An interesting recent development about the multifaceted Middle Eastern crisis was the “Moscow Declaration” in which Russia, Turkey and Iran suggested that they could become the guarantors of a Syrian peace deal. That begs the question: what kind of deal it might be? So far, a political solution mooted at different times by the rebel groups/jihadis and supported by the US and its allies have involved the removal of Bashar al-Assad and his coterie as a precondition, though there hasn’t been any clear alternative to what might follow. Russia has indicated in the past that they are not committed to Assad and his regime per se but, in the absence of any clear alternative, the Syrian regime remains the only effective force on the ground to fight extremists and terrorists of all hues. Iran is clearly committed to Assad regime, while Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are aiding and abetting forces fighting to bring down the Syrian regime. Interestingly, the “Moscow Declaration” has been followed by a ceasefire between Damascus and some rebel groups brokered by Russia and Turkey, but Iran, though a signatory to the tripartite declaration, is not in the picture. Which is telling but that is another story. In any case, the ceasefire is already faltering.
Turkey’s activist role as a broker and guarantor needs some explaining. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was, from the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, all for bringing down the Assad regime. Now that it has become a party to the “Moscow Declaration”, it would appear that it might not now be as committed to Assad’s removal as before, because both Moscow and Tehran do not seem to be considering a political deal contingent on that.
Turkey finds itself in a bind because Erdogan’s attempt to revive his country’s role as a successor of sorts to the Ottomans has run into all sorts of problems because the events in the Middle East have developed a momentum and trajectory of their own. And in the meantime, Ankara is now beset with problems of its own which it imagines might require some deft politicking. The Erdogan administration is imagining an existential threat for the government and the country from two sources. First is the Kurds, both inside Turkey and outside, in northern Syria, where they have virtually carved out an autonomous region with Kurdish YPG fighters proving to be the most effective force on the ground against IS. They have operated as US’ virtual ally, supported and backed by it with aerial operations against IS.
Ankara is unhappy with the virtual alliance between the US and Kurdish YPG fighters, as it regards them as terrorists because of their presumed links with Turkey’s Kurdish PKK movement that has been fighting for autonomy for the majority Kurdish populated southeastern region of the country. Ankara fears that an autonomous/independent Kurdish region in northern Syria will be a magnet for its own Kurdish minority. It is trying to deal with it at two levels. First, it has put its Kurdish-majority region under a total security clamp down with almost all Kurds seen as harbouring separatist designs, leading to large scale arrests and shut down of normal civilian life. And this seems to have contributed to some terrorist incidents blamed on the PKK and/or IS.
While Turkey is dealing with its internal Kurdish problem, it is also seeking to confront Kurdish YPG fighters who have carved out an autonomous Kurdish region across the border in Syria. To this end, it has been seeking to convince the US to drop its support of YPG in favour of Turkey undertaking to take up the fight against IS, which it has done in places. At the same time, Turkey’s President Erdogan has told the US emphatically that, “We will not allow the formation of a new [Kurdish] state in northern Syria.” In other words, the US might, at some point, have to choose between Turkey and the Kurdish YPG group in its fight against IS.
Erdogan’s Turkey has been feeling let down/ignored by the Obama administration for all sorts of reasons and is hoping that the incoming Trump administration might be more responsive to its concerns. And he has already made a pitch by highlighting the success of Turkish military action against IS, which Trump regards as the main danger. Erdogan reportedly said that Turkish troops were about to advance to IS’ de facto capital in Raqqa and has suggested joint action with the US against its stronghold but, with the proviso, that the incoming administration would prevent Kurdish forces from participating in such an operation. In other words, Turkey is willing to become the main fighting force against IS, if the US would ditch YPG and the Kurds. At the same time, Erdogan’s dalliance with Moscow is banking on presumed Putin-Trump special relationship with focus on IS as a common enemy.
Another of Erdogan’s problem and paranoia arises from the presumed existential threat from the self-exiled Turkish cleric, Fetthullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally. His Hizmet movement is believed to be running a parallel administration infiltrating all branches of the state encompassing bureaucracy, police, judiciary and even military. The recent failed military coup to overthrow the Erdogan government was allegedly inspired and engineered by the Gullenists, with their leader Fathullah Gulen somehow doing it all through remote control from his exile in Pennsylvania in the US. Erdogan demanded that Gulen should be handed over to Turkey and since the US authorities weren’t convinced with the evidence from Turkey about his involvement, Ankara came to believe the worst about the US in the matter.
Following the failed coup, the Erdogan administration has gone on a wild hunt to arrest thousands of suspected conspirators in military and across the board in other branches of the administration. Which has evoked considerable criticism in the west of heavy handedness with declaration of emergency to smother all kinds of opposition and criticism of the Erdogan government. And it is designed to institute a virtual Erdogan dictatorship. This is making Erdogan increasingly estranged from the US and its western allies. And he is looking for some leverage from forging a new path. Therefore, when the Russian ambassador was recently shot by an off-duty police man unhappy with Moscow’s Syrian intervention, Erdogan had no qualms about putting the blame fairly and squarely on Gulen’s Hizmet movement, apparently seeking to have Russia as an ally when the US is proving so ‘difficult’. But Moscow has so far not taken Erdogan’s bait by turning the Gulen affair into a new cold war issue. Which shows how desperate Erdogan is becoming, whether he is dealing with the Gullenists and/or the Kurds.
The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org