by Yavuz Baydar
One point emerges as undisputable after the series of terror attacks, and the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara by a police officer: Turkey, now showing strong signs as ‘ungovernable’ under the AKP rule, is sinking all more deeply into the quagmire it let itself for five years dragged into.
The bloody attack against elite soldiers in Kayseri led to the killing of 14 of them, followed by the car bomb attack in Istanbul leaving 44 – many of them policemen – and the assassination of a top diplomat…
As the day nears its end, the news just in, telling that 10 soldiers were killed in an ambush by ISIS in al Bab. 18 wounded, eight of them heavily.
The acceleration of terror is obvious, exposing Turkey as unsafe ground, penetrable to acts of evil, and increasingly unstable.
At home, no matter how hard he tries, Erdoğan’s hard rhetoric starts to lose weight. He had already lost considerable amount of credibility abroad, and, particularly after the killing of the Russian ambassador, his clashing with Russian sources about whether the killer was from FETO or al Nusra starts sinking his reputation, albeit slowly, at home.
Now, with what the new wave of instability will offer next, and how efficiently Erdoğan will struggle, being unknowns, two elements are to be noted.
First, it is now apparent that both ISIS and Al Nusra perceive the recent u-turn of the AKP in Aleppo as a ‘sell-out’, which means that, adding the upcoming battle in Idlib, causing an exodus of İslamist militants, Turkey will be even more vulnerable to Jihadist terror within its borders. At worst, it may turn out to be the next stage for sporadic bloodbaths, random urban terror in their agenda, triggering huge instability and horror.
Second, after the assassination of the Russian ambassador, Erdoğan’s AKP in practice diplomatically surrendered to Putin, ready to abandon its national interests to serve Russia’s and Iran’s. It has come to a very delicate crossroads, due to its obstinacy about a regime change in Syria, and the endless series of sectarian, erratic, anti-Kurdish choices alongside its southern border.
From now on it will be Moscow that will call the shots and steer the course. And it will be backed by Iran, whose discreet battle with Turkey for domination in Iraq and Syria, will be boosted by the upper hand Putin has gotten, as a result of the murder.
As Dimitar Bechev – an expert on Black Sea, Russia and Turkey, and a Research Fellow at the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies in the University of North Carolina, wrote:
Turkey will have to go the extra mile in accommodating Russia – most likely in Syria but potentially on other issues as well. Moscow has the higher ground and will undoubtedly milk the opportunity to the best of its abilities. This much is certain.
And however the Turkish government spins it, the assassination shows the country in the worst possible light: as weak, divided and vulnerable, unable to provide for the security of top officials in the heart of Ankara’s diplomatic quarter. It comes after bomb attacks by an offshoot of the PKK in Istanbul and Kayseri. What’s more, the authorities’ dual strategy of cutting deals with Russia while allowing a popular outpouring of indignation over Syria (e.g. the regular protests outside the Russian Consulate in Istanbul and the recent rally in solidarity with the people of Aleppo) appears to have backfired, in the most literal sense. Today’s Turkey is a far cry from the confident country that wanted to reshape the Middle East in its image at the time when the Arab Spring started – far less a power capable of playing hard ball with a neighbour such as Putin’s Russia, which will pull no punches.
This points to one of the directions for Erdoğan, at the crossroads.
Then, there is the other one.
Nick Danforth, a senior policy analyst with Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC, summarizes it as follows:
In the coming years, Turkey’s relationship with the United States may well depend on whether it comes to be viewed as Iran’s partner or rival. As Turkish-Iranian relations have become more strained, some in Ankara have already tried to curry favor in Washington by presenting Turkey as a potential ally in combatting Iranian influence.
If nothing else, emphasizing Turkey’s anti-Iranian credentials served as one way to deflect criticism directed at Ankara for its often counterproductive role in the fight against ISIL.
Now, with Trump’s election, Ankara’s appeal to American Iran-hawks might become even more effective. If U.S. policy, for better or worse, takes a dramatically more confrontational approach toward Iran, could anti-Iranian solidarity provide a new foundation for rebuilding the U.S.-Turkish relationship?
In the event of a U.S.-Iranian showdown, the challenge will be for Turkish President Erdogan to convince his potential partners in Washington that Ankara is really on their side.
…Turkey’s relations with Iran have appeared increasingly strained the past month. In early December, the Turkish government publicly accused an Iranian drone of participating in an attack on Turkish forces in northern Syria in which three soldiers were killed. Longstanding accusations about Iranian support for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) have also resurfaced along with charges of neo-Persian imperialism.
Then, with anger running high over the fall of Aleppo, Ankara carefully directed the brunt of its outrage at Iran. Turkish officials argued that while Russia and Turkey had negotiated an agreement to facilitate the evacuation of civilians from rebel held areas, Iran sabotaged the plan and in doing so, facilitated Assad’s war crimes.
Under the title “Iran derails Aleppo cease-fire,” a recent piece by the editorial board of Turkey’s English language, pro-government paper Daily Sabah offered a preview of Ankara’s anti-Iran pitch to the Trump administration. In language calculated to echo right-wing criticism in the American press, the editorial accuses Obama of having “outsourced part of the counterterrorism effort in Syria to Iranian-backed Shiite militias” and “allowed Tehran to get away with a rogue nuclear program.” It then calls on Washington and the Trump administration to “acknowledge Mr. Obama’s mistakes” and “take necessary steps to put an end to Iranian expansionism in the region.” And with both Ankara and Washington now seemingly committed to improving relations with Russia, the editorial also calls on Putin to reconsider his relationship with Iran and Assad.
Amidst strained relations with its Western allies, the collapse of anti-Assad forces in Syria and an ongoing, even escalating, conflict with the PKK, Ankara would certainly benefit from finding a place in a new anti-Iranian axis — especially if it could convince Washington to treat the PKK as an arm of Iranian influence. Looking at the incoming administration, Turkish policymakers would not be alone in concluding that a new era of U.S.-Iranian hostility is coming. Trump has declared his support for tearing up the nuclear deal, while many of those around him have taken even more hawkish positions on Iran. In addition, for those in Washington who see Trump’s eagerness to accommodate Russia as a threat to America’s stature and credibility, confronting Iran offers a potential route for re-establishing it.
From Ankara’s point of view, the ideal might be joining a renewed American effort to contain Iran without ever quite having to confront Iran either. Depending on how American policy develops, Turkey could well get its wish or perhaps more confrontation than it bargained for.
In short, this is clear:
Erdoğan has been caught between a rock and a hard place.
And, he has only a single politician / decision maker to blame: