Turkey and the perfect storm in the Middle East

Turkey redraws the geopolitical maps of the Middle East by working together with Russia and Iran, while relations with the NATO-allies are at their lowest point. What is the meaning of Turkey’s tanks and combat aircrafts in Syria? Amanda Paul, expert in Turkish, Russian and European external policies, comments.

  • © Reuters Turkish tanks on their way to the Syrian border © Reuters
  • Gie Goris (CC BY-NC 2.0) Davatoglu was fixed on building a Sunni Axis based on regimes that would base themselves on the Muslim Brotherhood, a kind of neo-Ottoman project. This position caused them problems in Egypt and Israel and was underlying the intransigent attitude towards Assad in Damascus. Gie Goris (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Turkey has been the main focus of the news throughout this summer, and that was hardly ever good news for the Turkish population: the attacks at the international airport in Istanbul, the police office in Cizre or the bloody attempt for a coup and the purges that followed.

Also in a geopolitical way, Turkey is caught up in a perfect storm: relations with both Israel and Russia were restored, as well as, to a certain degree, the ones with Iran and as a result of all this reshuffling of relations, there seemed to be a softening of positions towards the regime in Damascus. Meanwhile, relations with Europe and the United States sank at their lowest level ever, as a result respectively of the migration deal and the supposed support to Fetullah Gülen – the man and movement who is considered responsible for the coup against president Erdogan.

The coalitions of the past few months and years evaporateed and dissapeared, it seemd. Or is the above a mirage?

Last week, Turkey decided to use its army against both Kurds and ISIS in Syria, while the government army of president Assad bombed at Kurd positions for the first time. The coalitions of the past few months and years evaporateed and dissapeared, it seemd. Or is the above a mirage, and has everything stayed unchanged? MO* asked Amanda Paul, researcher at the European Policy Center, expert on Turkish, Russian and European foreign affairs.

Turkish tanks enter Syria and combat aircrafts execute missions on Syrian territory. At first sight, this looks like a radical reversal compared to the last few years, in which Turkey has been blamed for aiding or abetting jihadi’s, or even helping them in their fight against the Assad regime in Damascus.

Amada Paul: ‘What we see now is especially the result of reestablishing good relations with Russia. It is immediately clear why Turkey wanted this so badly: the longer, the more desperate Ankara worried about the advance of the Syrian Kurds (PYD) with Russian support; while Russia blocked every possible role for Turkey in Syria. That stalemate seems to be broken, now. ’

Ankara worried about the advance of the Syrian Kurds (PYD)

‘At the moment, it is not very clear how far the relation between Ankara and Moscow will go in reality as there continues to be a big distance between their points of views on most issues. At the other hand, this week shows that Turkish combat aircrafts can be active in Syrian airspace. This was excluded before, the same goes for tanks.’

‘The Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that there can only be a solution for Syria if Russia is involved. After a visit in Teheran, he said the same thing about involving Iran.’

‘All this gives us the impression that Turkey is willing to accept Assad for longer period than previously stated, while the transition to another regime is being organized.’

That does not fit Western positions concerning Syria?

Amanda Paul: ‘The United States and Russia are closer than ever concerning Syria. The US moved towards the Russian position, not the other way around. This enables Turkey to focus on their major objective concerning the Syrian conflict: avoiding the realization of an autonomous Kurdish regime in Syria – as happened in Iraq. This would cause a major impact to the Kurds in Turkey.’

Has Turkey achieved in its diplomatic efforts to convince everybody – Russia, Assad, the US – to drop the Kurds?

Russia has definitely used the Kurds to badger and provoke Turkey.

Amanda Paul: ‘Russia has definitely used the Kurds to badger and provoke Turkey. PYD even opened an informal embassy in Moscow, although Putin denied knowing anything when Erdogan asked him about it.’.

