are rediscovering Eurasia, from the Kremlin’s point of view, Russia-Turkish normalization fits into a larger framework that would make Turkey a third engine to its Eurasian grand integration project.
Turkey will have the opportunity of managing the new relations with the various Turkmen and Ottoman communities, while Russia (and Iran) will have the possibility of creating a large Asian economic community, which is designed to counter-balance the symbiotic relationship between Europe and the United States.
In Syria, the United States and Europe will be left out by this new agreement, which envisages a design of this new “Eurasian entente” to begin with the Syrian territory. In the meeting held with President Putin in St. Petersburg, following up an idea already proposed in 2013, President Erdoğan reiterated that Turkey could be ready to drop its request to join the EU if Turkey has the opportunity to adhere to the Eurasian institutions and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in particular.
Another player of the new link between Turkey and Russia is Iran. If, in exchange for peace with Russia, Turkey abandons the Sunni jihadist factions, Iran will tacitly support the Turkish ambitions in Iraq and Syria, through the Russian Federation’s protection.
Peace with Russia and the agreement with Iran mean Turkey’s future participation in the recent “triple alliance” reached in Baku on August 8 between Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan for the new economic corridor between India and Russia. And this is promised to Turkey in addition to the opening of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, having a capacity of 30 million cubic meters, and the building of the nuclear power station in Akkuyu, Turkey, with Russian technology.
President Erdoğan also needs a new area of economic, geopolitical (and identity) expansion in Central Asia, provided that it does not officially annex the Turkmen communities that are numerous, but divided in that region.
The establishment of a real, solid Eurasian unity may definitely attract Turkey to the Russian and Chinese project of the economic and strategic autonomy of a new and united Central Asia. And in this case Turkey would be very useful, because it would provide the necessary connection with the Mediterranean.
Critical issues: the Black Sea and Syria
While the Turkish-Russian new rapprochement is seen as spectacular, there are still issues on which the two countries have different, if not opposing approaches.
a) One of these critical issues is Russia’s sensitivity to an increasing NATO presence in the Black Sea. Ankara annoyed Moscow by favoring such a buildup in the Black Sea. Until now, Russia has deemed as friendly Turkey’s handling of the navigation – as foreseen by the Montreux Straits Treaty – through its straits. According to a statement Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov gave before coming to Ankara, Russia will not tolerate a change in this Turkish approach.
While some Turkish sources say that Turkey’s support of a larger NATO presence in the Black Sea has softened since the normalization of Turkish-Russian relations, Turkey did not renounce to its ambitions of boosting the Turkish naval presence in the Black Sea and has not abandoned the U.S. goal of containing the Russian power in the Black Sea.
b) In the case of Syria, given Russia’s predominant role in rescuing the regime in Damascus and shaping the military and diplomatic landscape in Syria since September 2015, there is very little chance that Ankara can alter Moscow’s view on a political transition in Syria. The price for a real Russian-Turkish reconciliation might be an admission by Ankara that the best formula for ending the Syrian war and containing Daesh is to maintain the regime in place, including Assad, whose fate will be ultimately determined by Russian-style free elections. An evolution of Ankara’s policy toward overt acceptance of the Assad regime might also ease up some tensions at home, as Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has long viewed the Assad regime as a guarantor of Turkey’s security.
Ankara’s changing attitude towards the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria is already shown by the recent communication at the intelligence level between the two governments.
According to Ismail Hakki Pekin, former head of the intelligence unit of the Chief of Staff of the Turkish army, (in an interview with Sputnik news), Turkish and Syrian intelligence representatives had several behind-the-scenes meetings to assess the situation in general and determine whether bilateral relations could be restored. Two of the meetings took place in 2015 and three were held this year. The informal meetings primarily revolved around the situation in Syria at the time and security measures, as well as about the prospects of restoring relations between Turkey and Syria, about working on a joint security concept. Recent reports also mentioned a visit to Damascus of MIT Secret Service director Hakan Fidan.
