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Turkey’s regional gambits come up short

Jul 04,2017 - Last updated at Jul 04,2017

Not much is going Turkey’s way nowadays.

As a key regional player, something that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been underlining for years, its objectives seem vague and untenable, while its methods have been backfiring and challenged.

In many cases, Ankara was forced to walk back on certain policies without securing its goals.

It has to do with Erdogan’s overreaching ambitions, which subdued efforts to chart a steady course for Turkey in a turbulent region.

The most recent miscalculation has to do with Turkey’s decision to side with Qatar in the current Gulf crisis, at the cost of dismantling its carefully constructed relations with other Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

Again, Ankara’s objectives from getting entangled in the latest spat are ambiguous.

Setting up a military base in Qatar serves no clear strategic purpose, but it is a provocative move that contributes to the destabilisation of the region while raising the stakes in reaching a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

It is difficult to ascertain what Ankara hopes to achieve by taking sides in the conflict when it could have used its ties with GCC countries to defuse tensions and remove obstacles. 

Ironically, it now finds itself in the same camp with Iran, with which it differs on other conflicts, such as Iraq and Syria.

Turkey’s irrational involvement has made it part of the problem and added one more condition to the list of demands that Doha is expected to comply with to end its political isolation.

But Turkey’s regional miscalculations are not new.

Its hardline policy on Syria has backfired on a number of occasions.

A potential confrontation with Russia, following the downing of a Russian jet by Turkish air force in 2015, ended with a sudden pivot towards the Kremlin at the expense of Ankara’s US and European allies.

The Turkish-Russian entente on Syria is yet to bear fruit. The Astana technical talks, where Turkey, Russia and Iran are key sponsors, have failed to bring a sustainable ceasefire arrangement in Syria or benefit the political process.

The recent agreement to create de-escalation zones in the war-torn country has not seen the light of day.

To suggest that Ankara has an influence equal to Moscow’s in Syria is mooted.

Erdogan’s main goal of stemming the Syrian Kurdish expansion in northern Syria stumbled when the advance of Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces was halted near Azaz last year, mainly by the US and Russia.

Now US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)/YPG have pledged to confront Turkey and its allies in northwestern Syria.

Turkey wants to control a corridor that stretches from Jarablus to Idlib in a bid to undercut Kurdish territorial and political ambitions.

Erdogan asked the Trump administration to choose between Turkey and Syrian Kurds in the campaign to liberate Raqqa from Daesh. Washington snubbed Ankara.

Even more worrying for Turkey is the fate of US weapons given to the SDF once Raqqa is captured.

Certainly when it comes to what Turkey sees as an existential Kurdish threat coming from either Syria or Iraq, the strategic evaluation is not good.

Since the Syrian crisis erupted more than six years ago, Erdogan played a number of cards to guarantee himself a decisive vote in any future settlement.

He was accused of facilitating the passage of thousands of mainly foreign jihadists into Syria, most of whom ended up joining Daesh or Al Nusra Front.

Later on, Ankara looked the other way as tens of thousands of Syrian refugees risked their lives by crossing the sea between Turkey and Greece in a bid to reach European countries.

Erdogan later used this humanitarian tragedy to secure an aid package and other concessions from the EU. 

By the same token, Turkey got little from its spar with Israel over the Gaza blockade. A diplomatic dispute with Tel Aviv ended in restoring ties and high-level cooperation, but changed nothing in the lives of millions of besieged Gazans.

Ankara’s deep-seated hostility to the new order in Egypt proved futile as the rest of the world, especially most GCC countries and the United States, recognised President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s regime.

Aside from Turkey’s uneasy relations with Washington and European capitals, Ankara has struggled to normalise ties with the region in an ironic reverse of the much-publicised “zero problems with neighbours” mantra.

Turkey is yet to tidy up its affairs with Iraqi Kurdistan, Baghdad and Tehran.

Erdogan has given the appearance of following an independent course on regional issues, but in reality he has been reacting to unfolding events rather than sticking to a clear plan.

One thing that Turkey’s foreign policy has failed to adhere to is pragmatism in a fast-changing geopolitical environment.

Today, Ankara’s influence over Syria is limited to its own physical presence in the northwest.

The Syrian political opposition, based in Istanbul, is divided and may have become irrelevant.

Russia and the US, while vying for control in what remains of Syria, will eventually reach an understanding that serves their immediate interests at the expense of other players.

The Erdogan-Putin rapport will be tested in the near future.

Putin’s high-stake game in Syria will be used as a bargaining chip to ease US-EU economic sanctions on Moscow; Russian long-term interests with both go far beyond Syria and the region.

For Erdogan, who is now running a politically divided country that is also struggling economically, domestic challenges will only increase following the post failed coup purge.

His attempt to demonise Syrian Kurds will do little to offset his problems with Turkey’s own Kurdish minority.

In the final analysis, most of Turkey’s regional gambits have come up short. The course now looks intractable, at best.



The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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