Moscow has bolstered its military presence in Syria since September. To do so, Russian forces opted for strengthening their existing presence, including upgrading the capacity of Bassel al-Assad airport, close to regime’s stronghold of Latakia, in order to receive more than thirty combat aircrafts, combat and transport helicopters, and a larger number of troops. Despite Russia’s original goal being to more actively combat ISIS, more than 90 % of airstrikes in the first week of October have actually targeted other rebel groups, mostly in Aleppo or Idlib governorates, including Turkish rebel allies such as Ahrar ash-Sham. Later on Russian FM Sergey Lavrov would state that Russian forces are helping Assad’s regime to combat terrorism (in other words, all rebels). Meanwhile, Iran sent thousands of additional troops to Syria for the same purpose.
These developments have understandably made Turkey anxious; simultaneously making its ultimate goal of taking down Assad even more unlikely. The current state of events has thus reminded Ankara of the importance of cordial relationship with the West, spurring on its EU accession bid and solidifying Turkey’s place in NATO.
A Nightmare for Turkey
Russia’s recent conduct is in line with their long-pursued narrative: Assad can be a partner for combating terrorism in the region. With other rebels wiped out by Assad’s ground forces, supported by Iran and Moscow, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham) will be the only “opposition” remaining in the country, leaving the West little room to maneuver and eventually having to deal with Assad and his regime. Moreover, the Kremlin proved that it is willing to raise the stakes higher to keep a strategic foothold in the Mediterranean and the Middle East in general.
For Turkey, taking down Assad was made a main priority in 2012, proceeding a period of bettered relations and dialogue from 2009 until as late as 2012. In line with Ankara’s general bet on the ‘Arab streets’ and the Muslim Brotherhood upon the onset of the Arab revolutions in Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia, this was not surprising. Bashar al-Assad however has managed (mainly thanks to his backers in Tehran and Russia) to sustain and successfully wage a bloody civil war for more than four years, resulting in estimated250.000 lives lost between March 2011 and October 2015. Turkey, just as Saudi Arabia and its allies, viewed the Syrian civil war as a chance to limit Persian influence in Syria and actively supported any rebels deemed as powerful enough (currently radical Islamists, mainly rallied in a rebel coalition Jaysh al-Fatah formed in March 2015). Not surprisingly,Saudi-Turkish cooperation was elevated after a series of negotiations at the end of 2014, because both Riyadh and Ankara were becoming anxious about the Iranian nuclear deal and possible Western rapprochement with Tehran, which could strip them of their ‘special’ relationship with the US.
Ankara stakes are perhaps even higher than Saudi’s, considering that Assad will surely not forget Turkey’s betrayal and has means to damage Ankara. Syria can (just as it did in the 1990s) support Syrian Kurds and provide Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with safe havens on the Syrian-Turkish border as a launching pad for PKK insurgency in the southeast of Turkey. Therefore, increased Russian engagement solidifying Assad’s position is indeed creating a nightmare for Turkey. That brings us to the ‘Kurdish factor’ in Turkey’s calculations.
The Kurdish Factor
The Turkish government was long reluctant to get on board with the August 2014Coalition against ISIS and its airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. Erdoğan’s argument was simple (and understandable): if combat operations are not extended directly against Assad’s regime, we will not participate. Taking down Assad was far higher on Ankara’s list of interest than attacking ISIS. Turkey in fact provided its soil as a logistics base and a safe haven for various Islamist rebels operating in Syria, with some even having very close ties such as with Ahrar ash-Sham. Turkey eventually placed its bet on Islamist rebels viewing them pragmatically as the most capable force combating with Assad’s forces. Even ISIS logistics and recruitment operations were fully tolerated, if not encouraged, for a long time as al-Baghdadi’s organization was expected to fight Assad effectively.
When in June 2015, Syrian Kurds dominated by the PYD (Democratic Union Party), which is a Syrian branch of the PKK, conquered the border town of Tall Abyad and began to discuss a westwards offensive, across the bank of Euphrates, Turkey was forced to reconsider its stance. The PYD, backed by US tactical airstrikes, was threating to control almost the whole Syrian-Turkish border. There were rumors about a possible Kurdish advance westwards, on the West bank of the Euphrates, which would connect three Kurdish-controlled areas (cAfrin, Kobanî, Jazeera) into a compact territory. That would deliver a serious blow to Turkish support to opposition rebels and at the same time, bring about a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria under PYD rule closer to reality. Ankara then joined the coalition against ISIS in July and allowed the US to use its airbase in Incirlik in order to launch airstrikes against ISIS. In return, the US closed its eyes when Turkish forces bombed PKK bases in northern Iraq and intensified its counterinsurgency against the PKK in the southeast of Turkey. Combating ISIS remains sporadic – only several airstrikes targeted ISIS while hundreds of bombs were targeting PKK in Iraq, accompanied by cracking down on PKK networks within Turkey.
