Stripped of Neo-Ottomanist dreams, Erdogan ties his hopes to Trump

December 18, 2016

With the tragic fall of Aleppo, taken back by Assad forces backed by Iranian units, the person who feels the defeat even more than the rebels is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After Turkey was sidelined in the Mosul operation, recapture of this key city in the Syrian conflict is a final nail in the coffin of the ruling AKP’s neo- Ottomanist dreams to reshape Syria as a Sunni hinterland.
No matter how loud Erdogan’s constant rhetoric, nothing conceals the sense of a grand loss in Ankara. The escalating anti- Kurdish clampdown in Turkey following the recent terror attack in Istanbul may help explain the frustration, exposing what an aide to Erdogan some time ago described as “precious loneli­ness” in the region. Odds have turned, it seems, decisively against Erdogan’s aspirations with the Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis gaining ground and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States not offering a clear-cut strategic bet.
Yet, Turkey is — still — a key ally in NATO, never to be ignored.
Much of the future shape of the region will have to be defined by a single element: How Trump and Erdogan, two populist, tempera­mental and business-minded leaders, will relate on personal level to each other.
“It’s going to be a very tough time ahead,” said Mary Beth Long.
When I met her at the Rome MED-Mediterranean Dialogues conference in the Italian capital, we discussed how optimistic close circles of Erdogan kept sounding about Trump before she interrupted me with those words.
Long affiliated with the operational branches of the CIA, having served as an undersecre­tary for both Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, secretaries of Defense under George W Bush, and currently an adviser to the supreme allied commander of NATO, Long cooperated also with Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice for US national security adviser.
I had to leave Rome early and it was my Turkish colleague Cansu Çamlıbel with the daily Hurriyet who had the chance to check Long’s assessments.
Her analysis, in a nutshell, was the following:
The ambiguity about Trump’s foreign policy line may last longer than expected. We are now face to face with an inexperienced team. A crisis with North Korea, Iran or even with China seems inevita­ble.
But in the Middle East, the American priority will not change: The fight will continue against the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda off-shoots. So far both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have been the most efficient forces in the combat.
The United States will continue to lend support for Iraqi pesh­merga to pursue a stronger autonomy, as it may openly endorse a Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, as a buffer zone against the Russia-Iran-Syria axis. This strategy seems inevitable.
Long’s viewpoints should be taken as a basis for analysis on issues that have pushed Ankara and Washington apart, complicat­ing also the balance sheet with a constantly growing Russian influence as a result of that disagreement.
Trump’s picks of Flynn and James Mattis, a former Marine Corps general as secretary of Defense, mean a militarisation of the new administration, the fixation on ISIS and the role of the Kurdish battle units will remain an unchanged priority, posing challenges to Erdogan and his military. Long predicts a silver lining in the pragmatism of the two leaders, to focus on transac­tional partnership. But it will not be that easy for Erdogan, who sees the large Kurdish community in Turkey as a threat for his political survival in the long run.
The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s organic and deep ties with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) fighters in Syria and the de facto autonomy in Rojava will continue to be a tough nut to handle.
Yet, Long’s remarks reveal nuances in the critical issue: She implies that there is room for mutual understanding between Erdogan and Trump to focus more on Iraqi Kurds, led by Masoud Barzani, and find a common ground on the basis of incentives in oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan.
Erdogan, on his part, balanced carefully between battling the PYD in Syria and deepening the dialogue, mainly on business, with the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government. There has been an element of divisive intent in this policy, which concealed the hopes that Barzani would refrain from Syrian Kurds’ efforts to build autonomy along Turkey-Syria border and even fight them.
But so far Barzani has treaded carefully, with the insight that Kurdish independence requires an absence of fragmentation amongst the region’s Kurds.
Erdogan will have to be far-sighted and creative, says Long. He will have to think deeply and offer Trump something he can not refuse. Yet, with a Turkey now driven to instability due to the shift to aggressive nationalism and its Kurds angered at Erdogan, there may not be a room for such thinking. Long may be right: It will be a bumpy ride.