Analysis

With U.S. Pullout, Erdogan in Pole Position to Shape Syria to His Liking

Spat between Turkey and U.S. over American support for Kurds played into Putin's hands ■ Taking aim at social media, Erdogan cracks down on ‘terror’

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters raise Turkish and opposition flags in the north of Aleppo province before heading to the Kurdish-controlled town of Manbij, on December 29, 2018.
Nazeer AL-KHATIB / AFP

The Turkish Justice Ministry was very busy in 2018. According to data published by the Interior Ministry, some 45,000 social media users – mainly on Facebook and Twitter – were identified as having published “statements of support or encouragement for terror” on their accounts. Of these, some 18,000 were investigated and a portion of those were indicted.

The opposition website Ahval added another fascinating statistic: Between 2010 and 2017, 12,893 prosecutions for insulting the president were launched. Of these, 12,305 were for insulting Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who became president in 2014.

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The latest victim was the CEO of the Turkish branch of HSBC, Suleyman Selim Kervanci, who was investigated this week because of something he tweeted five years ago, when Erdogan was still prime minister. The tweet included a link to a clip from the film “Downfall,” about Adolf Hitler’s last days, in which the original subtitles had been replaced with the words, “A parting kiss from Hitler: He complained about the dispersal of the demonstration in Gezi Park.”

Social media users knew who that was aimed at: Erdogan was the one who ordered the forcible dispersal of the 2013 demonstration, which protested an urban development plan for the Istanbul park. He also swore to settle accounts with anyone who demonstrated or supported the demonstration, and has kept that promise almost in full.

The bank’s CEO has denied publishing the tweet and said he didn’t know what it was about when he received it.

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Another urgent task has been added to the Justice Ministry’s regular workload – producing evidence against Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric exiled to the United States, who Erdogan accuses of planning and fomenting the failed coup against him in July 2016. This week, a team of American prosecutors came to Ankara to once again review the ministry’s evidence in preparation for extradition proceedings against Gulen.

According to Erdogan, U.S. President Donald Trump promised “to work on the matter.” This seemingly noncommittal statement has been interpreted as a turning point in American policy. Until now, Washington has vehemently rejected Ankara’s demand for Gulen’s extradition, thereby igniting a fire that is devouring the bilateral relationship.

Does Trump plan to extradite Gulen as part of a deal? Is this what he promised Turkey in exchange for freeing American pastor Andrew Brunson, or is it a sign that relations between Ankara and Washington are warming?

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“Warming” isn’t exactly the word used by U.S. officials. But no one disputes that Turkey’s power and influence are growing, especially because of the strategic partnership it has forged with Russia. This has led America to take steps to try to ensure that its NATO partner doesn’t cross the lines.

In late December, a high-level Turkish delegation visited Russia to discuss military and diplomatic arrangements in Syria following Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the war-torn country. It included Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, senior presidential advisor Ibrahim Kalin and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan.

“Russia and Turkey have a decisive role in solving the conflict in Syria,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said after the meeting. It’s interesting that he didn’t mention Iran as a partner in the diplomatic moves Russia is planning.

A list of the telephone conversations Putin held with regional leaders in 2018 shows that he spoke with Erdogan at least 18 times, compared to just two conversations each with Trump and Saudi leaders, and 10 with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last month, the underwater portion of a gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey (which will later extend to Europe) was inaugurated. Russia also recently lifted its ban on imports of Turkish tomatoes, which it imposed along with other harsh sanctions after Turkey downed a Russian plane in Turkish airspace in November 2015.

Russia hasn’t interfered with Turkey’s occupation of the Kurdish city of Afrin in northern Syria. And when Turkey threatened to expand its conquests eastward to the Euphrates River, Russia kept mum, in contrast to Washington, which demanded that Erdogan shelve the plan.

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For now, he has shelved it, even declaring that, “If the terrorists leave the city of Manbij, Turkey will have no reason to take action in this area.” Said “terrorists” are the Kurdish fighters who captured the city in 2016 as part of their war, together with America, against the Islamic State.

Erdogan claims Washington promised that the Kurds would withdraw from the city after taking it, or at least that it would collect the heavy weapons it gave the Kurds to use in the assault. But for now, the Kurds continue to control the city, so Erdogan’s threat to attack it remains in force.

The spat between Turkey and America over the latter’s support for the Kurds has played into Russia’s hands. Coupled with Trump’s decision to withdraw, it has spurred some Kurdish leaders to seek the Syrian army’s help and protection against a Turkish assault.

Syrian President Bashar Assad didn’t hesitate: His government soon published photographs of Syrian soldiers patrolling around Manbij.

A member of Manbij Military Council gestures at a car in Manbij city, Syria December 29, 2018. Picture taken December 29, 2018.
\ RODI SAID/ REUTERS

Turkey claims the pictures aren’t of the city itself, but of its environs, and that the soldiers haven’t actually entered Manbij. But whether the photos are authentic or not, the very fact that the Kurds appealed to Syria shows that even if American forces stay there for another four months, this won’t suffice to assuage the Kurds or change their attitude toward the Assad regime.

Thus the Turkish threat is serving Russia’s goal, which is for the Assad regime to regain control over all of Syria. Yet at the same time, Ankara and Moscow share the goal of a united Syria rather than a state comprised of cantons or a federative state like Iraq, in which the Kurds enjoy autonomy.

But to protect Turkey’s interests over time, Erdogan will have to change his attitude toward Assad. He’ll have to grit his teeth, recognize Assad as Syria’s ruler and sign military agreements with him to ensure that the Kurds won’t be able to set up an autonomous region and threaten Turkey from it.

The only person who could guarantee such an agreement is Putin, and Putin doesn’t give any free lunches. Turkey’s recognition of Assad and resumption of bilateral diplomatic relations is likely to be just the first step Russia will demand.

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Next, Moscow will ask Ankara to help rebuild Syria and return the Syrian refugees living in Turkey, even if most have no homes or jobs to which to return, and also to complete its purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia. Putin may even ask Turkey to sign a defense pact, which would void the country’s NATO membership of any meaning.

On the domestic field, Erdogan is an omnipotent president with a supportive parliamentary majority who can arrest his rivals at will. He is now preparing for local elections in March, which will once again demonstrate his power. But on the international field, he is forced to play as part of a team.

On the Syrian field, new players have recently joined the game, including the Gulf States. Two of them, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have already renewed diplomatic relations with Syria. Iraq and Egypt are apparently next in line, and the entire Arab League is now debating whether to restore Syria to its place of honor.

Here, Turkey may find itself at odds with Russia, which is pushing the Arab states to resume relations with Syria. Yet many Arab League members, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, continue to view Turkey as a hostile country. Thus if Riyadh agrees to pay the bills for rebuilding Syria, as Trump grandly proclaimed, it will also want to dictate the terms, which will include removing Iran from Syria and blocking Turkey’s influence.

Assad, the customer, will then be able to choose which alliance he prefers, subject to the orders he receives from Moscow. And Iran has no guarantee that he will prefer Turkey to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

This week, Trump threw an unexpected bombshell into the Turkish-Russian plans for Syria when, at a meeting with journalists, he declared that the Iranians “can do what they want,” in Syria, “but they’re pulling people out.” He thereby ended America’s involvement in Syria by “giving” Iran a free hand there.

This should especially worry Israel, which can understand from Trump’s statement that it has no American backing for its military operations in Syria. Israel will also be unable to count on the U.S. to mediate between it and Russia, or press Moscow to persuade Iran to remove its forces from Syria – or at least distance them from the Israeli border. In other words, anyone fighting in Syria is doing so on his own responsibility; America will merely watch from the sidelines.

But this policy could also affect Russia and Turkey, which seek to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria. Until now, they could largely rely on the fact that America would work with Israel to get Iran out, sparing them the need to confront it directly. Now, they’ll have to vie with Iran over the map of Syria by themselves.