‘Still, I doubt Russia or the US will drop the Kurds. On the battlefield, they are still the most important fighting force against ISIS. That is why Damascus has never stopped the Kurds. They probably went too far, though, and that might explain why they received a warning by the Syrian army this week.’

‘The question is whether Russia will stay a reliable ally for the Kurds in the longer term. The United States have proved in Iraq that they can maintain the support for Kurdish autonomy, so the Syrian Kurds count on them. Even though they will not support a real Kurdish state.’

Could a more active participation of Turkey in the Syrian conflict lead to a breakthrough?

There is no more tolerance for radical cells or individuals travelling to Syria, a policy that backfired against Turkey so badly.

Amanda Paul: ‘If Turkey would completely support the goals of the international coalition against ISIS, maybe yes. This wasn’t the case before, but after the series of attacks of this year, I no longer doubt the determination of Ankara to stop ISIS. There is no more tolerance for radical cells or individuals travelling to Syria, a policy that backfired against Turkey so badly.’

‘But even if ISIS were beaten in Syria, the attraction of their extremist ideology will remain. This will not be solved by a military strategy but by a global and inclusive social policy, in the Middle East as well as in Europe.’

Turkey has been a loyal member of NATO for a long time, but is now collaborating with states that are high on the “enemy list” of the military alliance: Russia, Iran, Assad. Observers see this as an expression of Turkey’s shift from the West towards the East.

Amanda Paul: ‘I don’t think this is correct. Turkey is trying to maintain or find again its balance during the most turbulent period of it’s recent history. Relations with Iran for example have been improved but that doesn’t mean the two countries walk towards the future arm in arm.’

Turkey has very close relations with Saudi Arabia and even closer ones with Qatar, where the Turkish army even has a military basis.

‘On the one hand, we should not forget that Turkey has very close relations with Saudi Arabia and even closer ones with Qatar, where the Turkish army even has a military basis. On the other hand, Ankara will make sure that the improved erlations with Russia will not be at the expense of the historical relations with the West and NATO, of which it has been a member since 1952.
Those who think the present shift will herald the departure of Turkey from NATO, ignore the fact that NATO has never been more important for Turkey than today.’

‘The Turkish army is weakened by the coup and can actually no longer guarantee the country’s safety. For the US, Turkish membership of NATO is much more important than that of some European countries, including Austria, the nation now calling for expelling Turkey from NATO.’

‘The geographical position of Turkey; the fact that it is an Islamic country; the size of the armed forces; these are the main reasons why the Unites States will fight for keeping Turkey in the club. This is proved by the efforts Joe Biden made last week in order to build bridges. ’

This doesn’t take away the fact that relations between both countries are soured…

Amanda Paul: ‘… and it will be even harder during the next few months, as I can barely imagine the US accepting the request for extradition of Gülen. Also with the European Union, there is a contentious issue. In my opinion, it was a real mistake of the EU that nobody from higher levels went to Ankara right after the coup.’

It was a real mistake of the EU that nobody from higher levels went to Ankara right after the coup.

‘Federica Mogherini should have gone, or Angela Merkel should have express herself more clearly. But until today, no one of importance has traveled to Turkey. This doesn’t only stir up bad blood with the Turkish government but also within broader society. And that is not good, knowing that the agreement on migration and the abolishment of the visa requirement for Turkish citizens was already a sensitive issue.

On top of that, from the Turkish point of view, the present influx of Gülenist refugees in Brussels, which causes a ‘Gülendiaspora’ around the European institutions, isn’t helping either.’

Gie Goris (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Davatoglu was fixed on building a Sunni Axis based on regimes that would base themselves on the Muslim Brotherhood, a kind of neo-Ottoman project. This position caused them problems in Egypt and Israel and was underlying the intransigent attitude towards Assad in Damascus.

Turkey suddenly seems to get along with everybody – Russia, Iran, Qatar, Damascus, Saudi Arabia – except with its own allies of the NATO?

