Turkey between the ally and the partner

Al-Quds Al-Arabi – Mar. 28, 2019, issue 9497, p. 21

Turkish municipal elections at the end of this month may mark a new shift that will affect the country’s political future. With this expectation, Ankara lives days of tension awaiting the results of the negotiations with Washington that will determine the future of eastern Syria and the presence of Kurdish militias in the region. At the same time, Ankara’s negotiations with Moscow continue in order to achieve a final solution to various files on the Syrian scene, most notably that of the last castle of the Syrian revolution, of Idlib and its environs.

Effect of results

It is important here to stress that the impact of the outcome of these talks between Turkey and other international players will definitely affect its internal affairs as well as the results of the next presidential and parliamentary elections. Consequently, the AKP leadership is trying to limit the damage, while protecting national interests as a priority. Despite the diplomatic ability and flexibility shown in recent years to avoid conflicts and a series of obstacles, the current situation is one of the most complex. Moscow and Washington are keen to exit two important points, which can bring Ankara ahead of its first defeat.

Turkey and the American ally

Earlier this month, the main counselor and son in law of President Trump, Jared Kushner, visited Ankara. The focus of the discussions on both sides was the US bid in Ankara on a number of files. Kushner assured the Turkish administration directly that Washington is ready to put Turkey’s interests as a priority in relation to the future of eastern Syria. Turkey will take the green light of the US to create a safe zone, but in return for the withdrawal of Ankara from the Russian S-400 deal and secondly the cooperation with Washington to determine the future of the Syrian armed opposition at the west of the Euphrates. As an additional incentive, Washington will maintain the project of Turkey’s delivery of stealth F-35s, while Turkish rejection of this offer would mean the end of the F-35 agreement and the deprivation of Ankara of any role in eastern Syria, and will be subject to severe US economic and military sanctions that will affect the Turkish economy, which in turn will influence the popularity of Erdoğan’s administration internally. According to a well-informed source, Ankara did not give a final answer to this proposal. However, the Turkish President’s speeches that followed the meeting confirm that Turkey will not withdraw from the agreement of the Russian S-400 at any cost, which is assumed to be faced with an American escalation.

Far from the Turkish diplomatic response associated with the “ethics” of politics, everyone knows that ethics and politics rarely meet at the same table. The Turkish obsession with Russian S-400 is connected with the events of 16thJuly 2016 during the failed Turkish coup attempt. Erdoğan and the presidential aircraft were not safe that night when the Turkish fighters that participated in the coup bombed the Turkish Chief of Staff headquarters and a series of military security buildings in the Turkish capital Ankara. These moments of tension pushed Erdoğan and his assistants to link the events that preceded this endeavor. Berlin and Washington had withdrawn their Patriot anti-aircraft batteries from Turkish territory a few months ago without a reasonable explanation while France closed without clarification its diplomatic mission to Turkey which included its Consulate in Istanbul and its embassy in Ankara only a few days before the attempted coup d’état. That moment, the Turkish leadership has made an irrevocable decision: Turkey will acquire an anti-aircraft system as soon as possible with priority of acquiring access to its manufacturing technology regardless of cost. The doors of Moscow were Erdoğan’s first destination.

Turkey and the Russian partner

Following the failed coup attempt, Ankara and Moscow entered a honeymoon, during which the level of economic and political co-operation between the two countries grew. Since the Syrian file was the cornerstone of this cooperation and its fruits, the exchange of sacrifices and points between the sides was the key of the Syrian scene in general and the Syrian opposition in particular. However, things have recently reached a new point that may disturb these relations. Turkey’s entry into the Syrian east in Russian terms should be limited to the 1998 Adana agreement, with direct co-operation between Ankara and the Assad regime. This can not be accepted at this time by the Turkish administration. Furthermore, Moscow sees the last de-escalation zone of Idlib as astumbling block to Syria’s reconstruction projects. So Turkey must either abandon it or leave the way for Assad and his allies to finish it. In both cases, Ankara is not prepared to withstand a new refugee zone that could undermine AKP’s chances in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. This mistrust and evasion by Ankara to satisfy Russian interests was the main reason for the postponement of Lavrov’s visit to Turkey twice since the beginning of this month.

It is clear that the scene is very complicated for Erdoğan and his government. They are not sure about their popularity within Turkey, nor about their Western allies or their Russian partners. However, my personal view is that Erdoğan will continue with the S-400 deal and that whether or not European forces join Washington in the Syrian east  will determine the level of Turkish presence there. Despite the ongoing negotiations between the Russian and Turkish Defense Ministries on the Idlib file, Ankara has already received the final Russian decision: the military operation of Assad and his allies is inevitable and the date will not be long after the end of the Turkish municipal elections.

Ankara’s previous strategy to satisfy everyone is no longer possible at the next stage. Turkish ships have to choose their port.