Erdoğan’s losses in the Middle East are also his gains, academic says

Some critics may see Turkey’s moves in Syria and Libya as an unmitigated disaster, but in fact they are calculated steps by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to make other powers sufficiently recognise Turkish interests, said academic Simon A. Waldman on Thursday. 

“Erdoğan knows he’s not backing the winning side, but participation in this array of regional conflicts is itself a projection of Turkey’s power,” Waldman wrote in the Israeli newspaper Hareetz. "The president figures it is more important - and more strategically lucrative - to be on the table with a weak hand, than not play at all.”

Turkey’s position in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, where 15 Turkish soldiers have been killed this month, is untenable, the academic said. Turkey has a significant military significance in Idlib, with observations posts built under a 2018 deal with Russia. 

But Turkey “perseveres with a doomed policy of supporting a ragtag band of opposition forces,” against the military assault by Russian-backed Syrian forces on the rebel-held enclave, Waldman said. 

“However, by holding onto Idlib, Ankara has its interests recognised by international powers and has a central place in forums which discuss the future of Syria – and avoids, for now, another influx of Syrian refugees,” he said. “Just the fact that Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin speak regularly, and that last week Moscow sent a delegation to Turkey to discuss the situation and this week additional talks are being held in Moscow, is a boon for Ankara.”

In Libya, Turkey backs the United Nations-recognised government in Tripoli and has been sending military equipment and personnel to the Libyan capital to help fend off an assault by General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which enjoys the support of Russia, France, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and other countries in the region.

“But just like in Syria, Turkey’s involvement in Libya is less about backing a winning side than amplifying and projecting power - staking a claim to a say in the future of the country,” Waldman said. "As long as Turkey is involved in the conflict, the international community will be obliged, however reluctantly, to recognise Turkey as an important regional power.”