Turkey isolated in its Syria policy as Erdogan fails to secure NATO backing

“Under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey’s relations with NATO will remain transactional at best," said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.
Sunday 08/12/2019
French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (2nd R) look at US President Donald Trump (2nd L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) during a photo shoot at the NATO summit, December 4. (AFP)
No backing. French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (2nd R) look at US President Donald Trump (2nd L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) during a photo shoot at the NATO summit, December 4. (AFP)

Turkey’s policy in Syria is facing uncertainty following a failed attempt by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to secure Western backing for his government’s plans.

Erdogan dropped a veto threat during the NATO summit in London and admitted he failed to convince Turkey’s allies to back its latest incursion into Syria to fight a Kurdish militia there.

Before the summit, Erdogan threatened to block a NATO defence plan for the Baltic countries and Poland if the alliance refused to call the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia a terrorist group.

However, he later agreed to the Baltic plan even though a NATO statement after the summit did not mention the YPG or its political organisation, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

The statement declared that “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to us all,” a wording that was much less than what Turkey had wanted.

Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think-tank in Washington, said Erdogan’s decision to cancel his veto threat did not mean relations between Turkey and NATO were back on track.

“The Turkish president’s last-minute U-turn has avoided a bigger crisis for now but the trajectory of the relations remains adversarial,” Erdemir said by e-mail. “Under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey’s relations with NATO will remain transactional at best, as he will continue to play a spoiler role within the alliance to extract concessions from other member states.”

“The NATO summit has provided yet another proof of Turkey’s ongoing drift from the transatlantic alliance and its values,” Erdemir added.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insisted after the summit that Turkey had not given final approval to the Baltic plan and expected NATO to designate the YPG a terrorist group.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said alliance members remained divided about the YPG but did not discuss the Kurdish group. A meeting on Syria with Erdogan and the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom on the sidelines of the summit also ended without concrete results.

That leaves Turkey without support by the West in its fight against the YPG in an incursion into Syria, begun two months ago, and isolated in its plan to send millions of Syrian refugees from Turkey to a “safe zone” in northern Syria.

Erdogan wants European countries, whose leaders are concerned about a new wave of Syrian refugees, to pay billions of dollars for housing and other infrastructure for the resettlement plan but he did not secure financial promises in London.

Rachel Ellehuus, deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said Erdogan had probably been aware he would not get NATO to define the YPG as a terrorist group “but he saw an opportunity to make the broader point that the alliance is not responding to Turkey’s legitimate security concerns.”

“Turkey can help improve its relationships with the US, NATO and the EU by being a cooperative partner on migration, terrorism and in Syria,” Ellehuus said by e-mail, adding that Ankara “should start building consensus” with like-minded allies.

US President Donald Trump was the only leader in London to applaud Turkey. “The border and the safe zone is working out very well and I give Turkey a lot of credit for that. The ceasefire is holding,” Trump said after meeting with Erdogan.

Trump, however, repeated that US troops would remain in northern Syria to guard oil wells there, a position that has angered Turkey. US officials say profits from oil exports from northern Syria would go to the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The NATO summit also heightened tensions between Turkey and EU heavyweight France. French President Emmanuel Macron said no consensus could be reached with Turkey on defining terrorism amid the row over the YPG, which is seen as a terrorist group by Ankara but regarded as a vital partner in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) by the United States and other Western powers.

“I don’t see any possible consensus” with Turkey, Macron said after the NATO summit. “We do not agree to classify the YPG-PYD as a terrorist group.”

Macron said Turkey’s forces had attacked the YPG even though the Kurdish militia backed the allies against the Islamic State in Syria. Macron also accused Ankara of working with “ISIS proxies,” a reference to reports that pro-Turkish rebel groups that take part in the latest Turkish incursion in Syria include jihadists.

Erdogan said Turkish troops would stay in Syria despite the criticism.

Speaking to Turkish journalists in London, Erdogan said it was “unfortunate to see that some allies continue their cooperation with terrorist organisations while emphasising the struggle against terrorism at the same time,” the pro-government English-language Daily Sabah newspaper reported.

Erdogan said that only one country, which he did not name, had pledged support for Turkey’s Syria plans. He said he agreed with the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom to meet in Istanbul in February and to have annual talks.

The rift between Turkey and its NATO allies over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system also remained unsolved at the summit. Stoltenberg said the S-400 would not be integrated into the alliance’s defence systems.

Ellehuus said the problem would continue to haunt relations between Turkey and the West.

“I expect tensions to continue so long as Turkey continues fielding the S-400,” she wrote. “NATO’s concerns are not just symbolic or political — the S-400 poses a real risk to NATO military superiority and will inhibit Turkey’s own ability to integrate into NATO command and control systems and to operate alongside other allies.”

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