PKK leadership willingly escalated violence in the southeast this summer after more than two years of ceasefire and negotiations with the government. So far 135 members of Turkish security forces have died by the end of September. The PKK managed to shift its combat operations into southeastern towns and cities such as Diyarbakir, Silvan and Cizre in an unprecedented move to also arm its youth branches (mainly the YDG-H, Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement). This summer’s message of the more than ever confident PKK is clear: the Turkish state is not able or willing to provide security, thus Kurds are left with no other option than to “defend and govern themselves”. The PKK’s self-confidence is boosted with the success of the PKK’s Syria branch PYD, the PKK’s frontline deployment in northern Iraq in Sinjar and around Kirkuk against ISIS, and also closer ties with Iran and Assad. The Kurdish marriage of convenience with Assad highlights a peculiarity of the Syrian-Kurdish landscape since the US supports the PYD by tactical airstrikes, yet the PYD and the PKK cooperate with Western rivals seeing them as facilitators to further their goal of autonomy.
Moreover, the PYD is continuing active conversation with Russia as well, with the PYD’s leader Salih Muslim meeting with Russian officials (for example this August and Octoberwith Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov) on numerous occasions.
Election Calculations and the Cold War Spook
Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) achieved a Pyrrhic victory in the June 2015 parliamentary elections, unable to form a single-party government for the first time since 2002. Subsequent coalition talks with other parties failed and AKP’s regime proved willing to drag the country into simultaneous wars with the Kurds and with ISIS, arguably due to their electoral failure. Heated tensions serve as an electoral strategy upon the onset of November 1 snap elections. The AKP is trying to cast a shadow of being besieged by enemies by playing on a fertile nationalist note. President Erdoğan and the AKP spoke about Kurdish separatists, ISIS and now, with the revival of Turkey’s old Cold War enemy – Russia, arguing that Turkey in such a ‘dire crisis’ it is in need of a stable single-party government. Pre-election opinion polls however show that nothing is decided yet and results may very well bring the same stalemate as in June.
Turkey and Its Rediscovered Western Partnership
Erdoğan and his AKP stepped out of traditional isolation around 2004 from the East and tried to elevate its lost status as a regional power. The AKP diversified its relations, betting on ‘Arab streets’ and the Muslim Brotherhood upon the onset of Arab revolution in 2011. This strategy eventually failed in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and obviously Syria bringing Turkey back to (this time not voluntary) relative isolation in the Middle East.
Ankara also ‘provoked’ NATO while dealing with China and flirting with buying Beijing’s advanced missile system instead of a Western one. Moreover, Erdoğan’s Turkey once praised as a regional ‘model for democratization’, became increasingly authoritarian, especially after the events of 2013 and wave of anti-government protests sparked in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Since this time, President Erdoğan has struggled to create a ‘New Turkey’, one based upon an authoritarian presidential system under his tight rule.
By the 2009, Western analysts began asking since 2009 ‘Who lost Turkey?’. Recent developments however show that Turkey still needs the West and the West still needs Turkey. Turkey entrance into the anti-ISIS coalition in July highlighted the enduring cordial relations between the West and its traditional Cold War ally, Turkey. The US quietly tolerated the AKP’s crackdown on the Kurds. When Russian aircrafts violated Turkish airspace earlier this October, Turkey received the rhetorical backing of the US and other NATO states. Looking at the unfavorable chaotic situation in the Middle East, Turkey remains a key Western partner and it is crucial to ensure its stability. Neither the US nor European countries wish to see Turkey fall into the abyss of civil war and instability. Erdoğan can thus count on the almost unconditional backing of his regime, regardless of whether it is authoritarian and cracking down on opposition or not.
Recently, the European Union started negotiation with Ankara regarding curbing the refugee inflow from Turkey to Europe and possibility of returning migrants who came illegally from Turkey. Ankara asked for 3 billion euros and for visa liberalization for its citizens in exchange. Angela Merkel said after her visit to Turkey on October 18, that even the opening of critical negotiation chapters of Turkey’s EU admission is on the table, this despite increasing authoritarianism and de-stabilization in the country. Not that Turkey’s path to the EU is closer but simply opening chapters such as ‘Judiciary and Fundamental Rights’, or ‘Justice, Freedom, and Security’ is providing Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian regime a legitimacy boost. It also signals tolerance of the EU towards Erdoğan’s ambitions, and willingness to shamelessly throw away ‘value-based’ or ethical reservations towards the AKP’s regime and its undemocratic tendencies.