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Turkey continues its foreign policy blunders

Turkey finds itself ever more isolated after making "frenemies" on all fronts.
A U.S. military commander (R) walks with a commander (C) from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) as they inspect the damage at YPG headquarters after it was hit by Turkish airstrikes in Mount Karachok near Malikiya, Syria April 25, 2017. REUTERS/ Rodi Said - RTS13VA8

Turkish authorities denied its citizens access to Wikipedia, and on the same day, US troops began to deploy along the Turkey-Syria border to prevent Turkey's military from attacking the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the main US ally in Syria against the Islamic State (IS). There is no correlation between the two developments, but the irony is there: Turkey is keeping the West out, just as the West is keeping Turkey in.

The Turkish air force on April 25 bombed the YPG general command, its Denge Rojava Radio premises and some other targets in northeastern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted that Americans and a number of allies and partners of Turkey were given advance notice. It came out later that the United States was notified just 52 minutes before the bombing.

Some pundits offered an analysis that Turkey was testing American resolve before a May 16 meeting between Erdogan and US President Donald Trump. Those observers said Ankara, by escalating its fight against the YPG, was putting pressure on the United States to choose between Turkey — its formal NATO ally — and those Kurdish partners on the Syrian battlefield who Turkish leaders see as terrorists as a security threat.

That analysis might have seemed reasonable at first glance, but developments belied its validity. After the attacks, US troops visited the bombed areas where American and wanted-by-Turkey YPG commanders gathered for a photo-op — to the dismay of Turkey’s leaders. But what made Erdogan, in his own words, “seriously saddened” was the US troop deployment along the border.

By April 28, the US Army had begun deploying three units on the Turkey-Syria frontier to prevent further Turkish attacks on the Kurds. The first unit spread between Derbesiye and Serekaniye (Ras al-Ain), the second unit between Serekaniye and Tel Abyad, and the third between Tell Abyad and Kobani. The US armed columns are also deployed in and around Qamishli, across from Turkey’s Nusaybin, very close to Syrian army units.

On April 30, as reported by local Kurdish sources, Russia deployed troops near Afrin, Syria's farthest northwest Kurdish canton, also to deter Turkish attacks. The Afrin front on the border had been witnessing intense artillery fire.

Earlier, Russia had declared Turkey's attacks on the Kurds in Syria “unacceptable.” On April 27, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, “We are greatly disturbed by reports of Ankara’s operations.”

The US pro-Kurdish troop deployment on the border to the east of the Euphrates River and the Russian pro-Kurdish troop deployment to the west of the river at Afrin naturally emboldened the Syrian Kurds and their Arab allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

SDF spokesperson Talal Silo said that with US forces along the border, the SDF doesn't expect new attacks from Turkey in northern Syria.

Therefore, if the Turkish bombing and the attacks on the YPG were a test for the United States to choose either Turkey or the Syrian Kurds in the approaching operation to take the IS stronghold of Raqqa, the Pentagon’s response was unequivocal: the SDF.

It can also be read as the Syrian Kurds are reliable and Ankara not so much when it comes to fighting IS.

Erdogan is pinning much hope on his meeting with Trump, but the airstrikes are unlikely to make any radical difference in its outcome.

In the foreseeable future, the only option left for Erdogan will be to take the risk of confronting the American military in Syria. Can he be so audacious as to be undeterred by the American troop deployment and follow a dangerous policy of brinkmanship?

Nothing is impossible as long as the Erdogan enigma continues.

At the moment, Syrian Kurds enjoy American military cover against their Turkish nemesis. That ultimately could evolve into Kurdish self-rule under American military protection — a nightmare for Turkey’s current leadership.

Thus, the latest Turkish attack in Syria against the Kurds ended as a political blunder rather than an ultimatum to the United States.

That blunder, which further alienated both Washington and Moscow, concealed another setback on the European front. A recent EU meeting of foreign ministers, including Turkey's Mevlut Cavusoglu, was misleadingly portrayed as if the Europeans had taken a step back in their standoff with Turkey, which has long sought EU membership.

Cavusoglu, following the Malta meeting April 28, talked to Turkey’s state-owned news media, Anadolu Agency, about the "positive atmosphere” on the EU side and said EU members "understood their mistakes” in their sometimes-contentious relations with Turkey.

He is not solely responsible for misleading the public on the outcome of the meeting. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s statement on “respecting the results of Turkish referendum” while acknowledging the outcome is hotly contested contributed to the delusion concerning the state of Turkish-EU relations. For pro-EU Turkish democrats, Mogherini's statement was nothing less than being stabbed in the back, reminiscent of the infamous British appeasement policy regarding Germany during the prewar period in the 1930s.

Despite the comments of Cavusoglu and Mogherini, European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who handles EU membership applications, said after the meeting that "currently, at least," Turkey’s violations of human rights and general rule of law clearly aren't EU-compatible. The EU, pretty sure that Erdogan has no intention of returning to European norms, will keep the relationship on ice. That is, perhaps, what both sides wish for the moment.

As a former EU ambassador told me, EU-Turkey relations are icy, but they're not yet frozen. Turkey knows the EU parameters very well, so if Turkey is interested in moving membership negotiations forward, it knows what it has to do.

Moreover, EU President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker have said they would like to meet with Erdogan on the sidelines of the NATO summit May 25. A well-informed source who wanted to remain anonymous told me German Chancellor Angela Merkel arranged the potential meeting because she doesn't want to meet Erdogan privately. This is a growing trend as far as many European leaders are concerned. They simply do not want to meet one-on-one with Erdogan.

Turkey’s military capabilities on the southern front (Syria) are blocked by the United States and to an extent by Russia as well. As for Turkey's European ties, it appears all is frozen on the Western front.

Thanks to its foreign policy, Turkey has never been so lonely — never so isolated.

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