Turkey Pulse

Turkey squeezed between American hammer, Russian anvil on Syrian stage

Article Summary
The Kurdish issue is only one of the catalysts to indicate Turkey’s weakened posture in Syria, the Middle East and the world.

Images can be misleading. Anybody who sees the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort town of Sochi might think this impressive trio could actually deliver a settlement to the bloody Syrian conflict that has been ongoing for six years.

Astana, Kazakhstan, is another venue being used by the same trio for peacemaking in Syria. Although the Russians were always keen to present Astana as a supplementary peace effort to the United Nations' Geneva talks, the meetings in the Kazakh capital had an axis of three important players: Moscow, Ankara and Tehran.

Russia and Iran were known to be supporters of the regime in Damascus since the beginning of Syrian conflict in 2011. After engaging in a zero-sum game against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for years, NATO member Turkey has now also become a member of this axis. As Washington cooperates with the Syrian Kurds, the friction between Ankara and Washington has escalated. For Ankara, the potential of the emergence of a Kurdish entity along its long border was assessed as the main security threat that could emanate from the Syrian conflict.

The American — namely the Pentagon’s — determination to assist the Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) pushed Turkey closer to the fold of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who naturally wanted to exploit the cracks in NATO.

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All those who saw the gradual Turkish-Russian rapprochement as a tactical move of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reflect his displeasure with Washington’s policies were mistaken. They do not grasp the new power configuration after the July 15, 2016, coup attempt. There is a growing conviction that Erdogan is either a figurehead or at most the spokesman of the coalition of neo-nationalists, traditional nationalists and Muslim nationalists. All components of this new power configuration are anti-West and staunchly Eurasianist. Eurasianism as a foreign policy school in Turkey is known for being pro-Russia, pro-Iran and ultimately pro-China against Turkey’s formal and institutional bonds with the Western world, ranging from NATO to the European Union (EU).

Therefore, it is probably a delusion to think of Erdogan’s flirting with Russians as a tactical move and that he is trying to use this as leverage against Washington and the EU.

Yet, while the Kurdish issue is the driving force of Ankara’s foreign policy, Russia has not provided much help on the issue. A day before the Sochi summit, Putin received Assad in Sochi with fanfare. This signals that Assad will be the legitimate authority of Syria and that this should be a part of any peace deal.

More interestingly, the Syrian president’s plane flew over Turkish airspace to arrive at its destination. Nothing could be so snubbing to Turkey’s posture vis-a-vis Syria than reconciling itself with Assad. The symbolic importance of the gesture is not missed by political and diplomatic quarters involved with the Syria file.

From Astana to Sochi, Erdogan presented himself as nothing more than being an auxiliary to Putin in Syria. It is more or less an established fact that Turkey could not step into Syrian territory in August 2016 during Operation Euphrates Shield without Russia’s blessing. Turkish control over the zone of some 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) from Jarablus to al-Bab has been possible mostly thanks to Russian acquiescence. But it was not free of charge. Turkey ceased to support the Syrian opposition in eastern Aleppo, and ultimately Aleppo was handed over to the regime. The prize of the Astana process was strengthening Turkey’s posture on the Syrian stage, albeit under Russian guidance.

When it comes to Turkey’s main concern — the Syrian Kurds — Russia hasn’t yet handed over to Turkey what it wants. According to the de-escalation agreement reached in Astana, Turkey moved into Idlib province, but it is an open secret that it is more interested in advancing toward autonomous Kurdish regions. However, it can't do it without a Russian green light — and Moscow hasn’t given one yet.

In Sochi, Erdogan unequivocally said that Turkey is against the participation of Syrian Kurdish groups in the Syrian peace process. Yet Russia’s presidential spokesman and a close aide of Putin, Dmitri Peskov, said that although they are aware of Turkey’s objections, “This does not mean that work will not be conducted.”

Despite the postponement of the conference, Russia sent an invitation to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party to participate.

While Turkey’s ambition to deprive the Syrian Kurds of Russian engagement did not deliver any concrete results, prospects of hopes pinned on Washington on the same matter don't seem very bright. On Nov. 24, a day after the Sochi summit, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said President Donald Trump had instructed the American military to stop providing weapons to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) following a phone conversation between Erdogan and Trump.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Bekir Bozdag also hailed the call as a turning point for Turkish-American ties. “From a US president for the first time is important, but it will lose value if it is not implemented. It would be deceiving the world,” Bozdag said, adding a cautious note.

On the other hand, the White House readout of the call didn’t mention YPG fighters by name. “President Trump also informed President Erdogan of pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria now that the battle of Raqqa is complete and we are progressing into a stabilization phase to ensure that [IS] cannot return.”

Three days later, Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said that the US military is “reviewing adjustments” on arming US-allied Kurdish forces in Syria but stopped short of declaring a halt to the transfer. He said the decisions would be based on “battlefield requirements.”

Apart from these developments, there is no doubt in the mind that the US trial of Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab will further undermine Ankara-Washington relations.

Turkey’s — namely, Erdogan’s — Syria policy looks more than ever like it is being squeezed between the American hammer and the Russian anvil.

The Kurdish issue is only one of the catalysts to indicate Turkey’s weakened posture, particularly in Syria, the Middle East and the world.

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Cengiz Candar is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. Currently, he is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies (SUITS) and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI). On Twitter: @cengizcandar

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