Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan’s new U-turn

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent rapprochement with the Syrian regime is only the latest in a series of demeaning U-turns,
writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Erdogan’s new U-turn
Erdogan’s new U-turn

اقرأ باللغة العربية

To see or hear Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a few years back at the outset of the uprising against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as he railed against Damascus and its regional and international backers, Tehran and Moscow, one would have thought that Ankara was set on a permanent rupture with the three countries.

However, Erdogan has a knack for taking observers by surprise, and after periods of steadfastness and resolve, during which he vows not to budge an inch, he suddenly backs down just as precipitously in order to avoid a collision course.

Erdogan’s sudden changes of direction have become the source of wit on many social-networking sites, and many Turks have been left wondering who will have to pay for the billions of dollars of damage Erdogan has caused, along with the declining influence and prestige of their country due to his reckless and short-sighted policies.

The case of the downing of the Russian SU-24 plane over Syria in November 2015 was one example. For months Erdogan ranted against Moscow, stuck to his claim that the Russian jet had violated Turkish airspace in spite of all evidence to the contrary, and swore to defend Turkish dignity. However, six months later Erdogan was forced to apologise to Russia after millions of dollars in losses to the Turkish tourist, agriculture and transportation sectors.

Around the same time came the incident of the Bashiqa Camp in Mosul in northern Iraq when Tehran backed Baghdad’s demand that Ankara remove its troops from the area. Erdogan lashed out at Iran for its “imperialist” Safavid history and treated Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi to a spate of disparaging and self-aggrandising remarks.

“Who are you to tell me, the occupant of the great Ak Saray Palace [in Istanbul], to remove my forces from Iraq,” Erdogan asked. But then all of a sudden Erdogan began cosying up to the regime in Tehran and making common cause with Al-Abadi against the Kurds.

Now comes the turn of Turkey’s neighbour to the south, with which Anatolia shares a more than 900 km border. This has been the most remarkable in the history of Erdogan U-turns, since until recently no one could have imagined that Ankara would contemplate turning over a new page in its relations with the Syrian regime.

Erdogan had earlier constantly called Al-Assad the “butcher of Damascus” who was responsible for the death of 600,000 of his own people, who used barrel bombs and chemical weapons, who had displaced millions of civilians. He called on the UN Security Council to “assume its duty to get rid of that killer.” He insisted that Al-Assad could “not be part of the solution” to the Syrian crisis, saying that this was “non-negotiable.”

Erdogan then decided that all the curses and vows he had uttered in the course of the six long years of the Syrian civil war should be consigned to the past in order to clear the way for the exigencies of the present and the shifting balance of the power in the region that bodes ill for the regime in Ankara.

The spectre of an independent or autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria now looms large, especially since Washington has made it clear that it will not relinquish its support for the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Party (SDP) forces which have proven so effective in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.

Whatever name it will now go by, it seems the US-Kurdish collaboration in Syria is there to stay. Meanwhile, Turkish forces remain ensconced in a difficult situation in the northern Syrian city of Idlib in the framework of the second phase of the Operation Euphrates Shield that appears poised to meet the same dismal fate as the first.

However, owing to the nationalist and even Kemalist image Erdogan has adopted for himself and his party, the populist jingoism he has orchestrated in the Turkish media, and the continued use he has made of the Muslim Brotherhood’s four-finger “Rabaa salute,” all with the 2019 elections in Turkey in mind, he has had to tread carefully in his retreat.

As a result, hints and intimations have been gradually emerging to pave the way for the inevitable rapprochement with Al-Assad and his regime. The slogan that “political doors have to remain open” has served as the general rubric, these being the Russian and Iranian doors that were opened in the recent meeting between the three countries’ leaders in the Russian resort town of Sochi.

In the same town in which Russian President Vladimir Putin had met with Al-Assad the day before, the three leaders were photographed smiling and shaking hands: Putin, the indisputable victor, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, fulfilling Tehran’s plans to set up a corridor through Syria to the Mediterranean and Erdogan, now accepting what he had long refused to contemplate and apparently convinced that together with Al-Assad he can eliminate the Kurdish SDP and YPG parties.

On board his plane back to Turkey following that great “unifying” meeting, Erdogan seemed smug at having stood his ground against the participation of Syrian Kurdish extensions of the Turkish Kurdish group the PKK in any negotiations.

Yet, Russia has made it clear that it does not see eye-to-eye with Turkey, and it has repeatedly stated that all segments of Syrian society must be represented at the Syrian People’s Congress set for December in Moscow. It appears that the Kurds will be on hand at this, albeit beneath the heading of Syrian “tribes”.

In short, Erdogan will now have to return to Al-Assad, and both will have to contend with that dilemma of an ongoing US presence that supports the SDP forces, which will retain the weapons they obtained from Washington to fight IS. These will remain within reach for other purposes if need be.

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