After rallying against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel variously, hasn’t Turkey reconciled with all the three?
Saurabh Kumar Shahi
Early last month as the ‘moderate opposition’ fighters in Northern Syria were going about their daily routine of acting like Al Qaeda lite, oblivious to the fact that the rug was being pulled from below their feet, Turkey’s President Erdogan—long seen as the benevolent Sunni neo-caliph—was not-so-quietly negotiating a u-turn that would prove fatal to the Ikhwani dreams of taking over Damascus. Those who have known Erdogan know that he is a champion of two traits: making embarrassing u-turns and surviving against all odds and conventional wisdom.
It emerged that after years of fuelling the jihadi war against the Syrian state, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is desperate to strike a deal with President Assad and his allies. A weather balloon in this regard was launched by the current Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a press conference aboard a plane to let the press know that a rapprochement of sorts was on the cards. The minister also revealed that not only had the intelligence chiefs of both the countries met several times since October of last year, but he too had briefly met with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad to carry the process forward.
The reaction in Turkey-occupied Northern Syria was severe. Spontaneous protests against this rapprochement erupted in at least 15 settlements leading to the burning of Turkish flags and the killing of two protestors in firing. In the face of such a reaction, the Turkish foreign minister appeared to walk back on his public pronouncement, but sources in Ankara say that the reconciliation process continues unabated behind the curtains.
It is important to understand here why Turkey in general, and Erdogan in particular, is pushing ahead with this peace process. Turkey is facing a financial catastrophe unseen in the last 90 years. The falling Lira and unbridled inflation—which is at a shocking 80 per cent—have made the lives of an average Turk a living hell. Not a day passes without one section of it or the other going on strike demanding pay raise. Once their darling, Erdogan now grapples with these protesters by simply resorting to the choicest of abuses.
Already cash-strapped, the intervention in the Syrian War is becoming unsustainable for Ankara. Turkey’s occupation of the northern territories of Syria costs in access of $3 billion every year with nothing to show for it. The expenditure incurred by the Turkish government in sustaining close to 4 million Syrian refugees has surpassed $45 billion. Experts inside Turkey suggest that this amount is as high as $100 billion, if not more, which, simply put, is unsustainable.
Then there’s the issue of general resentment against the Syrian refugees inside Turkey. Increasingly, more and more Turks are seeing them as a burden and are lashing out at them. A section of the Syrian refugees—who are variously exposed to a version of Salafi Islam or are ideologically inclined towards Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen—are also finding themselves at odds with the relaxed and secular lifestyle of most Turks, including those they perceive as Islamists. If they found the lifestyles of Alawites, Ithna Ashari Shias and liberal Sunnis inside Syria to be a life of sin, one can imagine what they think of the Alevis and secular Sunnis inside Turkey. This has brought the situation to a boil and random attacks against Syrian refugees are on the rise.
An otherwise uninspiring Turkish opposition has latched onto this sentiment and is reaping benefits. For example, Meral Aksener, the leader of the far-right nationalist Iyi Party has used incendiary language against the refugees and has seen his party’s fortune grow. Ümit Özdağ, a professor of political science who formed the Zafer Partisi, is not only more incendiary in his utterings but is downright racist. He has managed to capture the Turks’ imagination on repatriating Syrian Refugees to such an extent that he is polling ahead of Erdogan in a direct contest.
This has stumped not only Erdogan but his core ally and the original racist and nationalist outfit, MHP. It was not surprising that its leader, Devlet Bahceli, a man unpleasant in all manners, has been the biggest proponent of this rapprochement as he sees his party’s base eroded by the likes of Iyi and Zafar Partisi. Both Erdogan’s AKP and its ally MHP want to steal a march on the opposition before the polls in May next year where they are faring poorly. Erdogan is losing to every possible joint-opposition candidate in a direct fight by at least 10 percentage points if not more even as this piece is being written.
However, the détente, sponsored by Russia, Iran and UAE combined, is easier said than done. The pressure on Erdogan is enormous. In fact, sources suggest that Qatar is also involved behind the scene, the last to fold among the Persian Gulf countries. The sanctions on Russia have offered a great opportunity to Erdogan. Russia is massively using Turkey to bypass the sanctions. This is the lifeline Turkey, more importantly Erdogan, needs. However, Turkey is not the only option for Kremlin. For Ankara to continue to be in Moscow’s good books, it needs to do more. Putin has made it clear to Erdogan several times in the dialogue that he wants the détente to happen.
But is it that easy? The primary demand in Ankara’s opening gambit is the expansion of the famous Adana Accord of 1998 that it struck with Damascus. Ankara wants to establish a 19-mile safe zone along the border inside Syria where it can go for the hot pursuit of Kurdish PKK militants as and when it wants. Turkey claims that the original Adana Accord had the equivalent provision of 3 miles. The Accord documents available in public don’t have any such provision. In any case, Damascus didn’t ratify the accord even if it abided by its other provisions in letter and spirit.
Turkey also wants to resettle the Syrian refugees in this 19-mile corridor as well as inside the government-held cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Derra.
Damascus, as of now, is having none of it. It believes, not without merit, that a slippery character like Erdogan cannot be trusted to keep his word. It fears that as soon as Erdogan wins the elections riding on the rapprochement, he could renege on the deal. It, therefore, wants the Turkish withdrawal from the Syrian territories first before anything else can move.
Second, it is likely that it will agree to a joint hot pursuit of PKK militants with the Turkish military in a zone lesser than the demanded 19 miles but greater than the stipulated 3 miles in the original Adana Accord as Ankara claims.
However, all these can only be guaranteed if and when Turkey withdraws.
The Kremlin and Damascus have time at hand. They collectively want to leverage the ever-present threat of a Turkish operation in the Northeast to scare the Syrian Kurds to abandon the United States and join with the government once again. Simultaneously, it is stroking Turkey’s insecurities that if it doesn’t go for a détente soon, the Kurds will ally with Damascus and bring the war to the Turkish soil. It is not for nothing that Ankara’s biggest fear is that Damascus shall move to integrate militants from SDF, YPG and PKK into the state institutions. One of Ankara’s initial demands is to ask Damascus to refrain from that.
If this détente is achieved, how will Erdogan sell it to its core voters who have stuck by him despite all the problems? Sources in Turkey say it is easy. The religious-minded voters of AKP find one way or the other to reconcile with the several u-turns that their caliph takes. After all, after rallying against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel variously, hasn’t Turkey reconciled with all three with Erdogan meeting their leaders with his tail between his legs?
Saurabh Kumar Shahi has covered The Greater Middle East for over 15 years and has reported from Kabul, Peshawar, Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem among other places.