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Can the SCO be Turkey’s alternative to the West?

Erdogan suggests Turkey will seek full membership in the Russia-China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization amid strained relations with the West.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed his NATO member country’s intention to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), noting that Ankara is looking at alternatives to its troubled relations with the West.

Erdogan, who made the remarks after attending last week’s SCO summit in Uzbekistan, was also quoted by Turkish media as saying that the SCO 2023 meeting in India will be a place to further discuss this prospect .

China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India and Uzbekistan are full members of the Political, Economic and Security Organization.

Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are SCO observer countries, while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are the bloc’s dialogue partners.

“Our relations with these countries will be shifted to a completely different position,” Erdogan told reporters on Saturday.

Asked by reporters if he thought Turkey was trying to become a member of the organization, the president said, “Of course that is the goal.”

The SCO is not seen as an alternative to NATO, a military alliance with collective responsibility for defense under Article 5 of its founding treaty, which regards an armed attack on one or more members as an “attack against all”.

Mensur Akgun, a professor of international relations, told Al Jazeera that the SCO is a hybrid bloc working together to prevent a vacuum in Central and South Asia.

“It aims to increase dialogue and cooperation, solve problems between its members when necessary and stand in solidarity against interventions in the region by external powers,” he said, adding that the SCO follows the model of the European Union is closer than to NATO.

“An organization that has arch-rivals India and Pakistan under its umbrella would not be able to have automatic military interdependence like NATO has,” Akgun said.

Akgun also said that growing political and economic ties between Turkey and Russia in recent years have contributed to Erdogan’s comments on SCO membership, especially given Turkey’s often strained relations with Western powers.

Turkey bought Russia’s S-400 defense systems, which led to US sanctions alongside Turkey’s removal from a US-led program to develop F-35 fighter jets. Russia is also building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, and the two countries signed an economic cooperation agreement in August.

Although Turkey and Russia have backed opposing sides in the war in Syria, the two countries have largely coordinated closely throughout the conflict.

The Turkish government has also taken a balanced stance on Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February. It has supplied Ukraine with weapons, particularly drones, but it has not imposed sanctions on Russia and has criticized what it calls Western policy “based on provocation” towards Moscow.

Ankara has sought to act as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine since the conflict began, helping broker an agreement in July that would allow Ukrainian grain ships to go to foreign markets.

Galip Dalay, an associate fellow at Chatham House in the UK, said Erdogan’s comments on SCO membership stemmed from Ankara’s tensions with the West.

“Whenever there is dissatisfaction with the West – especially with the US [over] the perception that Turkey is being treated unfairly – the idea of ​​alternatives is emerging,” he told Al Jazeera.

“And that’s why Ankara currently believes that Turkey’s interests are better served when there is a balancing act between different centers of power – that is, China, Russia and the West,” Dalay said.

Ankara has also fallen out with the US and certain EU member states over their support for Syrian Kurdish fighters who have allied with the West in fighting ISIL (ISIS) in the war-torn country.

Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main body of the anti-ISIL alliance, as an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state for decades.

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