The Turkish government, under the iron hand of the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, felt obliged to further challenge the Americans in the troubled region of the Middle East this past week. Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak and Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin questioned the presence of the US led coalition forces at the key air base of Incirlik, in southern Turkey. This facility constitutes the backbone of the American military presence in this part of Middle East and offers indispensable back up for the US targets in Syria.
It must be taken into account though, that Ankara hopes Donald Trump, after he takes his place in the Oval Office of the White House on 20 January, will amend the US’s stance vis-à-vis both Turkey and Russia. Kalin said it plainly. He stressed he believes the US President – elect will be more sensitive to Turkey’s considerations. Ankara, by also putting on the table the US, and why not the NATO, presence at Incirlik, is very possibly preparing to negotiate with the new US Administration from a better position.
Ankara prepares for Trump
This is one more step forward by Erdogan in the direction of a full strategy u-turn, choosing to side with Russia and questioning Turkey’s traditional alliance with the US and NATO. Actually, Incirlik is a NATO base. Ankara, together with Moscow, have now drafted a common agenda in relation to their Syrian, and not only interests, despite the fact that they have been so far supporting opposing warring factions all along the deadly Syrian civil war. Russia backed the Syrian President Bashar al Assad, while Turkey supported the rebels fighting to oust him. It seems that the two powers have now found a conciliation of their strategic targets, after both of them were kicked out of the US led western strategy in the wider region.
The Ankara – Moscow rapprochement has already produced tangible results. This was evident some weeks ago with the conquest of Eastern Aleppo by the Assad forces, after Turkey actually deserted the rebels (plus some close to ISIS groups), who had been occupying half the ancient city for years, with Ankara’s until recently relentless support. However, Erdogan’s full policy change in the Syrian inferno had dangerous and divisive internal repercussions.
Sunni Turkey opposed Assad on a religious basis as well. The two sides belong to the opposing Muslim dogmas of the Sunni and Shia respectively. The murder of the Russian envoy in Ankara and the deadly attack in the Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve must be related to the fact that Turkey let down the Sunni fighters of Aleppo and sided with the Russians and the Shia Iranians. Let’s see how the new backdrop is now reshaped for Turkey.
The cost of changing course
Unquestionably, Turkey is deeply perplexed in Syria, after being now forced to truly fight ISIS. Here is why: until recently, Ankara secretly helped ISIS fight the Kurds, just to prevent the latter from vanquishing the butcher jihadists and thus expand the Kurdish gains on the ground. Presently though, Turkey suffers heavy losses in trying to uproot ISIS by herself from their stronghold in Al Bab and expand her territorial clout. As for the Kurds, the secure establishment of the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) military forces and their political constituent the Democratic Union Party (DYP) in the north of Syria have created a deadly threat even for Turkey’s territorial integrity.
Evidently, the close cooperation, if not common military and political organization and targets, of the Syrian Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey proper (PKK), present an existential threat for Ankara. As a result, Ankara is now obliged to conduct a double fronted war against the Kurds primarily and ISIS secondly. Turkey couldn’t sit back and watch the Kurds exterminating ISIS and seizing the territory which the butchers held.
Why Erdogan mistrust the US
It is even more infuriating for Erdogan that the Americans are stuck in their alliance with the Kurds of Syria. This association came naturally after the long and close US relationship with the Iraqi Kurds, and the undeniable fact that the US found no other reliable force on Syrian soil to support Washington’s wider interests in the region. The Kurds proved to be not only highly effective on the military front during the long and devastating Syrian war, but managed to wed their own ‘national’ interests with the not always clear military and political targets of the US.
It was inevitable then, that Ankara accused the US of materially and politically backing the Syrian Kurds, the deadly enemy of Turkey. In this way, the US has virtually heightened, if not intentionally aimed at jeopardizing, the territorial and national security of Turkey. On top of that, Turkey accuses the US of having protected, if not cooperated with Fethullah Gulen, a long time mentor but now deadly enemy of Erdogan. Gulen is a powerful Turkish cleric operating a strong network of high ranking bureaucrats, military, judges, academics, religious schools, businesses and media in Turkey, who has reportedly cooperated with CIA in last July’s failed coup. Despite Ankara’s cleansing operation, in which tens of thousands of Gulen’s followers were imprisoned or just kicked out from the armed forces, the judiciary, the police and the state machine, the cleric is still thought to possess a strong leverage in what is going on in the country. In short, Erdogan has a lot to blame the Americans for.
What can Trump do?
As for Washington, it will be very difficult for Donald Trump to alienate the US from the Kurds. Already the Turkey-Russia conciliation has prescribed them. Moscow happily agreed to that, since the Kurds constitute the US strong card on Syrian soil. If Washington abandons them, it will be practically impossible to find another proxy force to back the wider American interests in this part of the Middle East.
Trump or not then, Washington can’t change her strategy in Syria, unless primarily Russia and to a lesser extent Turkey, have something else, equally important to trade with the Americans. But this is a very improbable prospect and the war against ISIS and its eventual defeat doesn’t come under this heading. The US wages as much warfare as it needs against the butcher jihadists in both Iraq and Syria.
If one puts all that together, Erdogan personally, and Turkey in general, have created a new series of powerful enemies. For one thing, Washington even under Trump and, to a certain degree, Western Europe including Paris, London and Berlin cannot find a new understanding with Ankara. It’s not only the Kurds. Nobody in the West can trust Erdogan anymore. The Europeans are horrified with the Erdogan-Putin rapprochement. The EU is also dismayed with the millions of refugees stationed in Turkey, with Erdogan menacing to start sending them by the thousands to the Greek islands again .
Then come the Gulenists who have escaped the pogroms. Erdogan knows that there are many still left around. If the information about the close relation between Gulen and the CIA is true, then Turkey has fashioned a new and fearsome foe. However, the worst new enemy that Erdogan recently made are… some millions of Turks. A large part of the population had been very happy with their country’s affiliation with the Sunni insurgents in Syria, including ISIS. Now they are let down by Erdogan’s full u-turn, associating the country with Russia, who bombards the Sunni fighters. Not to say anything about the new affiliation with the Shia Iran. In reality, Turkey has gained nothing out of all that, with the war and the terror now reaching her heart.
Hostile US and EU
On top of that, neither the Turks nor the Russians, even supported by the Iranians, aren’t able to shake the US and the entire West off from Syria. Last week’s joint effort by Ankara, Moscow and Tehran to impose their own ceasefire and then supposedly strike a political solution of their own in the war-torn country, even if it succeeds, doesn’t mean that the US and the West is chased from the table. The territory which the Kurds hold –effectively supported by the West – is almost half of Syria. On top of that, the West can very effectively corner Turkey in the economic and financial fronts.
In conclusion, as far as Turkey is concerned, her policy zigzag in Syria has certainly arose splintering internal divisions and will cost her dearly in the economic and financial facets too. The West has already blocked the country’s heavy industry, tourism.