As they rock Syrian boat, Erdogan and Trump ignore consequences
With the Turkish military incursion, the Syrian plot is even thicker. We owe the sharp escalation to two entirely unpredictable, impulsive leaders: US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish military action against the local ally of the coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) — the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — will unleash powerful consequences across the Middle East, further alienating Turkey, making it even more vulnerable before the rising star of the region, Russia.
The positioning of major powers in the UN Security Council, coupled with the rather mild initial reactions from the European Union and statements from Erdogan’s advisers, indicate that the massive cross-border operation, which apparently lacks a convincing justification in international law because there was no immediate threat to Turkey from Syrian soil and was not entirely an act of a rogue power, seemed to be the outcome of some “verbal agreement” between the two leaders during a telephone conversation.
From the harsh reactions from Trump immediately after the start of the incursion, it becomes clear that his “understanding” of what Erdogan had told him spoke of a limited operation in area and time.
Trump, in his apparent ignorance of history, had not paid attention to another fact historians and diplomats point out about the discreet expansionism of modern Turkey: that Turkish military, wherever it enters, stays.
That Trump, in his despair, assigned his diplomats to initiate negotiations over a truce in a step doomed to strengthen Erdogan.
The latter will play hardball, now that he has a tight grip over the momentum, to use the invasion, military presence and his plans to resettle Syrian refugees as bargaining chips in the Astana process and in his tete-a-tete with Trump at the White House in November.
Erdogan once more plays his “gamble for political survival” masterfully — though the stakes are much higher — and takes for granted that he will focus his efforts for maximised unilateral gains.
He owes it to Trump personally and will most likely choose to counter forcefully if the US Congress votes for tough sanctions. He cares much less about Trump’s future and, as long as the latter remains on the same wavelength, Erdogan will push his will through while he calculates a rise to national hero, defiant towards sanctions and isolation.
Erdogan has played his cards well on other levels. After the defeat in local elections, he carefully tested the domestic political ground. He focused on driving a wedge in the opposition bloc, knowing that a violent escalation against the Kurdish political structures at home and in Syria would be enough.
He reached an “agreement” with the minor member of the opposition bloc to join his coalition and was happy to see that four parties in the opposition joined in with a yes to the mandate of military action — his “war coalition” was complete.
He also set up a wall between the main opposition People’s Republican Party and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party as part of his polarisation tactics.
These helped him when he turned to his own ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), to reassert his somewhat weakened authority, pushing back AKP rivals such as former President Abdullah Gul, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan.
Erdogan is back in the game, with the same playbook as a hardliner.
His fiery speech October 10 showed he aims to chasten the European Union. In the part in which he unleashed insults at Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Erdogan repeatedly threatened the European Union with “opening the gates” for the refugees to its soil.
European leaders face the fact that by their erratic attempts to keep Turkey off from the process, they have a political monster to deal with. Can Erdogan do it? If he is cornered, he can and will.
Other consequences of the Turkish incursion are perhaps more grave and urgent. Already a weak US presence in the region, which the Turkish side almost sees as hostile, coupled with the Turkish troops moving about in Syria, will embolden Iran further. Russia, the most consistent player in the region, will have a tighter grip. Syrian Kurds in despair will be pushed into the hands and mercy of Damascus, as they will be stuck deeper in the quagmire.
All this takes place while Erdogan damages the demographics, hoping that his jihadist allies will have a say in Syria’s future.
There are also the elements of ISIS and Israel. That the massacres in Paris of November 2016 and later at Brussels Airport were conducted by the ISIS members who travelled through Turkey is fresh in the memory and there is concern over what happens when YPG forces abandon or hand over the ISIS prison camps to Turkey. This is a grave issue that keeps secular Turks, Kurds and Europeans on edge.
Finally, the Trump-Erdogan agreement has left another player in the region, Israel, very anxious.
Reacting to a New York Times article, Dan Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel, pointed out: “The specific costs to US and Israeli interests are obvious: the abandonment of a moderate Sunni partner, the Kurdish fighters of the SDF; the victory handed to a nemesis, Erdogan; the upper hand granted to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, Russia and Iran in Syria; the enabling of the revival of ISIS. And, of course, the impression throughout the region that the US won’t stand with its allies as Iran grows more aggressive towards our partners in the Gulf and towards Israel from multiple fronts.”
Everything points to the fact that the Syrian saga will continue to be a painful story, dragging deeper into it a crisis-ridden Turkey, creating more instability.