All for Turkey, Turkey against All

Is Turkey’s policy all about bluster or will it walk the walk? That is the question the US and her allies ask themselves every day, as President Erdogan ramps up the level of threats with respect to allegedly resurrecting the supposedly idyllic version of the Ottoman Empire he has conjured up for his base, which at this point, consists of most of his country. How much of it is pure demagoguery for the sake of appealing to the Sunni street – and not just in Turkey? How much of it is opportunism mixed with the test of the limits of NATO patience?

His pattern so far has been a careful and successful mix of both. Despite repeated rants about retaking Jerusalem for instance, Erdogan knew better than to try to attack Israel.  Israel’s far superior technological edge would have caused serious damage to a military weakened by the crackdown after the coup. Some of the top Erdogan critics in the military have been purged; it will take time to rebuild the apparatus. Likewise, such a step would have invited an immediate retaliation from the United States, which would have undermined Erdogan’s goals, if not put an end to his ambitions altogether. Under no circumstances can someone in his position afford to lose face.

If Erdogan is perceived as invincible, all his corruption, political indiscretions, and cruelty are overlooked, excused away, and forgiven. If, however, the public senses any signs of a vulnerability, he’s as good as done, and a significantly more radical Islamist and/or populist nationalist is likely to be recruited for office. For that reason, it is clear that Erdogan’s comments and policies are not random and insane, but carefully chosen and politically advantageous. He makes comments already having explored the territory to see just how far he can actually go. Otherwise, he is content with saying non-committal but extreme things that people who just want to vent their frustrations or find a scapegoat likely will want to hear. As a populist, Erdogan is much more in touch with popular opinion, than with the policymaking and result delivery. For that reason, Turkey’s economy has struggled in comparison with Erdogan’s earlier years, as he shifted his attention to ensuring his personal success and consolidating power. Let’s examine the pattern.

In Syria, Turkey did not proceed without first adroitly coordinating the Afrin operation with the Assad regime through Russia – and making sure that the United States would not intervene with its plans. Erdogan has earned from his earlier mistakes which alienated Assad and nearly made Erdogan into an international pariah, in combination with his other political missteps. Having overplayed his hand with attacking too many “enemies” in the past, Erdogan defined the scope of his mission in narrow, specific, and seemingly meritorious terms, which, although in reality baseless, sounded reasonable and did not invite too much speculation about possible overreach.

Now, of course, to the Kurds, and Erdogan’s critics, what he was actually doing was quite obvious. But to everyone who wanted to have an excuse not to get into a confrontation with Turkey, Erdogan was able to provide that justification. And having now made friends with Putin, Erdogan got an additional bonus – he was allowed to save face in public by boasting about his successes and plans for the future, even as Assad was actually regaining lost territory in Eastern Ghouta, and thus, by definition, limiting the possibility and the scope of future successes for Turkey. Despite the fact that this step was much more limited than what Erdogan’s rhetoric would suggest, it was a foolproof success for Erdogan himself and his followers. He gained credibility, the United States and NATO lost it. The fact that much of this win was dependent heavily on Russia may not have escaped the specialists, but for the public was merely a welcome sign of a growing alliance, which was met as warmly as any possibility thereof was rejected during the political standoff over the downed pilots, which took place between the two countries not so long ago.

It took Turkey two months to take Afrin, and despite, heavy casualties inflicted on local civilians, and embarrassing damages to its own forces, Turkey escaped international condemnation and got what it wanted. That victory, however, merely whetted the appetites of the nationalist port of Erdogan’s base, and soon enough certain elements were putting pressure on Erdogan to continue. Whatever the future may hold, for Erdogan there is no going back. He may change allies, more than once, likely in the process of appearing to deliver on his promises of making the Ottoman Empire great again, but what he cannot do is go back on the process of extending influence, including through military conquests, against perceived enemies, no matter how weak, isolated, and otherwise harmless.

The issue, as with everything, is timing and getting enough people to back his actions to avoid serious blowback. For that reason, immediately upon the conclusion of the operation, Erdogan started testing the waters in three ways:

First, Erdogan began by spreading rumors about Manbij and the upcoming operation there, as well as the general plans to expand beyond Afrin all over Syria.

Second, Erdogan returned to the old political chestnut of threatening Greece and Cyprus.

Third, Erdogan boasted about planning an anti-PKK operation in Iraqi Kurdistan.

