President Erdogan: The sultan of no scruples       

With some smart diplomacy, wily trade-off and plain skulduggery, President Erdogan has brought himself and his nation back from the brink even after gaining absolutely nothing from the Syrian blunder

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media
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Saurabh Kumar Shahi

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron Recep Tayyip Erdogan landed in Turkey late last month along with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and host President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to participate in the Astana Dialogue over the fate of Syria, the tremor from Anatolia was felt all the way till Washington DC. After all, here were two of US’ most time-trusted trans-Atlantic partners not only hobnobbing with one of its primary adversaries over the issue of Syria, but also essentially undermining US’ own Geneva Process. In fact, France and Germany assured that the US initiative had a stillbirth. It had consequences. US media, right on cue, cried betrayal, then cried wolf and pointed towards Putin. The wily Ottoman inside Erdogan smiled.

Just a few months ago it appeared that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s was living on borrowed time. His “rebels” were being whipped left, right and centre in Syria, and were running back towards their mothership. The strategic investment in Islamic State didn’t bear fruit as Turkish intelligence, MiT, would have liked. Syrian Kurds — Turkey’s bete noire — were in control of over 500 kilometres of border between Turkey and Syria, and Turkish Lira was tanking. The embattled Kemalists — Erdogan’s Islamist counterfoil — had sniffed blood while Gulenists — exiled all over the world after the crackdown following the failed putsch a couple of years ago — were once again licking their paws. To the novices, it appeared that the Sultan’s ship was sinking and sinking fast. However, it was not to be.

The Saudi Crown Prince’s misadventure with Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul Consulate not only offered Erdogan a lifeline, but it also offered him a cantilever to turn the situation on its head. Fast forward November and he has managed to wipe the smiles and sniggers off the face of everyone from the Kurdish commanders sitting in Raqqa to Gulenist ringmaster Fethullah Gulen in Pennsylvania.

By selectively, and strategically, leaking the details of the Khashoggi affair, he not only showed the Saudi Crown Prince his place, but also put President Trump and his aides in the bind. For the initial few days, Donald Trump thought he would weather this storm as he did several times in the past. Against the better judgement of his own intelligence agencies, he initially tried to put the Crown Prince off the hook. However, the wily Sultan in Ankara was having none of it. The leaks were used strategically and after a point, it appeared that one simply could not put either Saudi Arabia or the Crown Prince himself off the hook. It did not help either that CIA — with whom Khashoggi had a cosy arrangement — took this as an opportunity to put Trump in his place.

The pressure exerted by Turkey had another purpose however. Granted, Khashoggi was a personal friend of Erdogan and his murder and dismemberment on Turkish soil was a personal affront to the Sultan, but nations don’t take decisions on the spur of emotion. And that is precisely what Turkey did. Turkey used the opportunity to give the United States some brotherly rebuke.

An initial backchannel was opened and some US pressure was relieved. Suddenly, the US institutions and agencies were not going after Turkey lock, stock and barrel. Suddenly, Turkish Lira was not facing the brunt of this war. From its worst of seven against a Dollar, Turkish Lira is now trading for little above five against the Greenback, and strengthening. This offered Erdogan a much-needed respite, not to mention one again increased his stature among a certain kind of Turks.

By strategically handling the Khashoggi affair, Trump Administration — whose entire foreign policy was dependent on a fulcrum called Saudi Arabia and which had given them the confidence to push Turkey around momentarily — was told by Turkey in no uncertain terms that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was a petulant, murderous demagogue who has been assigned too much power, and who cannot be trusted with it. While publicly standing with the beleaguered Prince, the Trump administration has gone into a huddle and has indicated to Ankara that they are listening to its signals, and will act appropriately.

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media
President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (file photo)
So that the US fully understands the predicament it is in, Erdogan pulled a little coup with Macron and Merkel. By convincing them to be part of the Astana Process over Syria

In spite of all the hoopla of trying to show itself as a power that is once again looking towards the East, Turkey’s heart and mind are firmly in the West. Agreed it has tried to wriggle out its own breathing space in the region often at the cost of its relationship with the West in general and the United States in particular, but it is also true that none of the Turkish officials, not even the dyed-in-the-wool AK Party variety from the hearts of Anatolia, will have the guts to say that it is abandoning the West, and what it represents, for good. Turkey, as part of NATO, as the 7th largest economy in Europe, has a standing of its own. Turkey without them is just another upstart in the Middle East trying to carve out a space for itself. That’s why Erdogan decided to milk the entire issue and that is what he did.

