Stuck in Syria, Turkey’s Erdogan makes but new threats

Cornered at home and abroad, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has no choice but to double down in his rhetoric.

By lashing out at the United States over the so-called “safe zone” in Syria and threatening the European Union with “opening the gates for the refugees,” Erdogan is showing growing despair.

Turkey’s supposed “zero problems with neighbouring countries” policy has metamorphosed into “nothing but problems in the neighbourhood.” It is well known that the reason for the 180-degree change in policy was because of choices by two major figures: the political surrealism of former Foreign and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and consistently erratic decisions by his boss, Erdogan.

Compared to the situation today, those were the good days. Despite taking the wrong paths — with the United States, Israel, Egypt or Syria — Ankara then had manoeuvring room and time.

Not anymore. What Turkey has now is a demolished foreign policy and a diplomatic no man’s land.

Conflicts, rifts and frustration dominate the Turkish agenda, in which Ankara’s insistence on maximalism leads to backlashes or impasse after impasse. If anything, Erdogan has, in the past decade, turned Turkey into a loser in foreign policy, which in today’s complex world demands extra care and caution.

The escalation due to the hydrocarbon issue in the Eastern Mediterranean and the multilayered conflict at the Aegean kept both Greece and Cyprus on edge.

A new rift has been developing between Turkey and Lebanon because of remarks by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who stated that the Ottomans practised terror against the Lebanese during World War I, causing hundreds of thousands of victims through famine, conscription and forced labour. Turkey responded by summoning the Lebanese ambassador and protesting.

However, it is the situation in Syria that keeps Ankara more tense than any other issue. On September 5, Erdogan, in his usual angry mood, sent messages to Washington and Brussels.

“We are taking steps to make the Syrian lands, between the east of River Euphrates and the Iraqi border, more secure,” he said.

“We are determined to de facto start the safe zone establishment in the east of Euphrates, until the final week of September. It is ideal that we do this together with our American friends but if we do not build common ground, we shall begin on our own. Our aim is to settle at least 1 million Syrians in the safe zone along the 450km long borderline.”

“This either happens or otherwise we will have to open the gates,” Erdogan added. “Either you will provide support or excuse us but we are not going to carry this weight alone.”

Erdogan claimed that Turkey had received a little more than half of the $6.6 billion the European Union promised in the 2016 migration deal. European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud responded swiftly that: “To date, the EU has allocated 5.6 billion euros ($6.2 billion) out of the 6 billion ($6.6 billion) that was agreed, with the remaining balance due to be allocated shortly.”

It is apparent that on Syria, Turkey is deeply unsatisfied with the deal on the “safe zone” east of the Euphrates.

The depth of the zone will not be 32km, as Ankara demanded, but 5-14km. The joint patrol issue remains blurred and there is a mountain of differences between the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army and US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

YPG sources, speaking to the Associated Press, said they worry about Erdogan’s plans to send large numbers of Syrian refugees to the areas, fearing that Kurdish locals would be displaced.

“Kurdish-led administration and forces would not accept Turkish forces or permanent bases in the so-called safe zone or a free hand for Turkish flights over the area. A final deal would constitute an indirect Turkish recognition of the Kurdish-led administration in north-eastern Syria,” said Aldar Halil, a top Kurdish official.

Also feeling the heat of some high-ranking officers at home, Erdogan had no choice but send a message to the only help channel he knows in Washington — US President Donald Trump. It appears that when they meet at the UN General Assembly, he will ask him again.

However, every reliable source in Washington knows Turkey will not dare enter north-eastern Syria on its own because the US reaction would be fierce and decisive.

Erdogan’s raising of the stakes with the European Union is a slightly different story. Against the backdrop of a hiking refugee flow over the Aegean, his threat may cause the major EU actors to tremble and lead to further appeasement. “Opening the gates” is the last thing the European Union, in turmoil, needs. Erdogan may have touched a nerve.

Erdogan also made a cunning move against the opposition at home. His declaration of sending 1 million Syrians onto Syrian soil may even be applauded by the main opposition and its minor nationalist ally. This suits Erdogan’s political survive plan by surfing further on the rise of nationalism and the rapidly peaking anti-Americanism at home.

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