One never ceases to be amazed at the pro-government media in Turkey. One minute they’re cursing the Kremlin and calling Vladimir Putin a killer. The next minute the Russian bear is the cat’s meow. But then they are only keeping in lockstep with a presidential palace that gives the wink to unlicensed mass demonstrations in front of Russian diplomatic missions and simultaneously restricts access to news sites and social media relaying news of the deaths of dozens of Turkish soldiers in Idlib that sparked the demonstrations two weeks ago. Then, the next day, after the summit in Moscow last Thursday, the occupant of that presidential palace is smiling at his Russian interlocutor and handing him a gold embossed invitation to a meeting of the Turco-Russian Cooperation Council in İstanbul to mark the centennial of their countries’ bilateral relations.
As for the outcome of that summit, so much for the ultimatum Erdogan has reiterated for a month, ordering Syrian government forces to withdraw to the lines behind the Turkish observation posts in Idlib or else. The three-point “Additional Protocol to the Memorandum on Stabilisation of the Situation in the Idlib De-Escalation Area” that he signed with Putin on 5 March essentially recognises the new status quo on the ground. In addition to a halt to all military actions “along the line of contact” in the de-escalation zone, the agreement calls for the creation of a security corridor six kilometres deep to the south and six kilometres deep to the north of the M4 highway. On 15 March, the Russians and Turks will commence a joint patrol of that highway. Presumably, in the crucial interval before then, the two sides will be working to restrain the forces they back. It also gives time for one side — Damascus — to consolidate its new positions in the new territory it holds, which includes areas south of the M4, which had been part of the original de-escalation zone, not to mention the strategic M-5 highway that government forces captured recently.
The agreement, worked out after six hours of talks, is not just a setback for Erdogan’s Syrian ambitions. It looks like a form of punishment for Ankara’s failure to fulfil its obligations in accordance with the Astana and Sochi agreements. “Turkey did not fulfil its commitments under the Astana Agreement,” said Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Centre of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, as cited in Ahval, 23 February. Landis said that under the agreement, Turkey was supposed to ensure the withdrawal of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and their heavy weaponry from the planned demilitarised zone. Not only did Turkey fail to do this, but the group “continued to fire on Aleppo neighbourhoods and Syrian troops from the zone.” Thus, “far from containing HTS, Turkey even failed to prevent the group from expanding,” concludes Paul Iddon in Ahval. Citing another Middle East analyst, Kyle Orton, Iddon’s article concludes that “the present situation was inevitable since the Assad regime and his Russian and Iranian backers are adamant about reconquering all of Syria and Turkey’s ability to direct events on the ground is limited.”
Erdogan tried and failed to play both ends against the middle, thinking that fuelling a reversion to the Cold War would better serve his ambitions. However, the West, which is growing weary of his games, went no further than pro forma declarations of support. NATO armed itself with Article 5 of its charter concerning aggression against a fellow NATO member, which is clearly not applicable in the case of Turkey’s activities in Syria. In like manner, the UN pointed to Article 6 of its charter which, again, is not in Turkey’s favour, given that the Turkish soldiers who were killed in Idlib sacrificed their lives in a military campaign that violated the sovereignty of another UN member state. Erdogan even turned to the US, only to receive the curt response that, as US Defense Secretary Mark Esper put it, US forces have no intention to return to the Syrian-Turkish borders.
Frustrated at the corner into which he painted himself, Erdogan played the defiance card. The S-400 missile systems he purchased from Russia would go into operation in April as scheduled, he said. “The system belongs to us now that we’ve taken delivery of it.” If the bravado is good for keeping supporters happy and diverting attention away from failures, even many in his own camp suspect he’ll postpone that step at the last minute because of the spectre of sanctions that are hanging over his country’s head. In all events, the opposition in Turkey is not so easily distracted. They continue to ask awkward questions such as what are the Turkish army’s plans in Syria after more than 59 Turkish soldiers were killed there in less than a month? What steps is the army taking to bring HTS and other jihadist and terrorist groups under control in its areas of responsibility in Syria? Is Erdogan still pursuing the dream of overthrowing Al-Assad?
The refugee question is another area where Erdogan’s calculations may have backfired. Refugees have long served his demagogic purposes, as was the case when he lashed out against European “hypocrisy” on this question. On his way back from Moscow, he told his pool of reporters on board his presidential plane that the EU had given 700 million Euros to Greece to handle the refugee crisis at its borders and nothing to Turkey to deal with the same crisis. He also claimed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had promised 25 million Euro for refugees, but that Turkey hasn’t seen that money yet.
The next day, Erdogan softened his tone and the Turkish coast guard in the northwest province of Edirne announced that it had received instructions to prevent migrants from crossing by sea to Greek islands in the Aegean. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis pointed to this as further proof that Turkish authorities had orchestrated the refugee crisis on their border. Accusing Erdogan of breaching the 2016 agreement with the EU on migration, Mitsotakis said Turkey “has systematically encouraged and assisted tens of thousands of refugees and migrants to illegally enter Greece. It has failed, and will continue to fail, should it continue to pursue this strategy.” Greece, with its many islands, is an easier target for Erdogan than Bulgaria which shares a 259-kilometre long border with Turkey. Bulgarian Defence Minister Krasimir Karakachanov said that Turkey had not let migrants move towards the Bulgarian border because his government had taken the necessary precautions to protect them years ago, thereby nullifying potential migrant pressures on the border.
On Sunday, 8 March, Erdogan said that his government had not received the support it expected from the international community with regard to refugees, but that he hoped to reach a different result during his visit to Brussels the following day, at the invitation of EU Council President Charles Michel, whom Erdogan met in Ankara 4 March. However, European Commissioner for Budget and Administration Johannes Hahn has set out conditions in advance. He cautioned that the aid the EU gives Turkey to take care of refugees could be significantly less than under the previous agreement and that this aid would only be provided if “Ankara’s blackmailing policy of sending refugees towards the EU is stopped”.
Erdogan has previously called for changes to the refugee agreement. Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock, who called the current refugee agreement between the EU and Turkey a failure, would like to see a new agreement too. “Instead of this failed deal, we need a new agreement guaranteed by the rule of law, which learns from the mistakes of the past, ensures that people are well cared for and that the 27 EU states do not fall like dominoes when Erdogan blows once,” she told a German newspaper.
If the EU follows her advise, Erdogan will feel significant blowback from his refugee gambits as well.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly