By Ranj Alaaldin
[Ed. Note: PPJC is holding an “emergency forum” on the complicated situation in Syria — Deciphering Syria on 12/1]
Turkey is getting desperate. Under President Recep Tayip Erdogan and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), its policies toward the conflict in Syria over the past four years have been misguided and costly. When conflict broke out in 2011, Ankara mistakenly under-estimated the strength of the Assad regime and supported hardline Islamist groups seeking its downfall. In the process, Turkey also marginalised the Kurds and alienated regional powers like Iran.
Four years on, Assad looks set to hold onto power and his regime will be a central part of a transition plan, one that foreign powers were negotiating last weekend. Turkey’s regional rival, Iran, is a key player which can no longer be ignored by the West. Not only does the pro-Assad alliance now have Russian support firmly on its side, but the international community is no longer focused on defeating the regime – instead, it is concerned with defeating jihadist groups like Isis.
The shift in focus is a significant drawback for Erdogan. Years of support for, and investment in, Islamic fundamentalist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria) and Ahrar al-Sham are about to go to waste. Ankara has played a significant role in allowing Isis and other jihadists to flourish in Syria and the region. Turkey has acquiesced to jihadist groups entering Syria via Turkey as well as their use of Turkey as a transit point for smuggling arms and funds into Syria.
The Kurds in Syria, meanwhile, have established themselves as a reliable Western ally and have created, in the process, an autonomous Kurdish region that has reinvigorated Kurdish nationalism in Turkey and across the region – much to Turkey’s dismay as it continues a brutal military campaign to repress the Kurds.
In other words, Turkey has no interest in the peaceful settlement to the conflict in Syria that world powers are negotiating. As it gets desperate, Turkey will attempt to bring focus back on the Assad regime and reverse the losses it has made both in Syria and geopolitically. The decision to bring down the Russian jet is, therefore, likely to have had other political factors behind it – particularly since the jet, as far as we know, posed no immediate threat to Turkey’s national security.
Domestically, Erdogan thrives on a climate of fear and uncertainty. This worked for him in the country’s snap elections earlier this month, during which he regained the majority he lost in June after months of bombings, violence and divisive rhetoric.
Ankara’s downing of the Russian jet may provide a useful diversion as it seeks to intensify its military campaign against the Kurds, particularly in the Kurdish-dominated Mardin province, where MPs were assaulted in recent days. Two days ago, Selahattin Demirtas, head of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) who shot to international acclaim in the country’s national elections, survived an assassination attempt in Kurdish-dominated Diyarbakir.
These tactics will not be without long-term costs and will undermine the chances of peace in Syria as well as the West’s effort to defeat Isis.
The West appeased and bolstered Erdogan in Turkey in the run-up to the country’s elections, with the aim of securing a deal with Ankara on the refugee crisis. It may now regret that. Erdogan is not only likely to drive a hard bargain but he may also walk away.
He has never cared much for the EU and has only sought engagement with the West when under pressure at home. But Turkey is not an indispensable ally and should not be considered as such. Unless the West starts to seriously exert pressure, Erdogan will have little incentive to stop his damaging policies.