Rumors have long circulated that Turkey and Syria were holding secret talks. The two countries used to be allies before the war in Syria which prompted President Erdoğan to cut ties with Assad and provide assistance to radical armed groups fighting to overthrow the government in Damascus. According to a recent report by Algerian newspaper al-Watan, contacts between Turkey and Assad’s Syria were also mediated by the Algerian government.
The Russian media agencies were quick to send messages intended to address the fears of a new strategic alliance between Russia, Turkey and Iran. TASS agency polled experts who were skeptical regarding a developing strategic triangle of those three powers. They stressed that the most that will come out of the current statements are tactical political interaction and an upturn in economic cooperation. TASS also mentioned that, even if it were true, and Russia, Turkey and Iran were to forge a strategic alliance, it would be for the best, because “these three countries can play a positive role, for instance, in overcoming the Syrian crisis.” The Turkish foreign minister was also prompt on July 30 to state that relations with Russia and with the West were not alternatives.
However, the temptation for Moscow could be to use its reconciliation with Ankara as an opportunity to promote Russia’s Eurasian policy framework. In the short term, an easy diplomatic move for Russia could consist of a rapprochement between the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Turkey, beyond the “dialogue partner” status that Turkey currently enjoys. This would satisfy pride on both sides without costing much. In the longer term, if Russia decided to discuss with Turkey a partnership on political and defense matters, it would be part of a much broader game across the European continent.
While nothing is yet certain in the rapprochement between Turkey and the Russian Federation, the results reached by Russia are significant: the weakening of the Southern and Eastern Flank of the Atlantic Alliance and the probable redesign and splitting up of Syria in agreement with Turkey.
Observers assess that if Donald Trump wins the U.S. presidential elections, the Russian project of Turkish integration into its geopolitical system may continue, while if the winner is Hillary Clinton, who is obsessed by the future U.S. confrontation with Russia, NATO will resume its action in the Middle East.
2. Reconciliation with Israel
The reconciliation agreement between Israel and Turkey, signed on 27 June and ratified by the Turkish parliament on 22 August[6] was dictated not by sentiment but by realpolitik – national self-interest, since it is solidly underpinned by practical advantages on both sides. Some analysts pointed out that the “reconciliation deal” may be the prelude to a new “alliance for stability” in the Middle East.
In this context, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that ambassadors would be exchanged soon, and media mentioned the possibility of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visiting Israel.
It was relevant that, in the context of the 21 August bombing incident in the Gaza strip[7], Ankara announced that the Israeli attack was “not acceptable,” and Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman suggested that Ankara “think twice before it criticizes the military actions of others”. Both parties referred to the reconciliation deal, but none passed over the declaration stage, which prompted analysts to state that Erdoğan and Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu both consider that nothing should be allowed to hinder their burying of the hatchet.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also spoke to the Israeli public about the importance of the strategic relationship with Turkey in order to justify Israel’s apology over the Mavi Marmara incident and his agreement to compensate the victims’ families up to the sum of $20 million.
For Ankara, one benefit of the agreement with Israel is that it reduces Turkey’s regional isolation and the number of neighbors with whom it does not have diplomatic relations. Turkish-Israeli relations were always partly the product of the more important alliance both countries had with the United States. U.S. President Barack Obama has been pressing both states towards reconciliation since 2010.
Israel stands to gain from the reconciliation agreement with Turkey.
Israel did not agree to Turkey’s initial demand that it be allowed to transfer goods directly to Gaza without Israeli supervision[8]. However, while Turkey committed to remove Hamas’s military headquarters and activists from its territory, the Israeli defense establishment is doubtful this will happen.
The new Turkish-Israeli partnership is also intended to facilitate the export of Israeli natural gas. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu now sees Turkey as the optimum route to export gas from its Tamar and Leviathan reserves, with a pipeline running across the country, carrying more to Europe.
The future of Hamas
The most obvious loose thread in the arrangement is the future of Hamas, which until now has received strong Turkish backing[9] but whose presence in Turkey will now be confined to conventional diplomatic activity. A reported recent secret meeting between the intelligence chiefs of Turkey and Israel is believed to have ensured that even if the Hamas office in Turkey remains open, there will be clear restrictions on what its officials do.
