MESOP MIDEAST WATCH INVASION : Turkey’s leveraging of Syria, Ukraine crises frustrates US, Europe

AL MONITOR  3-12-22 – Erdogan calls out ‘hypocrisy’ by critics on terrorism 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as ever, is playing hardball with allies and enemies alike. This week, he insisted that his commitment to establish a 30-km security zone in Syria is stronger than ever, disregarding the Biden administration’s calls for restraint in targeting US Kurdish partners in Syria.


Turkey launched artillery, drone and airstrikes against primarily Kurdish cities in northern Syria after a terrorist attack in Istanbul on Nov. 13 which killed six Turkish civilians. Ankara is again threatening an all-out invasion.


Turkey views the primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Ankara claims is responsible for the bombing on Nov. 13 and other attacks.


Turkey, as well as the United States, consider the PKK a terrorist group, but the US has a different take on the SDF, which has been America’s on-the-ground partner in successful military operations to defeat Islamic State (IS) in Syria.


In a telephone call on Dec. 1, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar dismissed US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s “strong opposition” to the operation, saying the US “should understand us.”


Erdogan seemed to be referring to the US and other Western nations when he said on May 28, “We do not have to tolerate the hypocrisy of those who support the terrorist organization that is known for assuming different names.”


The SDF halted counter-IS operations last week to prepare for a Turkish offensive, leading the US military to reduce its patrols alongside the SDF, as Jared Szuba reports.


Amberin Zaman had the scoop this week that the US evacuated civilian staff, including diplomats, from northern Syria to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in response to Turkish attacks on SDF assets as well as critical civilian infrastructure, including oil installations, power plants, grain silos, and medical facilities.


No deal yet on Sweden NATO membership


Erdogan has used the Swedish and Finnish bids to join NATO, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, to press his case for maximal changes in especially Sweden’s policies toward the PKK.


The parliaments of each of the 30 alliance members must approve applicants. Turkey is the final holdout. Although the three countries worked out a deal in June to lift the Swedish and Finnish arms embargoes on Turkey and improve interdiction of terrorist financing and networks, Ankara’s approach is wait and see.


Erdogan has a bill of goods linked to his Syria and Kurdish policies, and he expects payment in full, or close to it, before he approves Sweden’s admittance. This is not a card he is going to play for cheap, given the current Turkish military operations taking place in Syria, and Erdogan’s goal to reset his foreign policy to adapt to changes in the global environment.


It is therefore hard to share US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s confidence this week that Sweden and Finland will “soon” be members of NATO.


Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Dec. 1 that he has fewer issues with Finland’s candidacy, and while acknowledging changes in Sweden’s constitution and new anti-terror laws, added that Sweden has taken “no concrete steps” yet on extraditions and freezing of terror assets.


“We need to see the implementation,” Cavusoglu said, “and some of those laws will enter into force with the new year.”


The Turkish president has enjoyed a star turn on the world stage as an international mediator between Moscow and Kyiv, maintaining a dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and, with the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, brokering the Black Sea Grain initiative allowing the resumption of Ukrainian grain and Russian food and fertilizer exports.


Not so fast on Turkey-Syria rapprochement?


Another piece in Erdogan’s Syria policy is a possible rapprochement with President Bashar al-Assad, encouraged and facilitated by Russia, which could be his closing move against the Syrian Kurds.


SDF Commander Mazloum Kobane discussed his own negotiations with Damascus in an exclusive interview with Amberin Zaman last month.


There is also a domestic political angle, as Fehim Tastekin points out. Turkey has elections in June 2023, and the opposition is calling for rapprochement to address the strain of over 3.6 million Syrian refugees on the Turkish economy.


“Erdogan does not want to lose this trump card to his opponents,” writes Tastekin. “He has said a new page could be turned with Syria after the polls, but recent developments signal he might meet with Assad earlier. Yet Assad appears to get on Erdogan’s nerves by not backing down from his conditions for dialogue: the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria and an end of Turkey’s support to armed rebels. Thus, Erdogan might be reckoning that a fresh military operation could help him impose his own fence-mending terms on Assad.”


And Syria may be in no rush


“Though popular anger with the SDF has grown over its ongoing partnership with the United States and control of oil-rich areas, Damascus is unwilling to fight the Kurds for Turkey’s sake,” adds Tastekin. “Also, it is clearly reluctant to give Erdogan an election gift. Syrian officials often feel the need to note that the Kurds have not taken up arms against the state and have fought terrorists, even receiving arms assistance from Damascus. In other words, they believe that Syrian anger with the Kurds should not play into Erdogan’s hands.”


It’s always the economy


Turkey is trying to stave off a new, even worse currency crisis by securing investment worth $10 billion from Qatar and $5 billion from Saudi Arabia, as Mustafa Sonmez reports.


The deal with Qatar, a close partner of Turkey, could be in the form of a swap, bond, or other method. Saudi Arabia is reportedly planning to deposit the funds in Turkey’s Central Bank.


The agreement with the kingdom, as well as the UAE’s establishment last year of a $10 billion fund for Turkish investment, represents a turnaround in Ankara’s relations with both Gulf states.