Two styles of dealing with the Ankara regime

On March 5, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went once again to implore his mentor, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, with plenty of wishful thinking regarding the presence of the Turkish army in Syria. It goes without saying that he returned empty-handed, except for a few sweeteners that will be hard to implement on the ground. All in all, the Damascus regime, together with its official companion in arms, Russia, and its unofficial companion in arms, Iran, got what it wanted from an overconfident Erdoğan, through the shrewdest diplomatic manner.

Around the same time, the West was also dealing with Turkey on a number of issues of common concern. These include the unverified mass of potential refugees from the war zone in the north-west of Syria, the Turkish-made war-like situation at the Greek-Turkish land and sea borders, where tens of thousands of migrants of various nationalities have been muscularly encouraged to smash the border and enter Europe, and an everlasting fear of seeing NATO-member Turkey falling into Putin’s laps, or worse, literally falling apart.

The Russian style of dealing with Ankara is uncompromising, whereas the Western style is an endless search for compromise.

Make no mistake, Moscow has given enough sweeteners to Erdoğan for domestic consumption, like promising to “punish the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) if it attacks”, although these are irrelevant and inapplicable in the war zone. If it attacks whom?

The SAA does not attack Turkey, only its terrorist protégés in Syria. And, as stipulated in the Moscow deal, the SAA’s fight against UN-listed terrorist groups will continue whether Erdoğan’s army likes it or not. This shows the strength of the deal imposed by Moscow and demonstrates that the apparent cessation of hostilities is only illusory, as Erdoğan has no leverage on terrorist groups to withdraw according to the Moscow deal he signed on their behalf. He has not been able to deliver on his past promises to suppress these groups, and he will not be able to deliver any better now, unless he is compelled to confront them and wipe them out.

Moscow knows perfectly well that it is Erdoğan who is incapable and/or unwilling to deal with terrorists whom he happily imports and exports to and from other parts of the region at large. Moscow also knows that it is clearly Ankara’s military actions everywhere in Syria which are prolonging the civil war and are thus producing more refugees. 

Moscow’s uncompromising way (the legendary Russian red lines) of dealing with Ankara is centered on these basic assumptions. The modus operandi may allow some room for Ankara to unleash its cynical wrath, often at the expense of Kurds and the SAA, but without crossing Russia’s red lines that demand the territorial integrity of Syria and the struggle against Islamic terror. 

Westerners are on another planet when it comes to these hard facts. First and foremost, they refrain from blaming the Ankara regime and always appease Erdoğan, even if they know by heart that he is the one who fuels the Syrian civil war, produces refugees, blackmails the European Union with more to come, ignites the Libyan civil war, exports jihadists there and elsewhere in Africa, disregards Turkey’s NATO duties and responsibilities, partners with Putin and openly threatens two EU member states, Cyprus and Greece.

Every single act by Erdoğan towards weak and condescending Western administrations goes unchecked. 

Westerners resort systematically to euphemisms such as “Turkey-backed rebels”, but the so-called rebel groups are no longer the opponents of the authoritarian regime in Damascus whom we saw in the early days of the Syrian uprising – they have been overtaken by hardcore jihadists. Or, they refer to “Turkey’s legitimate security concerns” when these concerns are unrelated to any threat but to the invasion of Syrian territory by way of dehumanising Kurds, Yazidis and Alawites. 

The EU’s newly appointed Foreign Affairs chief, Josep Borrell, recently said: “The Council acknowledges the difficult situation Turkey is facing due to the offensive in Idlib and its consequences. We are at the beginning of a migration crisis, the consequences of the Turks letting people go, making them believe that the borders of Europe were open. (…) At the same time, we have to talk with the Turks about many issues that affect directly our security, because Turkey is also playing an important role in the Libyan crisis.”

Linking the battle in Idlib and the migration crisis? Yes, they are linked, but not in the way the Westerners understand. The only causal link between Idlib and the migration crisis is one manufactured by Erdoğan himself: the Turkish president has stoked European fears of a new large-scale wave of migration from Idlib by unleashing hordes of stranded irregular migrants on the Greek border. For the record, only 4 percent of those amassed at the Greek-Turkish borders are Syrian nationals.

His expectations from the West are clear: more cash and more Western calls for a ceasefire so Turkey can reorganise its jihadist operations in Syria and elsewhere.

As for the “important role Turkey is playing in Libya”, according to Borrell, it is an open secret that Ankara is exporting jihadist mercenaries directly from the Syrian battlefield to the Libyan battlefield to reinforce the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, which controls the Tripoli government.

No Western officials have ever pointed any fingers at Ankara for these dealings, instead recognising its “important role” - yet another euphemism for “potential to disrupt”! 

All in all, the West is always prone to close its eyes to Ankara’s invasion of Syrian lands and its open deals with Islamic terrorist organisations, whereas Russia categorically rejects them. The former bears the consequences of these miscalculations through more mass displacements and a totalitarian regime in Ankara, the latter cuts the knots his way.

Hence, there is more than one lesson to take from the Moscow deal.

Compromise and appeasement do not work with Erdoğan, only containment does.

Democracies, perhaps naturally, are very bad at talking to non-democracies.

Non-democracies deal more straightforwardly with one another than with democracies; as the Turkish saying goes, “the faithless overmasters the irreligious,” or “set a thief to catch a thief”. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.