At the same time, he put efforts towards expanding the relationship with Russia, which included an expedited delivery of the S-400s. The reason for that was more than just a sudden onset affection for President Putin or desperation for having new allies. Rather, Erdogan wished to link Turkey’s expansionist future to the worst fears of the West. He correctly identified the fact that the West is much more afraid of Turkey’s growing closeness with Russia and Iran than of its own independent ambitions, and played off of that by having the United States and NATO make impossible choices between the two. Not only did he put the US into the position of having to choose between Kurds and Turkey, but now he also had them choose between sacrificing their own positions in Syria  – or sacrificing their security interests potentially everywhere, as Turkey’s alliance with Russia and Iran signified, in the event the US failed to accommodate Erdogan’s demands. Of course, it’s a false choice, because part of Erdogan’s strategy is to grower closer to these countries, at least on certain issues, and of course, because for the US, making sacrifices in Syria is equivalent to making sacrifices everywhere else. Syria is a pivotal point for all three rising hegemons, as well as their proxies and assorted non-state actors.

While Assad has been busy consolidating power by playing off the opposition and rivaling internal factions, Erdogan has been doing the same to his Western frienemies. Essentially, the West is presented with the proposition that they have already lost, the question is how much more they are willing to sacrifice as if that is fait accompli. In reality, that was never the case, but Erdogan’s bluff worked. He was bluffing as to the extent of his plans and the extent to which he was in control of the situation. The fact that all this time he was actually dependent on Russia to come through for him and thus had a weakness that could have been exploited escaped the attention of the Western security experts, who were so desperate to keep Erdogan around as an ally, however formal, that they overlooked positions for leveraging his shortcomings to put him in his place. Of course, that would have required a much more hard-nosed and Machiavellian foreign policy mindset that the Trump administration embraced until this point. With the appointment of Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Adviser Bolton, that may change.

The reaction to Erdogan’s pronouncements on this front has been twofold. The US, predictably, ran after Erdogan in a desperate attempt to decouple him from Putin. They, in fact, planned a visit to Ankara with the mindset to talk Erdogan out of buying Russia’s S-400s, by offering to sell him the US defense systems. Of course, for Erdogan, this in itself is victory, since sellers are competing for his affection. Who has the real power in this scenario? As surprised as the US policymakers may be, however, Putin actually also benefits from this situation. First, Erdogan is unlikely to renege on the deal anyway, in which case the Americans look foolish, desperate, and weak. Second, even if he does, that step will be carefully coordinated.

It will allow Erdogan to remain in the good graces of the incoming hawks for a little while longer, while discreetly continuing to coordinate with Putin and delivering him far greater benefits than that particular deal, as compensation for the breach of contract. It was a sign of weakness, not commercial or political genius, for the US negotiators to try to interfere with an existing, signed business deal. They showed their fear of Putin above anything else. Rather, the correct thing to do would have been to raise the stakes for the next weapons to deal with Erdogan, and make it more difficult for him to obtain a quality product in which the US enjoys a competitive advantage. At the same time, the US may also be trying to balance its relationship with Ankara with its relationship with Jerusalem and Riyadh. Russian, and particularly Iranian influence, is disturbing. Israel has had to play down a lot of Putin’s aggression because Putin has been the restraining force on Iranian aggression at the borders with Syria, if only in a very limiting sense; however, Erdogan’s maneuvering is less likely to be tolerated.

At the same time, Riyadh looks on with alarm as Syria becomes increasingly a playing field for all of its worst enemies, and the US is doing little to nothing to ensure that these enemies do not further contribute to Saudi Arabia’s security concerns. If the US hope is that by negotiating subtly with Erdogan, they can get him to back off further destabilizing activities, while perhaps also influencing Putin to put a constraint on Assad, they have miscalculated.  Erdogan neither has the power to do such things, nor the interest. It is rumored that Assad will soon be exchanged for another leader as per Russian requests. That, however, will not happen before he regains as much of lost territory as he can and negotiates favorable terms with Russia that his successor will have to hold to. Assad, for his own part, enjoys being a dictator and likewise does not relish the thought of spending the rest of his life in exile somewhere, in constant fear for his life. For that reason,  the US is mistaken. Erdogan is not about to engage in fruitless drawn out fights with the Assad regime. The US made it clear that it will not allow her troops to be attacked in Manbij; however, Erdogan persisted in his rhetoric, without actually taking any action at present.

France, on the other hand, acted much more decisively to offer a carrot and a stick: first, to mediate between the Kurds and Turkey, and, failing that to send its own special forces to Syria to stop any potential Turkish expansion into Manbij. Just how much of that language is based in real attention from Macron remains to be seen, but so far, at least in rhetoric, Macron has proven to be more critical of Turkey than the United States. Erdogan’s reaction to French assertions has been muted, perhaps because his real target is the US, and perhaps because none of this is relevant to his real plans in the near future.

