Erdogan: an ally on the fence
“Turkey will soon have to make clear whether it is with the United States or with Iran,” wrote Nikos Konstandaras, a Greek colleague with the Athens daily Kathimerini.
It was an insightful comment. As Konstandaras pointed out: “Today’s impossibly complicated game may be superseded by something even more dangerous.”
Developments in and around Syria keep Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the spotlight. Erdogan’s game, from the outset of the Syrian crisis, was to ensure he had a stake in whatever emerged out of the chaos.
He has pushed Turkey’s Syria policy during the past seven years, first with the enthusiastic support of former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and later on his own. Erdogan hoped the policy would cement his power at home.
It’s not clear, however, whether the need to choose between the United States and Russia entered Erdogan’s calculations. His Syria policy has been divisive and, as the Afrin incursion showed, runs counter to the policies of the anti-Islamic State coalition in Syria.
Erdogan is perceived as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fellow traveller and as serving Iran’s long-term interests in upending the regional balance of power.
This has become a hot topic of discussion, as was obvious when US President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state answered questions during the confirmation process. Secretary-designate Mike Pompeo was shown a picture of Erdogan, Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani at a summit in Ankara. US Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said: “What’s wrong with this picture? The United States isn’t even present.”
Pompeo responded that the summit in Ankara had “the purpose of discussing how they were going to carve up Syria.” This meant he was accusing Erdogan — the leader of a NATO partner — of cooking up a formula that would go against Washington’s interests as well as those of NATO.
Pompeo also made clear that the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) was not over and that the United States would continue to back the Syrian Democratic Forces, whose backbone is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia.
Pompeo’s remarks came even as Washington and Paris indicated they were prepared for a military escalation in Syria.
The developments put Erdogan in a precarious position. There is Russia, which has turned a blind eye to Erdogan’s campaign against Syrian Kurdish forces, and there is the looming threat to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s hold on power. Erdogan sees the Syrian president as an archenemy.
“It is a bad time to have an ally on the fence,” commented Hannah Lucinda Smith in the Spectator. “The Turkish president has watched the Western powers, which once shared his determination to help the armed opposition overthrow Assad, lose heart with the rebels and instead back Kurdish forces to defeat ISIS.
“He has also watched the crumbling of the regional policy that he and his former Foreign Minister Davutoglu engineered, which would have made Turkey the model for a string of post-‘Arab spring’ Islamist governments and Erdogan the undisputed leader of the Sunni world. Today, the only firm Middle Eastern ally that Turkey can count on is Qatar.”