Hints of a New Era in Turkish Regional Policy
The prospects and expectations that emerged throughout the Middle Eastern peoples and pro-democracy sides after the Arab Spring have transformed, within a very brief span of time, into the most substantial crisis that the region has encountered in the last century. In this unfortunate trajectory, the unforeseen internal power struggles and foreign manipulations played a key role. Further, recent developments show that the escalating tension is not confined to the region for there is a growing risk of a direct confrontation between rival powers in a vast arena, stretching from Bosnia to the Indian subcontinent and the China Sea. As for Turkey, not only has the uncertainty regarding the course of events not abated but also the immediate vicinity of Turkey has grown increasingly complex. Such a particularity can be observed in the bumpy relations between the USA and Russia who share a captivating long-term association regarding Syria. Finally, the termination of negotiations on the future of Syria between the two states – as revealed by the US Department of State on 3 October– is signaling a new phase in the current crisis. Although an agreement on the classification of armed dissidents and a comprehensive ceasefire was reached between Washington and Moscow on 9 September, the regime forces resumed their offensive on Aleppo, which was followed by the USA-led coalition’s ‘inadvertent’ aerial strikes on Assad’s forces in Deir Ezzor on 17 September that left approximately 100 regime soldiers dead. The strikes of Russian jets on the UN’s humanitarian aid convoy en route to Aleppo that occurred two days after the incident not only intensified the tensions between the USA and Russia but also furthered the chaos in Syria.
Signals for Change from the US
The termination of negotiations with Syria has mollified Washington’s stance on arming the Syrian dissidents in recent days, and this disclosure has coincided with the news of opposition groups obtaining sophisticated weapons – particularly the surface-to-surface Grad missiles. According to some western sources, it is just a matter of time before the opposition accesses individually operated anti-aircraft firearms that can be used against helicopters and jets. On the other hand, Russia is determined to take countermeasures against those of the USA. The Moscow administration, which has declared the suspension of the Plutonium disposal agreement signed with the USA in 2000, has taken steps to reinforce the anti-aircraft systems in Syria and has supplied the advanced air defense system, SA-23 Gladiator (S-300VM), to Syria via the port of Tartus, according to the US administration. As neither the opposition nor the terrorist groups like DAESH are capable of aerial warfare capabilities, these developments can be perceived as an attempt to prevent or shift the focus of anti-regime aerial operations in the US.
The impact of these zigzag relations between the two major powers regarding Syria is affecting the attitudes of the states in the region as indicated by the debates around the future of Bashar Al-Assad of Syria. The Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım implied in previous months the likelihood of Turkey’s acceptance of Al-Assad as an interlocutor during the transition period. Yet, the President refuted the idea in a press conference prior to his visit to New York on 20 September. Rather than stemming from a difference of opinion or disconnection between the top-level authorities, this standpoint is more certainly a consequence of the instantaneous developments occurring in the field that necessitates respective policy decisions. While Turkey is reevaluating its position as a result of the showdown and escalation of mutual threats between the USA and Russia, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksey Meshkov’s speech showed that Ankara is not the only capital to review its policy on Syria in the light of the latest developments. Meshkov stated, at that time, that the disagreement between Russia and Turkey on the Syrian issue is not a secret yet he added “however, we want to hear Turkey’s arguments about a ceasefire and humanitarian assistance.
” There are several interpretations as to why the USA recently began to harden its stance on Syria after years of passive policies and after allowing several rounds of bloodshed. The most plausible argument suggests that Obama – who has been criticized for being ineffective in foreign policy – has taken these steps to strengthen Hillary Clinton’s position ahead of the upcoming presidential election. Moscow’s enunciation that a catastrophe would occur if regime positions are directly targeted increases the probability of Obama getting serious regarding intervention. Even though Obama, in his last speeches, has repeatedly expressed that the USA may send troops to Syria if compelled to such statements can only be interpreted as ‘speaking softly but carrying a big stick’. Because, it is not only that the US forces – even in limited numbers –are already present in Syria, as seen in Manbij’s incidents, but the USA also understands that even aerial strikes are not imperative, let alone sending ground troops to transform the predicament in Syria. As the demographics and geography of the Syrian War are considered, it is evident that effective weapon support to the opposition will never be sufficient to force Russia to leave the country. In fact, this was probably the medium-term plan of the US; however, the upcoming elections appear to have pushed Obama to act sooner than planned. Otherwise, no one expects the USA to leave Syria or its divided heartland under Russia.
Turkey Will not Allow Mosul to Become a New Aleppo
Although Syria is the most important battlefield in the Middle East, Iraq has started to appear in the forefront due to the imminent Mosul operation. Turkish historical connections with Mosul are evident. However, President Erdoğan’s speech on the opening of the Parliament on October 1st and his emphasis on the Treaty of Lausanne have passed the issues into a new dimension. Hence, the consecutive statements made by the central administration of Iraq and the leaders of the pro-Iranian militia groups have voiced their discomfort with any sort of Turkish involvement in the Mosul operation. The extent of the frustration of the Iraqi Central Government and the power behind it with the new era of Turkey’s regional maneuvers–when added to this context–can be understood from the harsh statements made against Turkey by the Iraqi Parliament and the summoning of the Turkish ambassador to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. However, the successful Jarablus Operation indicated a major shift in Ankara’s regional policies and its determination not to avoid direct confrontation with various actors on crucial issues related to its national security. This, Ankara made it sufficiently clear – will be done by carefully considering others actors’ opinions. Likewise, Turkey has closely felt the dire consequences of permitting some regional powers and organizations to gain ground as a fait accompli of the situation, beginning with the invasion of Iraq and prolonging the civil war in Syria, which has resulted in the disruption of its regional interest and policies as well as an intensification of terror and coup attempts within the country over the last year.
Is Saudi Arabia the Next Target of the US?
Turkish active field involvement in Syria and Iraq is adding significance to its relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which maintains a similar stance regarding both countries. The recent frequent reciprocal visits can be analyzed as an indication of the growing understanding of the regional issues between the two countries. On the other hand, the Riyadh administration has lately been experiencing the shocks of recent legislation ratified by the US Congress that enables the victims of 9/11 to sue the Saudi Arabian state. The application of the same policy towards the Riyadh Government by Washington, which particularly led to the freezing of Iranian assets in the US and making a substantial sum of payments to the Israeli plaintiffs in the past, has escalated the already damaged US-Saudi relations to a catastrophic level. Apparently, the issue came up amid the meeting of President Erdoğan and the Saudi Minister of Interior, as well as Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef whose visit to Turkey coincided with the day the legislation transpired. Moreover, President Erdoğan conveyed this issue to the agenda and highlighted the unacceptability of the decision to demonstrate the continuation of Turkey-Saudi contiguity in the future in his speech to the parliament which itself can be evaluated as the manifesto of a new era.
Ankara’s emphasis on sustaining and improving the existing good relations with Tehran during the President’s speech in the Parliament also signifies Turkey’s strategy of compartmental allocation of its regional policies in the new era. However, it is highly likely that the relations with Iran – an actor well known for its aggressive foreign policy in the region – will be affected severely in the case of Turkey’s active involvement in the Mosul operation and direct confrontation with Shia militias.