Erdoğan's triple impasse: The U.S., Russia and the Kurds
The massive Syrian offensive into Idlib province this month, backed by Russia, is starting to pitch Ankara against Moscow and may prove right those arguing that the Sochi process was a stillborn baby from the outset.
Whether or not Sochi – a roadmap for Syria devised by Russia, Turkey and Iran -- was dead in the water, one thing is clear: Idlib, the final stronghold of jihadist forces in Syria, is becoming the battle ground between Turkish interests on the one hand and those of Syria and Russia on the other.
It can now be argued that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not only at odds with the United States over Syria but with Russia as well -- a double impasse. No matter which direction he chooses, at this point in time, he will only be playing for time, nothing more.
Erdoğan knows that the Americans will eventually impose their will on the so-called 'safe zone' for northern Syria, mainly to protect their local allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a hybrid force dominated by Kurdish fighters, from Turkey. The SDF will remain as a deterrent force both against Islamic State and the advances of Iran. They will also prove to be a bargaining chip for Washington when the time comes to redesign the Syrian administrative map.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan possibly realises that the Russians, by tradition, have never trusted Turkey, especially under his rule, which they think is evasive and aims for regime change in Syria in favour of hardline Sunni fighters. Moscow may have calculated that the standoff between Ankara and Washington over the ‘safe zone' has made the former even more vulnerable, and at the mercy of itself. To gain an even greater upper hand in the future of Syria, Russia is launching a final offensive at the heart of Idlib, disregarding entirely the new humanitarian calamity it causes. After all, it may have reasoned, following the controversial sale of S-400 missiles to Turkey in July, which caused ruptures in the Turkey-NATO alliance -- it has nothing to lose. Win-win for Putin, and his ally in Damascus.
But what of the mood in Ankara? We have been informed by some pundits close to the Turkish army that the Americans are the real agenda-setters on the proposed ‘safe zone’ for Kurdish-dominated northern Syria. Some of Turkey’s generals are not at all happy because they see the initiative as guaranteeing the protection of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) controlling the area. For now, it will only serve to build tensions in the Turkish capital. We hear little of the Syrian offensive in Idlib from the same disgruntled circles.
The brewing disquiet in Ankara underscores a difference in views between the Erdoğan camp, which still supports the jihadist-dominated Free Syrian Army against Assad's military, and another comprised of the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the tiny 'Homeland Party' (VP) - a hardcore militarist-nationalist group with a strong influence within the Turkish security apparatus. The latter demand open and direct dialogue with the Assad regime while keeping Turkish forces in Syria.
The political differences are serious and could inevitably lead to a final showdown over who, in the end, will rule Turkey. It may be a slow, time consuming process, or quite the opposite. Much directly depends on the pace and extent of developments in the Syrian theatre.
On the surface, of course, there is the Kurdish dimension, which keeps Ankara in convulsions. Stuck in a vicious circle for decades, Turkey's political class across the board has once more returned to the default position, as the battle against Turkey's local Kurds intensifies.
The unlawful removal last week by Erdoğan of three elected Kurdish mayors has shown that the two alliances who competed so vociferously against each other in this year’s local elections – Erdoğan with the ultranationalist MHP against the CHP and Good Party (IYIP), an off-shoot of the MHP -- are not that far apart when it comes to the Kurdish issue. The opposition has given the impression that they are closer to the oppressive state than trying to save whatever remains of democracy.
If Erdoğan knows anything, it is this: he can extend his power, and control the state apparatus, so long as he can keep the secular-nationalist opposition bloc closer to his rule. He knows he can do this by continuing to demonise the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (HDP). He thrives on this consensus.
With the double impasse in Syria, the appointment of government trustees to three major Kurdish municipalities has intensified social turmoil in Turkey. It is apparent that the move was pre-meditated, and aims at weakening the HDP, and alienating some reformist circles within the main opposition CHP. (A closure case against the HDP is also on the agenda.) Furthermore, another objective seems to be to provoke street violence, and/or attacks by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey or against Turkish army posts in Syria. This approach creates pretexts for counter action.
In any case, the removal of the three mayors in southeast Turkey earlier this month (who were elected by more than 53 percent of the local population), is a blow for voter choice and not only hampers any prospect for a renewed peace process between Ankara and the PKK, but silences the 'optimists' arguing that it was only a matter of time before the process began again. Erdoğan and his partner in his political alliance, Devlet Bahçeli, have shown that there is no room for wishful thinking or hope. If anything, the new, brutal domestic offensive against the HDP, Turkey's third largest party, should tell the world that so long as Erdoğan is in power, backed by extreme hardliners in key positions, there will never be a chance for a peaceful solution of the Kurdish issue.
So, inevitably, the deadlocks between Ankara, Moscow and Washington over the future of Syria have led to a third political standoff, this time centered around the Kurds at home. It is time to talk about a triple impasse for Turkey’s combative president to deal with.