So that the US fully understands the predicament it is in, Erdogan pulled a little coup with Macron and Merkel. By convincing them to be part of the Astana Process over Syria, Erdogan has undercut the US massively. The wedge between the US and the European Union has been lodged and President Putin is only happy to help. President Assad and President Putin had made it clear to Erdogan that an operation in Idleb was a matter of when and not if.

The blowback from this operation would have hit Turkey hard with millions of refugees and thousands of armed militants on the prowl in its territory. However, Erdogan has played smartly and has managed to convince both Berlin and Paris that this refugee problem arising from Idleb is not his alone to tackle. Like in the past, he will weaponise the very problem by sending the flood to Europe. Idleb has a population of around two million. There are close to 80,000 armed fighters. A large portion of these fighters has come from Europe from right under the noses of their respective intelligence agencies. Then, they were only too happy sending these “rebels” to fight Assad. Now, the same fighters are more than eager to return home. That is understandable considering, the alternative is being turned into minced meat by the Syrian-Russian juggernaut. Suddenly these radicalised murderous youths — freedom fighters till a few months ago — didn’t appear very palatable. Both Merkel and Macron imagined the spectre and a chill ran down their spine.

The mere spectre of this broke both Merkel and Macron whose parties suffered massively in the local polls in their respective countries over the issue of refugees. There is absolutely no way that they can survive another deluge.

Under the circumstances, they found it prudent to cut a deal. Sources here in Istanbul as well as in Damascus maintain that under this deal, not only will France and Germany give up on their demand of removing Assad and ushering electoral democracy in Syria, they will also likely not do much on the fate of these “rebels” and “freedom fighters” whose best case scenario now is being rounded up in the dungeons of the jail in Damascus. Technically speaking, these fighters are European citizens and there will be pressure from many quarters on both Merkel and Macron to extricate them. To satiate these quarters, they will continue to give out statements in support of these “rebels” and against President Assad for some time to come. However, that will have no bearing on the scheme of things.

Not only this, but they will also likely help Syria financially with its reconstruction effort if it promises not to send more refugees to Europe. Sources here in Istanbul say that the deal is in its advanced stages with only technicalities and modalities left to be thrashed out. Sources close to this correspondent maintain that some other European countries, especially Portugal, Italy and Spain will likely also be joining this arrangement, much to the chagrin of the United States. High-level intelligence cooperation between Syria and these nations has already started away from the sight of the hoi polloi.

This brings reprieve not only to Assad but to Erdogan as well who does not have to clean up the leftovers. Although he is not too enthusiastic about leaving Syria without any net gain, some Arab countries, who had supported this insurrection throughout, are willing to get out. The first to defect was Egypt and Kuwait. While Egypt had withdrawn its support to the terrorists in Syria following the collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo, Kuwait only saw the light much later.

Soon, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain followed suit. Jordon, Morocco and Oman have followed suit, although Oman was never involved in the crisis intrinsically. None of these countries wants the radicalised fighters to be pushed out of Idleb lest they come back to their mother country and start blowing themselves in the souks and bazaars from Manama to Casablanca. They are now more than eager to fund the reconstruction in Syria in lieu of the Syrian Arab Army assuring them that the leftover rebels will not be allowed to get out of Idleb.

Turkey, on the other hand, has other concerns too. And this concern is bringing Ankara closer to Damascus. To further push Americans into a corner, Turkey has joined Russia, Iran and Syria who are brainstorming over how to make the presence of American coalition and SDF (Kurdish-led militia with token Arabs) in East and Northeast Syria untenable.

In the absence of any other option, the United States just have the Kurds to extract concessions from Assad. With the help of SDF, American Coalition still occupies roughly one-third of Syria. This one-third also happens to contain 80 % of Syrian oil and gas and 70 %of prime agricultural land. The US believes that if it manages to squeeze Assad financially for long, he might capitulate. However, the US holding such a vast territory with the help of gullible Kurds is not just a problem for Assad. It is as much a problem for Putin and Erdogan. Consequently, away from the public eye, another deal has been reached.

