Erdogan won but only in the short term
So, it’s a deal. But is it? The ceasefire agreement between US officials and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official speaking anonymously to the Washington Post said, one of the smoothest in Turkish history, so easy that it came as a surprise to Ankara.
It is widely agreed that Erdogan won. He made a political gamble, the type that he has mastered over the years, and the world’s superpower blinked first. Those at home and abroad who had expected a fierce backlash for Erdogan were taken by surprise.
It is time for him to spin and sell his perceived victory at home, to reassert himself as the iron-willed commander-in-chief, to use the domestic tools to tame his opponents even more roughly and repair whatever damage his image received due the defeat in local elections. If not anything else, Erdogan has gained time and manoeuvring room.
But — and it’s a big but — this one may be a pyrrhic victory after all.
Yes, the deal offers openings for some legitimacy for the Turkish incursion, yet another surprise may await at the door, pulling Erdogan into the quagmire of Syria.
The 13-point document, filled with ambiguous phrases and diplomatic pitfalls, leaves a large vacuum regarding the key actors in the war-torn country: Kurds, Syrian regime forces, Russia and, in a shady corner, Iran. Not only that, the deal is certain to stir further storm in Washington as US President Donald Trump seems to be gliding into the vortex of impeachment.
Most of those variables have to do with facts the deal is unable to ignore. First and foremost, the deal falls short of putting strong enough conditionality on a full-scale withdrawal of Turkish armed forces from areas it invaded.
Statements from Ankara immediately after the deal was announced indicate an unchanged position, that it perceives a long-term stay alongside the Turkish-Syrian border from Iraq to Kobane.
Erdogan took a further gamble, saying that if the Americans do not cleanse the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the incursion will accelerate. These signals must be taken as evidence that Ankara will try to maximise the gains of the deal to exert a permanent military presence in the invaded parts of Syria.
If taken together with a total pullout of Syria, the Americans may come to not care whether the Turkish side stays in Syria or leaves. The current Trump stand is to wash his hands of this bloody regional conflict and hope to ignore whatever else Erdogan does.
He has decided to sell out the Kurds, leaving them vulnerable before Ankara and Damascus, as the deal undoubtedly displays. This is what Syrian President Bashar Assad and Erdogan welcome with applause.
Also, Turkey’s secular-nationalist opposition bloc openly supports it, long calling for a dialogue with Assad, discreetly hoping that the Kurdish aspirations for self-rule may far more easily be crushed when the two governments agree.
However, the deal cannot disguise the fact that Turkey is isolated because it has some bizarre plans to initiate resettlement and construction projects on foreign soil, without anyone’s consent.
If, for Syria, the priority is to reassert its control over mainly Kurdish northern parts and force Turkey out of its territory, it will be Russia, the winner in the multidimensional Syria chess game, that will have to manage a solution. Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin know this deal is blurred and short-lived, that, as soon as the SDF agrees to choose their side, the Adana agreement that Erdogan refers to will no longer have validity in terms of deals for a continued presence.
It is clear that Alexander Lavrentiev, who, as Putin’s special envoy for Syria, was in Ankara when US Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cut the deal, returned to Moscow with a relatively placid mind.
When Erdogan next meets his Russian counterpart, whom he must treat with great respect, Putin will only go further, to handle the issue of Idlib and jihadists assembled there, and push Erdogan deeper into the corner by insisting on direct talks with Assad. Slowly but firmly, Putin is getting there.
Anti-US circles who have led Erdogan to alienate everyone in Washington except Trump may have welcomed the deal as a step closer to de-orbit Turkey from the West, but two issues will continue to pose challenges to Ankara, however hard-line its rulers choose to become.
Turkey’s domestic Kurdish issue will not cease to bleed, feeding further an aggressive nationalism at home and the common denominator of finishing off the Islamic State and other jihadists in Syria, uniting under the umbrella the United States, Russia, the European Union and large parts of Arab League, will never go away.
These two fronts make Erdogan’s Ankara victory a short-lived, pyrrhic one. His hands tied, his mind locked, they will weaken the ground on which he hopes to stand. For the West, Erdogan is a liability; for Russia, he is useful until he is not.