Erdogan Caught in a Syrian Trap

In anticipation of the upcoming round of talks on the future of Syria, the Turkish president will try to reach a compromise on foreign affairs while preserving his domestic power

A complex strategic situation. Erdogan and Putin (Wikipedia)

The growing activism of Turkish President Erdoğan over US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has succeeded in diverting the public debate from the burning foreign issues facing his country at the beginning of 2018, and especially from the Syrian issue, which exacts a heavy political, economic and social price from Turkey.

The war in Syria has just entered its sixth year, and Turkey is examining the crisis more soberly and cautiously, and is gradually changing its policy. Among other things, the change is reflected in its acceptance of the Syrian regime’s stamina and in its desire to serve as a regional player contributing to regional stability and the reducing of political tensions.

At the same time, there is no change in Ankara’s hawkish approach to the autonomous aspirations of the Kurds in northern Syria, which it regards as no less than a threat to its national security. This approach continues to create a negative impact on its relations with the United States, which views the Kurds as a vital force in the Western effort against the continued expansion of the Islamic state (Da’ash) in the region.

Defining Turkey’s political objectives in relation to the Syrian crisis derives from its complex strategic position vis-à-vis the other parties involved in Syria, especially in light of its conspicuous inferiority vis-à-vis Russia, which is projecting strength and positioning itself as the leader of the crisis. The Turks understand that in light of the Syrian regime’s survival, they have no choice but to conduct a dialogue with Russia and Iran, which are the main supporters of Assad.

Along side that, the turnaround in the relations between Turkey and Russia after the apology for the downing of a Russian aircraft in late 2015 and the Russian support for Erdogan on the eve of the coup attempt against him, also serves as a significant factor influencing Ankara’s policy, which follows Russian dictates. Several media outlets also reported last month that President Assad’s plane had passed over Turkish airspace on his way to a meeting with President Putin and increased speculation about Russian pressure on Turkey.

Even though Turkey is at odds with Russia over various issues in the Syrian arena, it is exhibiting increased tolerance towards it, because in Turkey’s view, as is the perception of various power elements, Russia is the main executor of processes in Syria. Turkey’s tolerance is manifested, among other things, in the context of Russia’s over all relations with the Kurdish forces.

Throughout the years of the Syrian crisis, Ankara has exploited every opportunity to attack the United States, which is arming the Kurds and helping them in the fight against the Islamic state, yet it does not criticize Russia’s tactical cooperation with the Kurdish forces in various combat zones.

For example, last month a joint statement was issued by the commander of the Russian forces and the spokesman for YPG, the Kurdish militia in Syria. The two sides announced joint activity against the Islamic state in Deir al-Zour, located east of the Euphrates River, a statement that was ignored by the Turks.

Additional round of Talks

At the end of the month, a further round of talks between the Syrian regime and the opposition is scheduled to take place in the Black Sea city of Sochi. It is reasonable to assume that, like the past talks, the sides will not reach far-reaching understandings. In Russia’s view however, the importance of the conference is its very existence, since the establishment of Russian legitimacy is influenced by its ability to move a process in which as many political and ethnic groups are represented in Syria.

The Russian-Kurdish dialogue also corresponds to the Russian policy, which strives to negotiate with a large number of factors in order to increase the power base and not to concentrate all the eggs in one basket. The Russians aspire to include the Kurds as part of the Syrian regime and not as an opposition, but also recognize the importance of Turkey in the process and try to show some consideration for Ankara’s natural sensitivities against Kurdish representation in the talks.


The Astana Talks (Wikipedia)


Turkey, for its part, is not interested in being perceived as contributing to the collapse of the dialogue, and it is reasonable to assume that it will have to accept significant Kurdish representation of one kind or another in order to maintain its relevance in the region. Perhaps Erdogan’s surprising statement against Assad, whom he called “a terrorist who can simply not remain,” is indirectly linked to the Turks’ attempts to protest against the outline proposed by Russia.

Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, claimed last week that the PYD (the Kurdish party in Syria) is a terrorist organization that can not represent any part of the Syrian people and stressed that all groups invited to the meeting will be approved by Russia, Iran and Turkey. The Turkish hostility towards the Kurds regarding the Sochi talks though, is also largely related to developments in Turkey’s political arena.

Meanwhile, Turkey launched a military operation (if the somewhat ironic name “olive branch”) at the end of the week against the armed Kurdish militias in the northwestern enclave of Afrin. In recent weeks, Turkey has stepped up its sharp rhetoric against the Pentagon’s announcement of the establishment of a military force of about 30,000 Kurdish, Arab and northern fighters in northern Syria in order to prevent the establishment of jihadist elements on the ground and President Erdogan said in response that the operation would ” Suffocate the terror army before it is born.”


Map of Turkish troop movements in Operation Olive Branch (Wikipedia)


Even before Erdogan ordered the Turkish army to begin preparing for the operation, the chief of staff and the head of Turkish intelligence went to a hastly arranged meeting with their Russian counterparts. Although Turkey has ostensibly received a kind of “green light” from Russia for limited military action in Afrin, the possibility of expanding the operation and leaving Turkish troops on the ground over an extended period of time is low, as this contradicts the Russian interest in preserving Syria’s sovereignty under Assad’s control.

In recent years, President Erdogan has been adopting a more nationalist line, and the presence of senior PYD officials in the Sochi discussion rooms may create cracks in his image at home. However, it is reasonable to assume that Erdogan will enlist the establishment media to present Turkey as a player with a growing regional influence, in order to generate political profits in anticipation of the presidential campaign expected to take place in Turkey in 2019.

The Turkish aspiration to influence Syria though, is not limited entirely to the Kurdish issue. Even if, in the immediate term, leaving President Assad in power contradicts Turkish interests, Erdogan aims to influence the political outcome in Syria and take a significant part in its rehabilitation. It should be noted that at the end of the day, the crisis in Syria and the large waves of refugees that it created have an adverse effect on the socio-economic fabric of Turkey, so that ending the crisis is a clear Turkish interest.

*(Translated from Hebrew)


Yaniv Avraham is a former Turkey researcher at the Foreign Policy Research Center of the Foreign Ministry

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