The Turkish President is taking advantage of geopolitical changes, from the Russian invasion in Ukraine to changes in the Middle East. With his course between NATO and Putin’s Russia as well as the new coziness course with the Syrian dictator Assad, he doesn’t just want to present himself as the great strategist in domestic politics.
Türkiye’s commitment to the West was a matter of course during the Cold War. Today, the government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pursuing a seesaw policy between East and West, which repeatedly plunges NATO into dilemmas. The country is too strategically important to be left to its Western adversaries: It has the second largest army in the defense alliance, lies at the interface between Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus and borders Russia across the Black Sea.
Erdogan knows how to use the geopolitical upheavals more skilfully than almost any other politician and maneuvers between NATO and Russia. Moscow’s war in Ukraine fueled this development. Critics complain that the Turkish president often acts without taking Western interests into account – be it the blockade of NATO’s northern expansion, the acquisition of Russian weapon systems or his latest coup: the reconciliation with the Syrian dictator and his former archenemy Bashar al-Assad.
Erdogan and Assad were enemies for 12 years. Erdogan called Assad a “murderer” and “terrorist” who has no place in the negotiations on the post-war Syrian order. Assad called Erdogan a “thief” stealing foreign land, the Syrian government accused Türkiye of supporting terrorists, Erdogan in turn compared Assad to Hitler.
But now the two suddenly want to hold a joint summit – even before the elections in Türkiye, which are likely to take place on May 14th. A drastic about-face in Turkish foreign policy – with the blessing of Putin and against American interests.
The point in time is probably very much related to the war in Ukraine. Russia wants to end the war in Syria. If the previous opponents Erdogan and Assad cooperate, the potential for conflict on the spot is minimized for the Russian President. Putin can then emerge victorious, because then he can withdraw troops and armed forces from Syria and focus on Ukraine.
Erdogan speaks of “steps” towards a “trilateral alliance of Syria, Türkiye and Russia”. Ankara’s rapprochement with Assad? This would be a radical political turnaround with unforeseeable consequences far beyond Türkiye. The first steps have been taken: Shortly before the turn of the year, the defense ministers and the heads of the intelligence services of the three countries met in Moscow at the invitation of Russia. “It was the first contact at ministerial level since 2011,” writes a longtime political commentator in Ankara. Erdogan will soon “be able to pray in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus,” but not, as hoped at the beginning of the war, as a guest of victorious resistance fighters, “but as a guest of Assad.”
Erdogan has already listed the next steps in front of Turkish journalists: first a tripartite meeting of foreign ministers, “then we should come together as leaders.” So Erdogan, Putin and Assad. The Turkish media have already read about a possible appointment for the foreign ministers at the beginning of February. “This rapprochement worries all Syrians in Türkiye, especially those opposed to the regime and those wanted by the Syrian security forces. Their fear of being extradited is growing by the day,” says a Syrian journalist in exile in Istanbul.
Erdogan, Putin and Assad are united by a goal that has different motivations: they want to weaken the autonomous Kurdish administration in north-eastern Syria. It emerged there in the course of the Syrian civil war, and Kurdish groups were also important US allies in the fight against the terrorist militia IS. Around 800 American soldiers are still on site in cooperation with the Kurdish authorities to prevent the Islamists from regaining strength.
Erdogan sees some militias within the Kurdish structure as terrorist organizations, such as the YPG, the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, also on the terrorist lists in the EU and the USA. Erdogan wants to push the Kurdish fighters back – a definition he interprets widely – from the Turkish border. After an agreement with Assad, he could also announce to his voters that he would send Syrian refugees back from Türkiye. Their presence is increasingly causing resentment among the population.
Erdogan does not fear criticism from Türkiye’s largest opposition party, the CHP, for his abrupt change of policy. On the contrary. CHP leader Kemal Kiliçdarolu, who was nominated by the opposition as the opposing candidate in the presidential elections just yesterday, even pushed ahead on the sensitive refugee issue. If the opposition wins the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, he said six months ago, the return of the refugees will be “completed in two years”. He wants to use EU funds for an “orderly process”, the Syrians would then go “with drums and trumpets”. Economic crisis and inflation have changed the social climate in Türkiye. After tolerance had been high for a long time, individual politicians are now deliberately stirring up emotions against the Syrians.
Damascus has already announced its price for a deal: the withdrawal of Turkish troops that have occupied part of northern Syria since 2016 and an end to support for Syrian rebels. Ankara calls the occupied areas “security zones” and repeatedly threatens to expand the occupation. On the grounds that the Syrian Kurds are a threat to Türkiye, which shares a 900-kilometer border with Syria, because of their ties to the militant Turkish-Kurdish PKK.
Assad, on the other hand, who was only able to stay in power with Putin’s help, wants to regain control of his entire territory. And Putin? If his plan works, he would strengthen his ally Assad and weaken the Americans (through the Kurds). All the better if he succeeds in doing so with the help of NATO country Türkiye – that way he can sabotage the cohesion of the West.
Washington is alarmed by the developments. The US could be among the losers because its influence in Syria will decrease. In early January, the US State Department warned other countries about the “rehabilitation of the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad”. Assad continues to persecute his opponents and repeatedly denies the suffering people access to humanitarian aid. In addition to a strengthening of Assad, Washington fears that the fight against IS will be impaired if the structures of the Kurds – in whose prisons fighters from the terrorist militia are being held – are weakened or even dismantled. Türkiye’s constant annoyance is that the Syrian Kurds have a powerful ally in the US because they fought IS. The US government has made it clear that it is opposed to any rapprochement with Assad, for whom an agreement with NATO country Türkiye would be of immense value.
In the eyes of his Western allies, however, Erdogan is weakening NATO’s external unity at a crucial time. A recent meeting between US and Turkish foreign ministers Antony Blinken and Mevlut Cavusoglu appeared to have ended without a breakthrough on the issues at stake.
But the criticism of Erdogan is noticeably soft. This is because the Turkish president was able to strengthen his position and reputation on the international stage during the Ukraine war: he positioned himself as a mediator, supplying arms to Kiev and at the same time expanding economic relations with Russia.
Experts in Türkiye see great “Russian pressure” on the country to normalize relations with Damascus. Without Russia’s intervention in the war, Assad would probably no longer be in office. Without Turkish help, however, rebuilding Syria would be far more difficult. For Erdogan, the consequences of this surprising political turnaround are probably easier to deal with than his own election defeat.
And Europe? There is no European Syria policy here. However, Europe may have to prepare for a new wave of refugees if the pressure increases. So far, 500,000 Syrians have returned to the “safe zones” held by Türkiye, Erdogan said in 2022 and announced housing programs that would allow a million people to “voluntarily” return. The UN counted just 29,000 Syrians who voluntarily returned from Türkiye in 2022. Syrian activists repeatedly report arrests of young Syrians in Istanbul who were forced to sign papers agreeing to a “voluntary” return. Then they were taken to the border.
The middle power Türkiye has always been of great importance from a geopolitical point of view, and it is even more so in the Ukraine war – also because Erdogan has perfected his ultra-pragmatic foreign policy to his own advantage. Not least at the expense of its traditional allies.
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