Amanda Paul: ‘In any case, you cannot say that Turkey gets well along with the EU and the US. But there is progress in the other cases, which is very good as Turkey has been at odds with its neighbouring countries until recently. That was caused largely by the ideological approach of the former Minister for Foreign Affairs and later Prime Minister Ahmet Davatoglu. The current governement returns to the traditional Turkish positions which are more pragmatic.’

‘Davatoglu was fixed on building a Sunni Axis based on regimes that would base themselves on the Muslim Brotherhood, a kind of neo-Ottoman project. This position caused problems with Egypt and Iran and was underlying the intransigent attitude towards Assad in Damascus.’

Erdogan dismissed Davatoglu. If the latter was a neo-Ottoman ideologist, does this make Erdogan a pragmatic Islamist?

Amanda Paul: ‘Erdogan seems less passionate by such lofty ideas. Since Binali Yilderim has been appointed Prime Minister, the political orientation is more pragmatic, for example towards Israel. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is at the same time an Islamist and a nationalist, which is a difficult and potentially dangerous combination.’

The president is very popular at the moment in Turkey but the purges in the army, the administration and the education are weakening the state, you say.

Amanda Paul: ‘The purges are clearly going too far. It is clear that this will create an institutional vacuum within the Ministries such as Foreign Affairs, Education and Economy.’

The purges seriously weakened Turkeys capacity to act internally as well as externally.

‘That is what foreign investors are warning for: they lose all their interlocutors in the Turkish administration and trhey are deeply worried about that. It is almost impossible to replace all the fired teachers and professors by quality personel. In other words: Turkeys capacity to act internally as well as externally, is seriously weakened.’

‘On the other side, Turkey has a tradition of resilience and determination. Therefore, I believe that the country will get through this, although it will be a whole other Turkey than it is today, especially in the near future.’

This sounds pretty hopeful.

Amada Paul: ‘Of course, the return to a more pragmatic approach will not solve everything. Keeping the balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran for example will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. From the Sunni point of view, Turkey wants to strengthen relations with Saudi Arabia but on the other hand, Iran is a regional superpower situated on the Turkish border. Already being a big market where Turkish businesses wanted to build out a strong presence, Iran has become even more important after the nuclear agreement.’

‘It is not sure at all if Turkey will succeed in keeping its balance, with government administration so badly affected by the anti-Gülen purges.’

‘What is essential for the Syrian conflict, is that all foreign powers concerned get convinced of the importance of ending their support to armed forces or the army, with the aim of ending the destructive civil war.’

Are the foreign forces even capable of controlling the fragmented environment of armed and unarmed groups?

If Salafi groups like Al Nusra lose their support in the Arabian Gulf, they will be obliged to talk.

Amanda Paul: ‘The weapons and finances always come from somewhere. If supplies would stop, it will be more difficult for the armed groups to continue their wars. More specific: if Salafi groups like Al Nusra lose their support in the Arabian Gulf, they will be obliged to talk. But that would require international consensus, in order to formulate a plan for the future.’

‘But continuing discussion whether the Kurds should have a seat at the negotiationstable in Geneva, shows how far we are still removed from such a consensus. I personally think Turkey should give up its resistance to the Kurdish presence in Geneva and opt for a real inclusive process for Syria.’

But Ankara doesn’t seem to make that choice in its own country.

Amanda Paul: ‘Also within the Turkish borders, the government has to find a way to open new negotiations with the Kurds. Even if it were only with regard to the impact of the internal conflict on the Syrian conflict. Given Erdogan’s popularity - he is enjoying support by more than 70% of the Turks – I believe he is capable of creating a new breakthrough concerning the Kurds.’

‘Erdogan is an authoritarian person and there are big problems with regard to human rights, but compared to the regime in Saudi Arabia, he is a moderate leader, who has been elected democratically. I believe he realizes that peace with the Kurds is crucial for internal safety and for the regional position of Turkey.’

Translated by Ellen Van den Bossche

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