With respect to Erdogan’s attacks on Greece and Cyprus, for now, his bellicose verbiage is likely to remain exactly that. Erdogan is well aware of the dangers of spreading himself too thin; the Afrin attack came at a much heavier cost than expected, and he is also looking for power grabs on other fronts.  Creating tension with his smaller adversaries is one thing; incurring the wrath of the entire NATO for such interventionism is another. Greece and Cyprus, being state actors, are viewed differently than the stateless Kurds; the defense of these countries is likely to be more vigorous; this is not a battle Erdogan is ready for or interested in fighting today. But it keeps his followers happy, and if his other plans succeed elsewhere, Erdogan will be sure to reexamine ways in which he can pressure his Mediterranean adversaries into incremental concessions, which he can then exploit to further his own ends.

For now, however, Erdogan’s real focus seems to be Iraq, where Erdogan is once again going after the PKK. In the past, Baghdad has allowed Erdogan to engage in airstrikes against the PKK in the area, even as the PKK has lent the KRG assistance with battling ISIS. However, in the past, the KRG and Turkey have been much closer, whereas the PKK was somewhat of a regional rival and a nuisance. Most recently, however, PKK was invited back in as a reaction to Iran’s entrance into Iraq and in opposition to the Iran-backed militias. KRG and PKK have made peace; US weakness with respect to Baghdad’s violent takeover of Kirkuk actually did more for Kurdish unity than the previously more assertive friendly relations with each faction. The previous advisers to the administration, however, essentially gave up the PKK to Erdogan in order to secure at least some ambiguous reassurances regarding PKK’s sister organization PYD, in Syria.

Baghdad outwardly voiced opposition to Turkish incursions into its territory; it knows fully well that the real reason for Turkish interference is not the alleged threat from the PKK, too far off from Turkish territory to be any real threat assuming it ever was one recently, to begin with, but that Turkey has historic claims to the territories in Iraq, going back to the Ottomans.  Iraq, however, does not wish to antagonize Erdogan, because it has potential to do business with Turkey, and because the last thing it needs right now is one more enemy. For that reason, it may discreetly turn a blind eye should Erdogan take any serious action against PKK in Iraq. Erdogan has already occupied 28 Kurdish villages in the Afrin area. For now, Iraq is taking steps to secure its borders against potential Turkish invasion, even as Erdogan continues to spout aggressive rhetoric. Erdogan, however, sees an opportunity and follows it. For now, he claims to be willing to resolve the matter peacefully so long as Baghdad kicks the PKK out of its territory. That essentially would do two things for Erdogan: gain access to his enemies and allow him to punish them further back in Syria, where they are much closer and second, to demonstrate his strength at the expense of Baghdad.

Baghdad also has other concerns, including the resurgence of ISIS. KRG has promised to assist with battling back the terrorists even in disputed territories; some of the Iraqi nationalists see Erdogan’s overtures for what they are – a nationalistic maneuver, aimed at weakening Iraq’s sovereignty, and equate him to ISIS. However, the government has agreed to a meeting over the presence of the PKK in the Sinjar region, where they have been protecting other Kurds and minorities including Yazidis from incursions by terrorists and pro-Iran militias. Such an approach, in reality, allows everyone to save face. Erdogan would not be drawn into an embarrassing military confrontation that will invite international scrutiny and rebukes; while Abadi, facing upcoming elections in May is not stuck with a major military campaign on his borders which may further weaken an already unstable country. He will wish to assert his sovereignty without further antagonizing the Kurds, but in reality, will likely come to a compromise over this issue, and PKK will suffer further setbacks, while Erdogan continues to appear a strong, assertive winner who delivers on his promises and gets things done. Unless Erdogan’s opportunism and cunning manipulation of the appearances to suit his immediate agendas is revealed for what they are, he is likely to continue to grow in influence through the use of extremist rhetoric while moving forward in deliberate, thought out, and narrowly tailored steps, choosing the battles he can actually win, using even baby steps to bolster his own image and thus make future, and bigger victories more likely, while simultaneously using bluster to grow and invigorate his base.

Meanwhile, many of his enemies are eager to defend Turkey with the hopes that if any of them find the right approach, Turkey will not run off with their opponents. Turkey, however, opposes everyone, and ultimately, is invested only in moves that are directly beneficial to Erdogan himself and his plans.

By Irina Tsukerman