The agreement did not have a positive ring at the Hamas grass-roots level, since it did not stipulate the complete lifting of the Gaza blockade. However, Turkey will be allowed to deliver a 10,000-ton shipment of humanitarian aid, build a 200-bed hospital and establish a new power station and a desalination plant for drinking water.
The fact that Turkey did not obtain the lifting of the Israeli blockade disappointed some Palestinians. However, Hamas issued an official statement, thanking Turkish President Erdoğan for the country’s efforts to help Gaza and to ease the blockade.
Local observers noted that the deal may prompt Hamas and Turkey to manage ties behind closed doors. Although Hamas is keen not to anger Turkey, the Turkish-Israeli agreement indicates that Hamas’ crisis has reached its foreign policy and regional alliances. According to Yahya Moussa, a Hamas leader and chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council’s Oversight Committee, Hamas did not aspire to achieve more advantages from the Israeli-Turkish deal and Hamas’ decision-making circles are aware that the blockade on Gaza involves several aspects and parties in control of the region.
For Abdullah Abdullah, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council and head of the Palestinian Legislative Council’s Political Committee, the deal represents a chance for Hamas to feel its extreme vulnerability, because it had great expectations from Turkey and did not realize the circumstances governing Turkey’s ties with Russia, Syria, Iran, Israel and Egypt.
For Israeli analysts, the sanction of the presence and “political” activity of Hamas in a country with diplomatic ties with Israel undermines years of Israeli public relations against the terrorist group, since Israeli officials sought to identify Hamas with other Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Besides Hamas not being able to carry out military activity from Turkish soil, everything else stays the same under the agreement: Hamas maintains its Turkish headquarters and Turkey continues assisting Hamas-ruled Gaza.
According to former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, Hamas will benefit from the Turkish-Israeli deal because, although the naval blockade of Gaza remains in force, Ankara will be able to transfer humanitarian aid and construction material to Gaza via Israeli ports which would create an economic boom in the enclave and thus make the blockade useless. The ex-Mossad chief also warned that the agreement will leave Israel without a security policy to deal with Gaza in the future.
Watching Turkey’s moves in Syria
Israel watched carefully Turkey’s moves inside Syria, especially Turkey’s military intervention, knowing that what started as a relatively minor incursion in northern Syria can have major ramifications for the region and for Israel.
First of all, the engagement in Syria limits Turkey’s ability to engage in other conflicts, which means, for Israel, that the Turks now have an interest in restraining Hamas, with whom it has close links, so that events in Gaza do not pose additional dilemmas for them. According to Israeli analysts, Ankara may even use its lever to tell Hamas that Turkey does not really wish to be put in the position of having to choose between their current interest in the reconciliation with Israel, and the implications of escalation in Gaza.
On the other hand, the fact that Turkey used the anti-Daesh fight as a cover for fighting the Kurds and trying to prevent a contiguous Kurdish area from emerging along its border goes against the Israeli interest in supporting the Kurds.
Moreover, the Turkish attitude is also considered to be a sign of a diminishing U.S. power and influence in the region, which increases, for Jerusalem, the importance of developing regional relationships, a trend shared by countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Persian Gulf countries.
Another consequence of Turkey’s incursion – by weakening both Daesh and the Kurdish rebels fighting Assad’s regime – will be to help Assad hang onto power. In that, the Turkish moves are in line with both Russian and Iranian interests in Syria: ensuring Assad’s survival.
However, Israeli analysts stress that, while Russia and Iran are both interested in keeping the Assad regime, their interests are not the same with regard of using Syria as a jumping-board for action against Israel and Jordan, an interest of Iran that the Russians do not share. It was made clear in the de-confliction mechanism created between Israel and Russia to prevent their militaries from accidentally clashing. Russia is interested in Assad’s survival to retain its strong foot-hold in the region, while the Iranians would like to turn Syria into a base of operations against Jordan and Israel.
