Turkey’s regional gambits have come up short

Turkey’s regional gambits have come up short

Not much is going Turkey’s way nowadays. As a key regional player, 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 President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s overreaching ambitions, which have subdued efforts to chart a steady course for Turkey in a turbulent region.

The most recent miscalculation is 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. Ankara’s objectives are ambiguous. Setting up a military base in Qatar serves no clear strategic purpose, but it is a provocative move that contributes to destabilizing the region and raising the stakes on reaching a diplomatic solution 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 Gulf countries to defuse tensions and remove obstacles. Ironically, it now finds itself in the same camp as 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 hard-line policy on Syria has backfired on a number of occasions. 

A potential confrontation with Russia, following the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey’s air force in 2015, ended with a sudden pivot toward 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 — of which Turkey, Russia and Iran are key sponsors — have failed to achieve a sustainable cease-fire 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.

Erdogan’s main goal of stemming 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, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have pledged to confront Turkey and its allies in northwest Syria. Ankara wants to control a corridor from Jarablus to Idlib to undercut Kurdish territorial and political ambitions. 

Erdogan had asked the Trump administration to choose between Turkey and Syrian Kurds in the campaign to liberate Raqqa from Daesh. Washington has snubbed Ankara. Even more worrying for Turkey is the fate of US weapons given to the SDF once Raqqa is captured. When it comes to what Turkey sees as an existential Kurdish threat coming from either Syria or Iraq, the strategic evaluation is not good.

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

Osama Al-Sharif

Since the Syrian crisis erupted more than six years ago, Erdogan has 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, Ankara looked the other way as tens of thousands of Syrian refugees risked their lives crossing the sea between Turkey and Greece in a bid to reach European countries. Erdogan used this humanitarian tragedy to secure an aid package and other concessions from the EU. 

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 Gulf countries and the US, recognized President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s regime.

Besides Turkey’s uneasy relations with Washington and European capitals, it has struggled to normalize ties with the region, in an ironic reversal of the much-publicized “zero problems with neighbors” 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 fact he has been reacting to unfolding events rather than sticking to a clear plan.

One thing 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 rapport between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be tested in the near future. 

Putin’s high-stakes 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 runs a politically divided country that is struggling economically, domestic challenges will only increase following the post-failed-coup purge. His attempt to demonize Syrian Kurds will do little to offset his problems with Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Most of Turkey’s regional gambits have come up short. The course now looks intractable at best. 

• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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