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Erdogan caught between Trump, Putin in Syria war

The Turkish government's spokesman says al-Bab will be the last stop of the Turkish army in Syria, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Turkish forces will march on to Raqqa.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting with the German chancellor at the Presidential Palace on February 2, 2017 in Ankara.

Merkel on Thursday said she had raised concerns over freedom of expression in Turkey in bilateral talks in Ankara with President Erdogan.  / AFP / ADEM ALTAN        (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

On Feb. 9, when I heard reports that a Russian aircraft had accidentally bombed a Turkish position in al-Bab, killing four soldiers and wounding 10 others, I did not immediately think that it might not have been an accident. I thought that way because I am generally immune to the conspiracy theories that are rampant in Turkey, just as they are in most Middle Eastern countries.

The Turkish army quickly issued a communique saying the bombing was an "accident." However, there was no mention of an “accident” in the Russian version that came later. In the Russian version, there was no mention of “regret” either. A day later, the Russians were a bit more articulate. They issued another statement, implicitly putting the blame on the Turkish side for having given the wrong coordinates on the deployment of Turkish troops, resulting in the casualties.

The Turkish General Staff quickly rebutted the Russian “interpretation,” pointing out that the coordinates of the location where the Turkish casualties occurred had been given to the Russian side eight days previously and also the night before.

Some in the Turkish media with a soft spot for fantasies claimed that the Syrian regime might have intentionally misled the Russians. There were claims that the air attack was in fact conducted by Syrian air forces or that Syrian forces acted on false intelligence provided by Russian intelligence.

In this flurry of news, statements and counterstatements, my mind began to work on a conspiracy theory. Only a day and a half before the Russian air attack on the Turkish position, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had had his long-awaited and eagerly expected conversation with US President Donald Trump. The conversation lasted some 45 minutes. The Turkish media close to the government, citing presidential sources, reported that the conversation was friendly and cordial. The reports said that the two leaders talked about the Turkish military’s Operation Euphrates Shield targeting al-Bab and that Erdogan told Trump that Turkey could undertake the military attack on the Islamic State (IS) to recapture Raqqa. Erdogan said that therefore there was no need for the Americans to supply the Syrian Kurds or rely on them to liberate Raqqa, Turkish media reported.

The American press, including The Washington Post, was careful to underline that Trump was noncommittal on the issue of Raqqa and on whether the Americans would stop cooperating with the Kurds. Nevertheless, the Turkish military started a massive attack on al-Bab and succeeded in penetrating into the town to capture some key positions.

A day before the Turkish military’s offensive in al-Bab and a few hours before the Erdogan-Trump talk, the Syrian army reached Tadif, only a mile south of al-Bab.

Considering all these developments, one could conclude that the Russian bombing of the Turkish position in al-Bab was not an accident.

How so? According to the accepted norms of Middle Eastern ways of interpreting information, this is what transpired: Russia sent a message of displeasure to Turkey because of its growing relationship with the new US administration.

The Russian bombing was aimed at reminding the Turks not to forget that the main power broker in Syria is not the United States but Russia and that the Turkish side has to make its game plan accordingly.

Perhaps the timing of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement regarding the Syrian Kurdish forces People’s Protection Units (YPG) was not a coincidence as well. The statement emphasized that the Kurdish presence is necessary for the quest of a peaceful and lasting settlement of the Kurdish issue and that Russia does not consider the Syrian Kurdish groups to be terrorist organizations. The statement came on the same day when the Turkish position was hit by Russians and only hours after it was announced that Erdogan had asked Trump to stop cooperating with the Syrian Kurds.

The Turkish military still cannot even acquire total control of al-Bab, a town thought to be much more easier than Raqqa to deal with, making it very difficult to see how Turkey could effectively replace the Kurds with its forces to liberate IS' Syrian capital.

Militarily, one way Turkey could try to move south toward Raqqa would be to go through Tell Abyad, a Kurdish-held town on the Turkish border. However, that would mean first battling the US-backed Kurds who have been fighting to take Raqqa.

Perhaps all these considerations led Numan Kurtulmus, a deputy minister and government spokesman, to announce that Turkey's final aim in Syria is al-Bab. On Feb. 11, Kurtulmus said that Raqqa does not constitute a direct threat to Turkey’s security and that Operation Euphrates Shield would come to an end after al-Bab. Erdogan himself had earlier made a similar statement, indicating that Turkey’s military role in Syria is limited to al-Bab.

However, the Turkish president changed course Feb. 12 and insisted that the Turkish military operation would go on all the way to Raqqa after al-Bab.

“There might be a miscommunication. There is no such thing as stopping when al-Bab is secured. The issue of al-Bab is about to be resolved. After that, there are Manbij and Raqqa,” Erdogan said.

His last statement could be interpreted as his response to the Russian message.

What is next? A big question mark. Perhaps we will be watching Erdogan between Trump's anvil and Putin's hammer, more and more.

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