The Turkish-Israeli deal also poses a policy dilemma for Israel, since Turkey is expected to intensify its repression of the Kurds, perhaps Israel’s closest allies in the Middle East and a growing friendship between Israel and the Iraqi/Syrian Kurds would negatively affect the new rapprochement. Coupled with the Kurdish conundrum and reduced post-coup capability on the part of Turkey to rein in Hamas in Gaza and prevent another Gaza war, the future of the Israeli-Turkish deal does not look so bright for local observers, who consider that Israel must continue to be cautious in its relations with Turkey and take a respectful, yet wary, approach.
Erdoğan will continue to support Hamas and it is doubtful that his intelligence services would agree to renewed links with the Mossad. The prospect that Turkey will return to the Israeli arms market is also dim, though there is little doubt that Ankara will not hesitate to purchase Israeli-made drones or intelligence equipment for its war against the Kurds.
Most of all, Israel does not want to be a part of a Russian effort to establish a new alliance in the Middle East that looks to push out the United States.
3. The Turkish military intervention in Syria
Both Israel and Washington are watching with concern the evolution of the Turkish military intervention in Syria, which is considered to have been partly accepted by Russia in the context of the recent rapprochement.
Ankara is at odds with Washington over the military operation it started on August 24 in Syria, near the northern city of Jarablus, apparently against Daesh (IS, ISIS/ISIL), but that has also repeatedly targeted the positions of the Kurdish-led and Washington-backed opposition group of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Washington which views SDF as one of the most capable forces in tackling Daesh, called the attacks on the Kurdish militias “unacceptable” and urged Turkey “to stay focused on the fight against ISIL.” The comments did not sit well with Ankara, which said that “no one has the right” to tell Turkey “which terrorist organization we can fight against and which one to ignore.” The Turkish operation inside Syria, called by Damascus a “violation of sovereignty” has also raised alarm bells in Moscow, which warned of an “escalation in the region.”
While Turkey couldn’t have entered Syria without Russia’s blessing, the Russians think that Turkey, after entering Syria with a green light from Moscow, has exceeded the agreed-upon limits of the operation. During his September 15 visit to Ankara, Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov reportedly told Turkish Chief of General Staff Hulusi Aktar that the Turkish operations in Syria violated international law and warned that further expansion could have political and military risks.
Russia declares all operations carried out by third-party countries without the knowledge and approval of the Syrian government as violations of international law and it is not likely that Moscow will amend its firm stance for the benefit of Turkish-Russian relations. It is hardly likely that Moscow will simply stand and watch if Turkey supports armed groups against the Syrian army, which is gaining ground around Aleppo with Russia’s backing.
With Daesh driven from the border in relatively quick fashion and with U.S. assurances that its Syrian Kurdish allies (the People’s Protection Units – YPG) had indeed withdrawn east of the Euphrates, Turkey’s military intervention in Syria seemed to have largely achieved its goals. However, at the beginning of September, the scope of the operation appeared to be widening. Turkey is eager to take part in the fight for Raqqa, Daesh’s self-declared capital in Syria, while also now confronting YPG forces in Afrin, a Kurdish-majority area north-west of Aleppo. By deepening its role in Syria and displaying a willingness to expand the operation’s geographic footprint, Turkey risks escalating the conflict with Kurdish forces in Syria, chafing relations with its American ally and getting involved in a complicated civil war.
Reluctance to a no-fly zone
Consequently, both the U.S. and Russia are reluctant with regard to Turkey’s proposals for the setting up of a no-fly zone in northern Syria, after Ankara-backed fighters pushed Daesh from the border area. The proposal followed previous Turkish proposals for a safe-zone inside Syria, backed up with a no-fly zone, in order to solve the problem of the more than 2.5 million refugees who fled from Syria into Turkey during the over five-year civil war. That zone could eventually cover some 4,000 sq km of territory where both Daesh and Kurdish militias would be kept at bay.
For Mr. Erdoğan, a Turkey-administered safe-zone with international support would position him as a significant player in a conflict in which he has largely been frustrated. If it succeeds, the safe zone would bolster Turkey’s claims to be an interlocutor in an eventual resolution of the conflict as the only party whose battlefield plan has both Russian and US approval.