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media
US President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (file photo)

Sources say that a salami slicing plan is in the process under which local Arab tribes supported by Syria and Russia are rising up in small insurrections all over SDF-controlled territory. At the same time, the Turkish military and rebels in its control keep hammering one Kurdish position after another with long-range artillery in spite of ample protestations by the Americans.

However, Russia, Syria and Iran all understand that if they make it too costly for the Americans to operate freely here, the US won’t think twice before throwing Kurds under the bus in order to cut their losses. The ball is rolling on that front, and Turks have jumped on this bandwagon.

The Kurdish issue has dovetailed the interests of Tehran, Damascus and Ankara, and they will make sure that there is no second Israel in the neighbourhood, de facto or de jure. This also helped Erdogan jab a finger or two in the eyes of Americans over Iranian sanctions and to extract waivers. This waiver was essential for Erdogan not only to stop further destabilisation of the Turkish economy but also to build over this initiative to take it back to where it was a few years ago.

And this is not all. Turkey — or at least the military brass — are also concerned over the Trump administration’s threats that they will pull unilaterally out of the INF treaty with Russia which restricts the nations involved from developing land-based tactical nuclear missiles. The pull-out will mean that Turkey, where one of NATO’s advance warning radars is placed, will suddenly become an enemy territory for Russia.

The primary concern in the short-term scenario is that if Trump really withdraws, Turkey does not have the material, scientific or monetary wherewithal to recalibrate the strategic balance with Russia. While Russia can quickly arm all the enclaves closer to Europe and Turkey with a range of missiles developed at a fraction of the cost that European countries will need, Turkey will find it difficult to match.

It will also reverse the strategic independence that Turkey has been following by creating some distance between itself and NATO to get back into the good book of Moscow. This will see a reversal as NATO members will force it to be part of the collective decision, putting a brake over its détente with Putin.

It is also worried that it will also find it difficult to come up with any potent anti-missile system that might counter Russian short-range missiles. The only good quality option it has is, of course, S-400, which is Russian-made and will be easily rendered useless against incoming Russian fire.

However, in the medium term, Turkey feels that the Republicans will likely lose the 2020 polls and the incoming administration will either sign up on the old treaty or renegotiate a new one. They also feel that the right-wing tide in Europe will ebb and the current dispensation in Poland and Romania will be replaced by governments who will not find it very palatable to see Russian missiles on their doors and the likely pushback, along with that from protests by people in Europe in general, will make these countries abandon their plan to host NATO’s missile defence systems targeted towards Russia, something that the US would not like.

In the long term, Turkey feels confident that its economic condition will once again improve and that will provide an impetus to its defence production. It will then be also in a position to negotiate bilaterally with the Russians, trading the early warning radar station in Malatya, part of NATO’s missile defence system against Russia, for convincing Russia not to put missiles close or directed towards Turkey, whether in the Russian mainland or in friendly Armenia.

By tying all the loose ends, Erdogan has not only managed to assuage the concerns of the Turkish society, but he has also further emboldened them. Its internal opposition is in disarray. While Kemalists still have solid pockets of influence, especially along the coast and among the ethnic Alevis, it is not enough.

Gulenists have been crushed royally at this point, and the US presidency appeared pressured enough to moot the idea of extraditing Fethullah Gulen who is living in the US in self-exile. The CIA, of course, had none of it and leaked the information to scuttle any such misadventure by the White House. Gulen, all said and done, is considered to be a far more useful asset for the CIA than the motley groups of carpetbaggers it sustains in the region. Evidence does suggest that Gulenists at least engineered a putsch on the US’ bidding. And they need to be protected.

However, Trump flirting with the idea of extradition, even for a fleeting second, will leave much for the Gulenists and Gulen to chew on. As for his core constituency, Erdogan has shown them what he can achieve if they repose their faith in him. And as far as the mood in Turkey is concerned, they are not ready to leave their Ottoman Sultan in the lurch just yet. If anything, they have doubled down on their support.

(The writer is visiting faculty at University of Warsaw)

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