The Syrian safe zone agreement in Turkey’s media

The week’s biggest news came with Wednesday’s announcement that U.S. and Turkish military officials had come to an agreement on founding a joint operations centre to address Turkey’s security concerns in northern Syria and create a “safe zone” in the region.

While the terms of the deal remain cloudy – initial statements revealed nothing about the extent of the zone or who would administer it, the two main issues that had prevented agreements in previous talks. But it was enough to prevent the imminent attack that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had threatened on Tuesday.

The Turkish president has not shied away from making threats or forceful assertions on the foreign policy stage, and by following through on several of these – notably, the acquisition of Russian S-400 missile-defence systems this year – Erdoğan has encouraged speculation that he is dragging Turkey away from its traditional Western alliances.

The threats of an attack on the Kurdish-led autonomous regions in northern Syria this month, after a large-scale troop build-up starting in July, had compounded that belief, in Turkey as well as abroad.

Thus, newspapers linked to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government were trumpeting the coming operation on Wednesday, hours before the joint announcement on the safe zone, while also lauding Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s “Asia Anew” initiative, which aims to develop ties with countries across the Asian continent.

Such intense focus on the east led veteran journalist Ertuğrul Özkök to ask whether Turkish society had suddenly, and en-masse, turned Eurasianist, in his column for the pro-government daily Hürriyet.

Factions in Turkey’s military and political spheres have for decades sparred on whether to turn away from NATO and the West in favour of strengthening ties with Eurasian powers, primarily China and Russia.

Years of political tumult are believed to have left Eurasianist factions in the ascendancy in the military and holding a strong influence on Turkey’s foreign policy. Ankara’s assertive stance on the S-400s and energy exploration rights around Cyprus is viewed by many as evidence that these factions hold sway.

But Özkök, a long-time proponent of EU membership for Turkey, still clings to hope that his country will remain devoted to its Western partnerships.

The journalist noted that though the military operation and Asia initiative had captured headlines, on the same day Erdoğan had reiterated, after long silence on the issue, that full EU membership remained as an important ambition.

That membership may be a distant dream – for starters, the current government in Ankara has given no signs that it will sufficiently remedy the authoritarian practices that have brought accession talks to a standstill.

Nevertheless, the week’s developments showed that talk of a Eurasian shift should be tempered with a healthy dose of realism.

Turkey’s agreement with the United States drew immediate condemnation from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, calling both parties illegal occupiers of sovereign Syrian territory.

The Turkish press circles that favour entente with Assad were far more sanguine about the agreement. Left-wing nationalist daily columnist Fikret Akfırat noted that Erdoğan’s latest moves were based on trying to exploit the lack of unity in Washington under President Donald Trump to sidestep the U.S. sanctions threatened over Turkey’s S-400 purchase. 

The mistake, Akfırat said, has been to prioritise this over removing the Kurdish administrations and U.S. forces from northern Syria, a policy that had created distance between Turkey and its “true allies”, likely meaning Russia.

A similar analysis by Mehmet Ali Güller in secularist daily Cumhuriyet said that while the agreement had been signed to prevent a full-blown confrontation Ankara and Washington’s diverging interests meant that it could only have a limited shelf life.

Güller recommended an agreement with Russian-backed Assad as the best option for Ankara, saying this would clear Syria of its “American corridor” while also providing the means for the return of Turkey’s millions-strong population of Syrian refugees.

But the main disappointment of the week for pro-Russian circles in Turkey may have come not from the agreement in Syria but from Erdoğan’s visit to Ukraine, where he condemned the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and participated in a standing commemoration of the Ukrainians lost in the ongoing conflict.

This earned condemnation from Doğu Perinçek, whose Patriotic Party is a leading proponent of the Eurasianist line. 

Erdoğan’s visit had, Perinçek said in a column in Aydınlık on Friday, played into the hands of a state which, along with Washington, opposes Ankara’s collaboration with Moscow to build two important energy pipelines from Russia through Turkey.

The decision comes shortly after another move that raised hackles among Eurasianists: the decision to send a Turkish delegation to China to monitor the reported human rights abuses against the country’s Uighur Muslims, millions of whom are said to be interned in re-education camps.

Murat Yetkin, a respected Turkish journalist and commentator, noted that the decision had come shortly before a symbolically loaded meeting between Erdoğan and his nationalist ally Devlet Bahçeli, whose far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is ideologically driven to support the Uighur minority.

The implication was that domestic politics had driven the AKP and MHP more closely together, and Erdoğan was obliging his ally.

In any case, the two-year saga of the S-400 purchase showed that there is value in taking the Turkish government at its word on its foreign policy.

So, this week, quotes from two of the top men themselves. First, Çavuşoğlu, who scolded commentators whom he accused of harping on about the “axis shift” in Turkey’s foreign policy.

“Now our Western friends will start complaining again saying, 'What's going on? Is it an axis shift in your foreign policy? Has Turkey turned its back to Europe and faced to another place?’” Turkish pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah quoted Çavuşoğlu as saying at an ambassadors’ conference in Ankara this week.

“Then let me ask you this: Do you shift the axis of your foreign policy when you go there (Asia)? Why does it become an axis change when Turkey goes there?” Çavuşoğlu said.

Turkey was not going to join any axis, because Turkey itself was the axis, the foreign minister went on to say.

The words echoed Erdoğan’s own statement this week on EU accession, in which he informed his European neighbours that "if the EU intends to be a global actor, it has to win over Turkey first”.

This may all sound grandiose. But the AKP’s foreign policy in recent years has been a succession of gambits and audacious moves, and Erdoğan’s government’s foreign policy appears to be driven, more than by a particular ideological leaning, by the knowledge that you can’t win unless you play. When this approach causes problems, these can be dealt with later – or with an adept enough hand, turned into opportunities.

This was the message Erdoğan gave at his own address to ambassadors at the conference in Ankara this week.

“What we recently experienced in Syria have shown us once again that you cannot have seat at the table unless you are on the ground”, he said. “We will definitely defend our national interests through dialogue, elements of soft power, means of ‘coercive diplomacy’ and use of actual force if need be.”