The limits of Turkey’s balancing act in Syria are being exposed as the prospects of a military confrontation between the United States and Russia over Syria continue to grow.
Ever since last Saturday’s suspected chemical weapons attack by regime forces in Douma, Turkish leaders have made a series of conflicting statements mirroring the tension between what Ankara defines as its strategic interests in Syria and its institutional ties to NATO and the West.
Ankara’s immediate response to the gruesome images coming out of Ghouta was unequivocally in favor of intervention.
Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin declared on Monday, “The Syrian regime will have to pay a price.” Government spokesman Bekir Bozdag chimed in via Twitter with calls for retaliation. Bozdag wrote, “We hope that the Syrian regime’s chemical attack will not be left unanswered this time,” and in a veiled swipe at Russia and Iran, he added, “Those who did not obstruct this barbarity, these attacks, these deaths are as responsible as the regime itself.”
But following a statement from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and a telephone exchange between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara abruptly changed its tune. Within hours of Kalin’s comments, Lavrov suggested that Russian acquiescence for Turkey’s military occupation of Afrin, a mainly Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria, had evaporated. Lavrov said he expected Turkey to hand over Afrin to the regime. The details of the Putin-Erdogan conversation held later that day remain vague, but the effects were immediate: Bozdag said the allegations of a chemical attack needed “to be assessed by experts.” Erdogan told members of his ruling Justice and Development Party in parliament yesterday, “I curse those who carried out the massacres in eastern Ghouta and Douma. Whoever committed them will pay a heavy price.” Erdogan stopped short, however, of assigning blame. When reporters pressed him to comment on a likely US strike against the Syrian regime, he twice responded, “We are following events.”
Today, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called on the United States and Syria to work toward “healing wounds” in Syria. “They are fighting like street brawlers … the time is not for competing. It is time to heal the wounds of the region,” he said.
Yet even as Ankara made a U-turn, its diplomats at UN headquarters in New York backed a US-sponsored draft resolution to investigate the claims of a chemical attack before it was promptly vetoed by Russia.
Meanwhile, in a fresh burst of defiance, Erdogan declared, “We know full well to whom we will give back Afrin. … We will decide this, not Mr. Lavrov.”
Mehmet Acet, a columnist for the pro-government — and virulently anti-American — Yeni Safak newspaper, defined Turkey’s dilemma as follows today: “This [new] period may present a difficult test for Ankara. On the one hand, there is the United States, which has built its policy on assuring Turkey’s defeat in Syria for the past five years, and on the other, there is Russia, whose cruelty has been tested and confirmed, but with whom partnership in the field and at the table has allowed for progress.”
Acet was alluding to the United States’ partnership with the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey insists the group is no different from the Kurdistan Workers Party fighters it's battling at home and is incensed at the Pentagon’s continued support for them. In January, Turkey mounted a massive offensive against the YPG in Afrin, partly to kneecap Washington into re-evaluating the cost of doing business with Ankara’s enemies. The YPG was forced to pause its contribution to the US-led coalition’s ongoing campaign to destroy pockets of Islamic State fighters in eastern Syria and to redeploy thousands of militants to Afrin. The Turkish operation dubbed Olive Branch was only made possible after Moscow, which controls the skies over northwestern Syria, gave it the nod.
Turkey’s deepening ties with Russia that include a controversial deal to purchase a multi-billion dollar missile defense system has set off alarm bells in Washington, where policy-makers are split over whether to woo Turkey back by dumping the YPG, among other things, or to punish it with sanctions. So far Turkey has managed to strike something of a balance, exploiting the constellation of world and regional power and ethnic and confessional rivalries in Syria’s constantly evolving battle space to its own advantage. Thus, for example, the United States sat on its hands and Iran and the regime fumed as Turkish troops and their Free Syrian Army allies took over Afrin, displacing tens of thousands of civilians on March 18, and forcing the YPG to withdraw without a fight.
On April 16, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is due to travel to Ankara, where he will meet with Erdogan and other top Turkish officials. He is expected to discuss Syria and to also urge Turkey to scrap the Russian S-400 missile deal.
But as tensions between Russia and the United States escalate over Syria, Turkey may find itself forced to pick sides. Acet offers a way out: “When the United States intervenes in Syria,” he opined, Turkey should assume “a position of support … without directly antagonizing Russia.” And “if the United States’ military intervention in Syria does not pave the way for regime change, the result could be a wedge between Turkey and Russia.” This “immeasurable prize from the United States’ vantage point,” hinted Acet with stock conspiratorial flourish, might be the point of the whole exercise.