Kyle Orton
Jul 09 2018

Foreign policy challenges remain acute for Turkey's Erdogan

As Turkey moves past last month’s election, the foreign policy challenges remain acute, particularly in Syria, and there is a looming confrontation with the United States over sanctions on Iran that might undo the recent progress toward the normalisation of U.S.-Turkish relations.

The foreign and security issue that will remain rhetorically at the top of the list is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), particularly that organisation’s branch in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). On the eve of the elections, Turkey appeared poised to attack the PKK at its historic headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq. Whether that announcement was purely for political purposes or not, the main PKK base is now in Syria and Turkey’s options there are constrained by the United States.

A resolution of Manbij question will make little progress, either in repairing U.S.-Turkey relations or stabilising Syria after Islamic State (ISIS), unless it leads to a broader alteration in policy that strikes a more balanced U.S. posture between the PYD/PKK and Turkey. The turbulence in the Trump administration and proposals to head for the exit without coordinating with Turkey, would suggest that this strategic reset is unlikely, but the consolidation of Syria policy in the White House, away from the areas of the U.S. government most hostile to Turkey, could lead to such changes being implemented.

Crime and political fractiousness continue to trouble Turkish-occupied areas in northeastern (Euphrates Shield) and western Aleppo (Afrin), as does a nascent guerrilla war by the PYD, but there are noticeable advances in the administration of these territories.

The most immediate question in Syria for Turkey might prove to be Idlib, one of the “de-escalation zones” worked out in Astana between Turkey, Russia, and Iran.

Though presented as a means to reduce violence, Russia and Iran use the “de-escalation zones” to sequence their war on behalf of President Bashar Assad. As Jennifer Cafarella, the Director of Intelligence Planning at the Institute for the Study of War, put it: “The ceasefires only exist because the regime wanted to buy time to finish other operations.” These assaults are often accompanied by political warfare that hints at divisions with the regime coalition and promises to exacerbate them if only the West and the Syrian opposition would surrender without a fight. This playbook has been used against the southern rebel pocket in Deraa, the only other de-escalation zone remaining, which will soon be liquidated.

It is unclear if pro-Assad forces do intend to move against Idlib once troops are freed up from Deraa. Turkey has declared that defending Idlib is a “red line”, a public affirmation of a long-stated private position. Turkey cannot afford, materially or politically, to house two million more refugees, especially since that wave would bring with it any number of operatives from al-Qaeda and ISIS. It should be said that if Turkey chose to stand its ground in Idlib, as happened in Afrin and the eastern areas of Idlib, it is by no means obvious that the pro-regime forces would prevail.

Russia has heavily invested in taking advantage of the U.S.-Turkey schism to draw Turkey into its orbit and ultimately detach it from the Western security architecture. An Idlib offensive would strain this Russian policy, demonstrating to Ankara that Moscow was unwilling, as well as unable, to restrain the Iranian-led ground component of the pro-Assad coalition. It would also call into question Turkey’s complicated relationship with Iran.

Turkey has tried for 30 years and more to find a modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic, and failed every time because the government in Tehran retains too much suspicion of a state as deeply tied to the West as Turkey. Iran also refuses to give up its links with the PKK, a key point of leverage against Turkey. This geopolitical rivalry has been exacerbated in Syria, where Turkey backed the opposition and Iran rescued Assad, twice. Nonetheless, Turkey keeps trying and there are commercial and political connections that have so far prevented a full rupture with Iran.

The best-known of these connections is the “gas-for-gold” trade, which helped Iran evade the sanctions. The U.S. trial of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy general manager of Turkish state-owned Halkbank for his role in the scheme, caused further U.S.-Turkish friction. It also, as Saeed Ghasseminejad, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, put it, demonstrated that “Iran’s sanctions busters have wide access to Turkey’s key officials.”

“Turkey has a key place in Tehran’s sanctions busting activities,” Ghasseminejad said. “In the recent months, the UAE, which has always been Iran’s southern gate to the outside world, has been getting tougher on Tehran,” he said, but it was unlikely that Turkey would do the same. “Turkey’s ally, Qatar, seems to be ready to replace Dubai,” said Ghasseminejad. “Lots of activities by the Turkey-Qatar-Oman triangle to help Iran to evade sanctions” are on the horizon, he said. Turkey’s immediate rejection of President Donald Trump’s decision in May to terminate the nuclear deal with Iran and reimpose sanctions on Tehran suggests this is the direction events will take, a dangerous course for Turkey. In combination with the Russian S-400 issue and Turkey’s imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson, it creates a real risk of U.S. sanctions being applied to Turkey, a first since the Cyprus fiasco in the mid-1970s.

It need not be this way. Turkey came to terms with Iran and Russia to try to cope with the security menace caused by the United States’ anti-ISIS policy. In the shadow of threats by Iran and Russia to overrun Idlib and destabilise Turkey, it is clear this has failed. Meanwhile, containing Iran, preventing the PYD/PKK threatening Turkey, stabilising Syria, keeping ISIS defeated, and eliminating al-Qaeda’s remaining loyalists in Idlib without a massacre and destabilising flood of refugees; these are interests that could unite Turkey and the United States. A formula to bring the two NATO allies onto the same page is available, but it would take effort, compromises, and a realisation that nothing productive is on offer in Moscow.