On the other hand, if Turkey’s current plans are carried out, it would also dramatically escalate Turkey’s military excursion into Syria and would in effect commit both the Turkish military and financial backing for the rebels for the rest of the conflict. Analysts estimate the campaign would need a force of at least 35,000 fighters and constant support from Turkish artillery and special forces.
Washington has argued against proposals to set up a formal safe zone in the area, which it fears could involve a much bigger military commitment by the US-led coalition. At the G20 summit in China, neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor U.S. President Barack Obama commented directly on the Turkish proposal, though both said they wanted to build cooperation in fighting terrorism in Syria.
However, on 21 September, US Secretary of State John Kerry called for implementation of no-fly zones and a ban on Syrian army flights over territories controlled by the opposition. On the next day, on 22 September, German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier also called for implementation of no-fly zones in Syria to contribute to peace efforts.
Advantage for Daesh
Military analysts and local observers assess that the Turkish military intervention in Syria might in fact save Daesh. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who used to let Daesh use Turkey as a transit route for recruits and supplies (that largely stopped a year ago), doesn’t see it as Turkey’s main enemy.
For Erdoğan, the big threat is the secession of the south-east corner of the country where Kurds (20 per cent of Turkey’s population) are the local majority. All the countries next to that corner of Turkey (Iran, Iraq and Syria) also have Kurdish majorities living along the border, and the Turkish nightmare is for one of those areas to become an independent Kurdish-ruled state.
Daesh is well aware of the fact that Turkey is, in fact, targeting the Kurds, which is why it evacuated the border town of Jarablus, where the Turkish army crossed into Syria, without a fight, and Turkey began shelling and bombing Kurdish-led forces in Manbij, the next town south from Jarablus. The coming months will probably see a steady expansion of Turkey’s offensive against the Syrian Kurds, and a corresponding drop in the latter’s military effort against Daesh. So the Syrian Kurds will be busy fighting the Turks, and Daesh will survive.
The continued hostilities between the YPG and Turkey place the U.S. in a diplomatic and strategic minefield as it tries to placate both of its key allies in the fight against Daesh. The situation may further complicate if Turkey is less able to control its rebel proxies, whose goal remains to unseat the government of Bashar Al-Assad and who may return to their target, thus also annoying Russia.
III. Conclusion
The internal developments in Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s foreign policy will undoubtedly be closely watched by analysts and politicians alike.
While President Erdoğan tried incessantly to concentrate power in his own hands – to that end he has sidelined longtime allies (such as the Gülen movement), co-founders of the AKP (such as former President Abdullah Gül and former Speaker of the Parliament Bülent Arınç), and top-rate economic managers (such as former Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Economics Czar Ali Babacan and Central Bank President Erdem Başçı) – his chances of turning Turkey into a dictatorship are not seen as considerable.
On the other hand, Turkey’s drive for world power status, together with the decline of Europe as a political entity, means that Ankara will continue to flex its muscles in the international arena. The French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has recently said that Turkey is no longer a reliable partner in NATO’s fight against Daesh[10].
The United States cannot tolerate the emergence of an un-friendly major maritime power like Turkey which, since the Cold War, has been used as a tool against Russia. A significant oriental shift in Ankara’s  foreign policy would signal the end of America’s prospects of ‘full spectrum dominance’, creating the conditions for a geopolitical reconfiguration some might imagine as falling in with conjectures of a Moscow/Constantinople axis or, in mytho-historical terms, a ‘Third Rome’.
The U.S. Middle East policy traditionally relied on the “three-legged stool” comprised of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. As long as those three major local powers were in the Western camp, Soviet manipulations elsewhere could be mitigated. When Iran was lost under President Jimmy Carter in 1979, the U.S. attempted for the longest time to substitute Iraq for the missing stool leg, but the Iraqi regime never provided the stability the U.S. enjoyed with the Shah. This is why the U.S. is determined to keep Turkey in the Western camp, because without a Western-allied Turkey, the US presence in the region would be severely downgraded.
