Erdoğan raises the stakes in Syria

Erdoğan raises the stakes in Syria

Unable to change the course of events in Syria, where he is increasingly up against the U.S. and Russia, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has decided on a high-stake disruptive game aimed at trying to secure Turkey’s interests.

The recent Turkish strike in Syria against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara says is a Kurdish terrorist organization, provides a clear indication of this. The YPG is supported politically and militarily by both the U.S. and Russia, so there can be no doubt that Erdoğan’s message was targeted at these powers.

He went on later to indicate that Turkey would continue with these strikes whenever it feels they are necessary. This is a show of force on Ankara’s part and its long term results remain to be seen.

The first results however are in and they are obviously not pleasing for Erdoğan. 

Turkey’s operation against the YPG was condemned by both Washington and Moscow as “unacceptable.” Turkey’s strike against the YPG has united the U.S. and Russia despite the fact that they are on different sides in Syria.

Claiming that Turkey had not only hit a U.S. ally, but also put U.S. soldiers in harm’s way, Washington quickly dispatched forces to stand watch – presumably against Turkey – alongside YPG fighters.

Turkey’s strike not so long ago against YPG fighters, and signs that Turkish forces were preparing to move against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria had also pushed Russia to deploy force there to establish a buffer between the YPG and Turkish forces.

Ankara is also aware that both powers are interested in seeing a Kurdish representation at the Syria talks in Geneva under U.N. auspices, and neither is averse to offering cultural autonomy to the Syrian Kurds in any final settlement.

Erdoğan says that will not happen because Turkey will do all it can to prevent it. He has some strong cards in his hands. The most significant one being that Washington and Moscow are trying to curry favor with him in order to keep Turkey on their side, given their global rivalry.

This is clearly a recognition of the fact that Turkey holds a very strategic place on the map and is a vitally important regional player, one way or another.

That having been said, it is also a fact that both the U.S. and Russia have done little so far to help Turkey advance its own strategic interests in Iraq and Syria. 

While they clearly want Turkey on their side, the U.S. and Russia are only prepared to mollify Ankara in various ways to keep on board, rather than bow to Turkish demands.

The strike against the YPG, on the other hand, has shown once again that when their interests are at stake they will not shy from expressing what they feel and take the necessary steps in spite of Turkey. 

Whether Turkey can repeat such strikes under these conditions is an open question. If it does, Erdoğan could also lose the credit he clearly has with President Donald Trump, whom he is due to meet in Washington in two weeks.

Erdoğan is also due to meet President Vladimir Putin in Sochi in the coming days, and it will be interesting to see if he can turn Moscow against Syrian President Bashar al Assad – Erdoğan’s nemesis – and convince the Russian side to stop supporting the YPG and its openly expressed desire to give the Syrian Kurds a place at the Syrian table.

The bottom line is that Erdoğan has opted for what looks more and more like a zero-sum game with the U.S. and Russia in regards to Syria. Turkey’s record of success in Syria, or Iraq for that matter, has not been that great. 

The stakes are high and Erdoğan stands to either win or lose because he has left no room for other options.