Erdoğan sticks with the West - with a caveat
“[Turkey’s] relations with countries like Russia, Iran, and China are not an alternative to our relations with the West. On the contrary, they are complementary. This position is not an obstacle to us in expressing the wrongs of the two sides.” Those remarks were spoken by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a speech delivered in Ankara on April 12.
The night before, Erdoğan had spoken to U.S. President Donald Trump over the crisis in Syria and soon after this Ankara speech he spoke on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. His remarks also came after a statement from Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy, in which he answered a question about what Turkey’s position would be if the United States hits Syrian regime positions in response to reports about the use of chemical weapons in opposition-held towns. Turkey has been against the Syrian regime from day one, and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on April 11 that there must be no place for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s future.
The Turkish military is currently in Syrian territories in two different formats. The first one is as the monitoring unit for a truce between regime and rebel forces around the city of Idlib in the framework of the Astana ceasefire agreement between Turkey, Russia, and Iran. The second one is to clear its borders from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in an operation carried out in 2016-2017. The current operation is to clear the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militia of the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), the Syrian wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who have been fighting with Turkey for more than three decades. The Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels are taking part in both operations.
Turkey is a NATO country, a major military force of the Western defense alliance. Its bases, including the strategic Incirlik Air Base near the Syrian border, have been extensively in use in NATO operations, mostly by the Americans, Germans, French, and Brits in the past. In such an environment, it is natural for Aksoy to question where France is willing to join. Germany has declined and the United Kingdom—at this point—has not decided. The foreign minister said the question was based on assumption but Turkey was “for punishing the use of chemical weapons” and is closely following developments.
Erdoğan’s statements on the other hand came before a visit by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to Turkey in pursuit of finding common ground with the NATO coutries regarding chemical attacks. With those remarks, Erdoğan responded to commentary that Turkey’s cooperation with Russia and Iran in Syria and former remarks about the possibility of joining the Shanghai Cooperation was showing Turkey’s change of axis from the West to the East.
Actually, Turkey contributes to NATO in a wide geographic range, from the Baltics to Somalia and Afghanistan. Erdoğan reiterated the continuation of this position at a crucial junction, but with a caviat. He elaborated on the caviat by explaining what Turkey believes is wrong on “both sides” as follows: “Those who support the regime of the murderer [Bashar al] Assad are doing wrong. Those who support the PYD terror organization [in Syria] are doing wrong too. We will continue to struggle with both of those wrongs until the end.”
Those addressed in the first sentence are Russia and Iran and in the second sentence is the U.S., since the U.S. has been using the PYD/YPG as its ground force against ISIL, despite Turkey’s objections, and has been offering its own assistance. It is interesting that despite reiterating Turkey’s position with the West, Erdoğan puts Turkey somehow somewhere near the middle by using the expression “both sides,” as if Turkey is not with one of the parts. With this approach, he probably wanted to highlight Turkey’s unique geopolitical position as the only Muslim populated NATO country and the only one neighboring Russia, Iran and the Middle East.