Erdoğan is weakest link in the anti-Western alliance for Syria

Is Ankara pivoting away from the West to forge a new axis or is it simply spinning out of control?

The question is worth examining in the light of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s preferred way of dealing with the West: a combination of harsh rhetoric and what observers call “hostage politics.” This is a reference to Ankara’s reluctance to release foreign citizens swept up in its post-coup purge.

Erdogan’s power play is focused on Syria’s 7-year civil war and the Kurdish conflict. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not protesting. Rather, it is dancing to any tune Erdogan composes. There is awareness within the AKP of the unique situation of Turkey as the last bastion of Sunni political Islam in power.

In Syria, Erdogan’s tone is dependent on the tone set by US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is a gamble, which is why Erdogan is navigating cautiously, preparing at every step for any sudden twist or turn. So, the supposed “pivot from the West” is a negotiating tactic and not a declared policy. As the well-known Turkish proverb goes, the rice willneed much more water before it is ready.

Ankara is content with the gains from the conquest of Afrin and the installation of military observation posts in Idlib. It is an illusion to believe that Erdogan truly wants US troops — some 2,000 — to leave northern Syria altogether. For him, it would be far better to maintain a delicate balance between the United States and Russia.

Erdogan is acutely aware that the ultra-secular, militarist Eurasianist flank of the Turkish establishment has gained political ground in Ankara. He knows that he must slalom very carefully to not give the Eurasianist supporters too much power. This means that Erdogan cannot give in more than necessary to Putin.

That said, he trusts the Trump administration much less than Putin’s.

In this context, the latest meeting on Syria in the White House could be a game-changer. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis and Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, reportedly made it clear to the president that a US withdrawal from northern Syria would be disastrous. They are said to have warned that a US withdrawal would be tactically dangerous because the Islamic State (ISIS) would re-emerge and strategically bad because Russia would have the upper hand in the region.

Trump reluctantly agreed not to push for an immediate withdrawal but he did tell them to “hurry” up with a new road map for US engagement in Syria.

While this may be a temporary relief for the Kurds, it leaves Erdogan with room to manoeuvre. Turkey’s president can continue to fine-tune the political choreography until he secures his hoped-for victory in next year’s elections.

The Ankara summit, which included the Russian and Iranian presidents, is part of Erdogan’s canny choreography and it will help to keep the West anxious. It also enables the Turkish president to portray himself as a relentless challenger of the West and allows building a connection with his domestic enemies such as the anti-American Kemalists and the left.

Few seem to have cared that the trilateral Ankara summit ended with nothing decided and nothing resolved. There were no concrete decisions, only the vague hope for “active cooperation for a ceasefire among parties.”

The Syrian Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units, which Turkey regards as an enemy, was not mentioned in the final declaration. Erdogan could not have achieved success in Afrin without the backing of Putin, so he had to compromise at the summit, too. Putin needs Erdogan to legitimise the military engagement in Syria of Russia, a perceived Christian power.

What unites Turkey, Russia and Iran is their drive to get the Americans out of Syria and Iraq but Erdogan is the weakest link in that regard.

Another consequence of the linked hands of the trio meeting in Ankara is Arab consternation about what happens next to Syria.

As Amir Taheri put it in Asharq Al-Awsat: “The prospect of Turko-Russian domination of the region, with Iran playing second fiddle” is not likely to please most Arab countries. Even though some might argue that it won’t be so bad, Taheri added, it will be for the following reason: “With their economies in meltdown, Russia, Turkey and Iran are in no position to rebuild Syria into anything resembling a functioning state.”’

That says it all.