Turkey tries balancing act in Syria but ends up picking sides between US, Russia

Erdogan has been cooperating closely with Russia, receiving Moscow’s green light for its military intervention into Afrin.
Sunday 15/04/2018
War politics. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin review an honour guard in Moscow. (AFP)
War politics. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin review an honour guard in Moscow. (AFP)

Washington - Turkey attempted a political balancing act as it tried to chart a separate course in the Syrian crisis after tensions rose between the United States and Russia following suspected chemical attacks by the Assad regime on Douma, on April 7.

But the limited US, French and British air strikes on Syrian military positions, early on April 14, pushed Turkey to take sides.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed support for Western strikes against Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s regime.

“We consider this operation as appropriate,” Erdogan said at a meeting in Istanbul on April 14.

“The regime has seen that its mounting attacks in recent days against dissidents… will not be left unanswered.”

Erdogan, a harsh critic of Assad, has been presenting himself as a mediator between his US and Russian counterparts, holding telephone conversations with both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

“We are extremely worried that some countries confident of their military power are turning Syria into a scene for arm wrestling,” Erdogan said on April 12 after Washington and Moscow traded accusations before the joint US, French and British strike. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim accused the United States and Russia of “street fighting” over Syria.

After his consultation with Putin, Erdogan said there were signs of a “softening” in the standoff between Washington and Moscow, which started when Trump tweeted that the United States was planning missile attacks on Syria despite Russian warnings. Trump, however, followed through with his threats against Assad, launching air strikes with European allies at three chemical weapons facilities in Syria. A Turkish Foreign Ministry source said Turkey viewed the operation as an “appropriate response.”

Turkey had been keen for the tensions between Washington and Moscow to be reduced. A direct confrontation between the United States and Russia in Syria could force Erdogan to choose sides, which he wants to avoid. The spat between the superpowers is also straining Turkey’s economy, sending the lira to record lows.

Turkey, a member of NATO, provides crucial support for the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) by opening a key airbase near the Syrian border to Western fighter jets. Two years ago, Ankara struck a deal to halt the flow of Syrian refugees to the European Union in exchange for financial support. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is to visit Turkey to talk about the situation in Syria.

At the same time, Erdogan has been cooperating closely with Russia, receiving Moscow’s green light for its military intervention into the Syrian region of Afrin earlier in the year. Erdogan, Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani, meeting in Ankara in early April, agreed on their wish for a US withdrawal from Syria. Turkey has called on the Trump administration to end its support for the Syrian Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), seen as terrorist groups by Ankara.

Erdogan has met with Putin about a dozen times since 2016, much more frequently than any Western leader. His closeness to the Russian president and his row with EU leaders over human rights and the rule of law raised concerns in the West that Turkey is turning eastward. Turkey is close to buying a Russian air defence system and has signed contracts with Russian companies to build its first nuclear power plant. The number of Russian tourists on Turkish beaches is soaring.

Observers said Ankara is not looking to replace Turkey’s Western ties with an alliance with Russia but is aiming for a third way that would result in Turkey acting on its own. Erdogan said his relations with non-Western countries, such as Russia, Iran and China, were not meant as a substitute for Turkey’s traditional bonds with the West but as a complementary move.

He also directed accusations against both Russia and the United States. “Those who support the regime of murderer Assad are making a mistake. Those who support the PYD terror group are also making a mistake,” Erdogan said.

“Erdogan puts Turkey somehow somewhere near the middle by using the expression ‘both sides,’ as if Turkey is not with one of the parts,” Murat Yetkin, editor of the English-language Hurriyet Daily News, wrote in a column.

Critics call Erdogan’s approach a “neo-Ottoman” plan that defines Turkey as an independent regional power in an echo of its imperial past without having the political, economic or military muscle to play on that stage. A Turkish presidential adviser freely admitted recently that the government would not have been able to act in Afrin without Russia’s consent.

The close partnership with Moscow could come as a price for Turkey, said Gonul Tol, director of the Turkey programme at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “The recent statements from Russia and Iran calling on Turkey to hand over Afrin to the regime should be a reminder to Ankara of the risks of putting all its eggs in the Russian basket,” she wrote in an analysis for the institute.

In another development that contradicts Turkey’s self-image as a powerful player in its own right, the country has seen its currency under strong pressure as a consequence of the US-Russian standoff.