Will Erdogan and Assad work together to block the Kurds?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has added an extraordinarily punchy and quarrelsome nationalism to his generally combative foreign policy postures.
By leading the debate over the status of Jerusalem and challenging Greece about a nearly 100-year-old peace treaty, Erdoğan is presenting himself as Turkey’s great protector and guarantor of its leadership of the Muslim world.
He responded angrily to UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who had retweeted a claim that Fahreddin Pasha, commander of the Ottoman army and governor of Medina from 1916-19, had looted relics from the holy city.
Erdoğan got the response he wanted. Turkey’s pro-government and nationalist media lined up to agree with the president. Commentators offered a positive response as well.
It was proof, if any were needed, of how militant Turkey’s nationalist mood has become. What’s also becoming clear is that Erdoğan intends to project himself as a new Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and heir to the man who founded the republic in 1923.
By defending Fahreddin Pasha, Erdoğan implied that the Ottoman period and modern Turkey’s history as a republic were one and the same thing. By this logic, Ottoman Turkey and the modern republic are a continuity, not a disruption, and Neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism are merged.
Will it work for Erdoğan?
The “strong-and-stable” narrative is affected somewhat by a weakening economy and allegations of corruption but the defining factor may ultimately be external – Kurdish advances in Syria.
Turkey has various conditions for the Russian-sponsored Syrian National Dialogue Congress planned for early 2018. It wants the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to be excluded, saying they are terrorist groups linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). After the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), the PYD and YPG control nearly one-fourth of Syrian territory.
In this context, it’s worth noting remarks by Syrian President Bashar Assad. Agence France-Presse reported him as saying that “Kurds who work on behalf of other countries (are) traitors.” Might this signal a shift in alliances of self-interest with Turkey joining forces with Iran and Syria to block Syrian Kurds’ aspirations to a federal model of government or any other form of self-rule?
Yes, said Salih Muslim, a prominent PYD member. “It is Bashar Assad’s intention to send a message to Turkey and Iran implying that he is on their side,” Muslim told Ahval. “Syria, Turkey and Iran have frequently acted in unison against the Kurds. By calling the Kurds traitors, Assad is sending the message to these powers that they share a mutual objective of opposing the gains that Kurds have made.”
Only the naive would believe Erdoğan interpreted Assad’s remarks differently. In the post-ISIS era, there has been speculation about Damascus’s and Ankara’s interests converging more rapidly than expected.
Where does the United States stand on this and to what extent will Russian President Vladimir Putin see the Damascus-Ankara convergence as a risk to his strategic vision? It’s hardly a secret that Turkey is at odds with Russia with respect to the status of Kurds in Syria.
The regional puzzle is becoming ever more complex.