The West’s balancing act with Turkey
From the beginning of the war in Syria, Turkey and Russia have been on opposite sides. Accordingly, the deals Turkey tried to strike with Russia, along with Iran, stemmed from an effort to find a solution to the Syrian debacle without risking ties with its two neighbors. But as we enter the final stages of the war, it is becoming ever-more difficult to reconcile their opposing interests.
Turkey is now directly accusing Russia of supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s offensive in Idlib, which has forced thousands of refugees to flee toward the Turkish border. In addition to the horrific scale of the unfolding humanitarian crisis, the fact that most of the Turkish military’s ceasefire observation posts are encircled by regime forces seems like an open defiance of Turkey’s presence in the region.
As Russia gains the upper hand thanks to the regime advances on the ground, it feels the time has come to tell Ankara to get out of the way so the regime can declare a final victory.
While Turkey has been increasing its military presence in Syria to unprecedented levels, it cannot rely solely on its military power, especially when regime forces are directly supported by Russia and Iran.
Ever since last August, when regime forces started their offensive, the president’s advisers must have seen the crisis with Russia looming on the horizon, meaning that a shift toward the West was likely part of the contingency planning.
So it was hardly surprising to see the United States offer strong words in support of Turkey’s policies in northwest Syria and send its Syria envoy, James Jeffrey, to Ankara a few days after the death of Turkish soldiers at the hands of regime forces.
Never mind the same U.S. threatened Turkey with sanctions when it started its military operation in northeast Syria last October.
The U.S. is not fond of seeing Turkish troops in northeast Syria since it overshadows its cooperation with YPG forces, whom Turkey sees as the Syria wing of the illegal Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
But it’s OK for the U.S. to have Turkish soldiers stopping the advance of regime forces and, therefore, stand in the way of Russian and Iranian efforts to increase their influence in the region.
We see similar double games from Europe as well.
It is not the two leaders’ mutual admiration for each other that made Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan talk to German Chancellor Angela Merkel once in Istanbul and twice on the telephone since the beginning of the year.
Merkel might be equally alarmed by the rising influence of Russia and Iran, but the rising numbers of refugees on Turkey’s borders rings the alarm bells for her much louder.
Just like the U.S., the European Union has been strongly critical of Turkey’s military operation in northeast Syria, as it has threatened an embargo on arms sales. And when Turkey asked to use the EU’s financial assistance in Syria to encourage the return of refugees, the bloc’s initial response was negative.
Now, we are hearing that Germany is preparing to allocate 25 million euros for refugee relief work on Syrian soil.
It is highly problematic for Merkel to appear to be coming to Turkey’s aid when the country is suffering from a bad image in German public opinion due to its human rights track record.
So most probably, the court decision to acquit all the suspects over their alleged roles in the 2013 Gezi Park protests must have come as a relief for Merkel. But Osman Kavala, the only defendant who was under arrest, was not released due to another probe.
Still, the decision to acquit the rest of the defendants came as a huge surprise both for domestic and international public opinion.
No doubt some might be thinking of thanking Russia’s president for that.