The need to balance Russia and Iran in Syria

The need to balance Russia and Iran in Syria

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not like to miss any opportunity to severely criticize the Western world. But he seems to have selective reasoning in choosing the countries he wants to target. 

Ever since Turkey and the European Union agreed on a refugee deal, he has been critical of European countries for not having delivered their part of the deal.

Germany has played a key role in reaching the deal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has faced nationwide and Europe-wide criticism for her refugee policies. Yet, she tried to stand against criticism and came up with the idea of stemming the refugee flow by agreeing on a cooperation framework with Turkey.

She never received credit for that from Erdoğan. On the contrary, whenever there was a bilateral contention, her government was severely targeted by him.

By contrast, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has been the staunchest critic of Merkel’s migration policies. He has refused any burden sharing, not on the basis of lack of resources, but on the basis of cultural “concerns,” (which might sound like an understatement for those who think his objection stems from outright racism).

He is on the record for saying the EU’s migration policies threaten the “sovereignty and cultural identity” of Hungary.

“We do not see these people as Muslim refugees. We see them as Muslim invaders,” Orban said in an interview he gave to a German newspaper, arguing Syrian refugees were not fleeing their home country out of fear for their lives.

Erdoğan has just come back from a visit from Hungary. As a person who sees himself as the spokesperson of the Muslim world who has hit back at many European capitals for their “crusader mentality,” his warm relationship with Orban was quite striking.

May be he was not in the mood to criticize Orban. Or perhaps he sympathizes when Orban defies Europe’s leading powers (even though he does this over a highly sensitive issue for Turkey). Or perhaps Hungary just does not matter that much in the “grand games” between Turkey and Europe.

The last one might be an interesting point worth thinking upon, as it might give us a clue on Turkey’s rather complex approach to Europe’s leading powers.

It has been two years since the failed coup has taken place. On every occasion they find, government officials still complain about how Europe had shown a tepid reaction to the coup attempt. They also make sure to criticize Europe for leaving Turkey alone in the Syrian field.

While Russia and Iran are the key players in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s comeback, no criticism is leveled against Russians or Iranians. As if Russian bombing has not cost the lives of innocent civilians, as if Iranian militias are not fighting side by side with the regime forces, Turkish officials prefer rather to praise Russia and Iran for cooperating with Turkey on the Syrian field.

By contrast, Europeans are portrayed as the “bad guys.” They are guilty of not being “there with Turkey,” but of being there on the side of terrorists, like the PKK’s Syrian arm.

Turkish officials are basically criticizing Europeans for prioritizing the fight against ISIL, using Turkey’s enemy to this end and leaving the rest of the Syrian theater to Russia and Iran, with Turkey to counterbalance these two players.

Since Russia and Iran are part of the problem in Syria, naturally they have to be a part of the solution. Turkey is well aware that working with them is not a preference but a must. But Turkey alone cannot counterbalance these two powers.

It seems the more Turkey criticizes European powers, the more this comes from the need it feels to have them on its side to counterbalance Russia and Iran.

Having lost hope from the United States, Turkey seeks the support of France and Germany. That is why Erdoğan has been insisting on a quadruple summit between Turkey, Russia, France and Germany.

Politics, Syrian War, Diplomacy