The situation is further complicated by Israel’s position. Relations between Tel Aviv and Ankara have improved, in spite of the current dispute with Washington. For Israel, which cannot fully trust Russia (which must support Iran and the Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon) the new Syrian plan of Putin and Erdoğan can be useful to mitigate tensions on the Golan Heights and use the Turkish Pan-Turanism for the anti-jihadist stabilization of the Middle East.
The complexity of the Middle East region requires extreme agility by all players, and few are as agile as the Turks. There will be many reversals and maneuvers in the future, but basically most analysts see Turkey as becoming the dominant power in the region.
[1] Details about Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen movement, as well as the relationship and splitting with the AKP were presented in our previous works (Turkey’s new geopolitical dimensions – 2012, Political Islam vs. the military – case studies: Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey – 2013, Ideological tensions in the Islamic world: a not so cold war – 2014). Details mentioned recently by the media about Fethullah Gülen’s connections in the U.S. intelligence are presented in an annex to this analysis.
[2] Prebendalism (derived from prebend, a stipend paid to a canon of a cathedral) refers to political systems where elected officials and government workers feel they have a right to a share of the government revenues and to use them to benefit their supporters, co-religionists, members of their ethnic group etc. (apud Wikipedia)
[3] Recent disclosures published by German daily Die Welt mentioned that the MIT handles close to 6,000 informants and other intelligence operatives in Germany, which, on a per capita basis, is more than the East German STASI had at the height of the Cold War (there are 500 potential human targets for each present-day MIT operative, whereas there were 6,000 West German citizens for every Stasi operative during the Cold War). Many of the informants are tasked with keeping tabs on Germany’s large Kurdish community, but after the failed coup, they were instructed to infiltrate groups of supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. According to German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the MIT has also secretly contacted its German counterpart, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND), with a request to provide assistance to investigate and arrest supporters of the Gülen movement living in Germany, some of whom are German citizens.
[4]The so-called “Will of Peter the Great” is widely considered to be an apocryphal document, forged at the break of 19th century. It was supposedly stolen from Russia by French diplomat and spy Chevalier d’Éon, and was included (in summary), allegedly on Emperor Napoleon’s orders, in a memoir written in 1812 by French political writer Charles Louis Lesur, titled Des Progrés de la puissance russe depuis son origine jusqu’ au commencement du XIXe siècle (“Progress of the Russian Power, from Its Origin to the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century”). The memoir intended to justify Napoleon’s war plans against Russia and for many years ‘the Will of Peter the Great” influenced France’s and Britain’s political attitude towards the Russian Empire. The “will” was evoked during the Crimean War, the Russo-Turkish war (1877-1878), as well as during the two 20th century world wars. While its authenticity is widely questioned, the document’s main elements were continuously reflected in Russia’s foreign policy since the 18th century on (apud Wikipedia)
[5] From the term Turanian which was used in the declining days of the Ottoman Empire by some Turkish nationalists to express a pan-Turkic ideology, also called Turanism.
[6] Israel and Turkey used to be close allies until 2010, when a Gaza bound flotilla originating in Turkey tried to break Israel’s blockade on the territory. A forceful Israeli intervention killed nine Turkish citizens and created a huge rift in the relations between the two countries. The episode is known as the Mavi Marmara incident
[7] In response to a rocket fired on August 21 from Gaza into the Israeli southern town of Sderot, the Israeli air force hit some 50 targets in the Palestinian territory over a two-hour period.
[8] According to a recent report issued by 16 United Nations aid agencies operating in the Palestinian territories, the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation agreement has no influence for the Gaza Strip’s 1.9 million besieged residents, whose condition continues to deteriorate.
[9] According to a recently leaked confidential document, the German government has accused Turkey of supporting Palestinian militant group Hamas, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and “groups in the armed Islamist opposition in Syria,” all of which follow Sunni Islam, the same strand as the majority of Muslim Turks. The document also mentioned that “as a result of Ankara’s domestic and foreign policy that has been Islamized step-by-step above all since 2011, Turkey has developed into the central platform of action for Islamist groups in the Middle East region.”

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