On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had an op-ed column in the New York Times, praising U.S. President Donald Trump and presenting his country as one of the “right partners to protect the interests of the United States” following the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria. On Tuesday, Erdogan snubbed Trump’s representative, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and refused to meet him during his visit to Ankara.
Erdogan went a step further, saying in a speech to party members in parliament that Turkey did not accept Bolton’s remarks on Sunday in Jerusalem, to the effect that the withdrawal is conditioned on members of the U.S.-supported Kurdish Syrian militias not being harmed by Turkey, and that the United States would continue to protect Israel from Iranian operations in Syria and Iraq.
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So is Turkey an American ally? Is this just another tantrum by the volatile Erdogan? Is there a more coherent strategy at work on Syria?
Erdogan has multiple motives. In the short term he is preparing for important local elections in two months, and Kurd-bashing is always popular with the voters. Another military campaign in northern Syria will also provide the tame Turkish media with patriotic footage of soldiers on the move.
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But there are more constant factors at work. Turkey considers the American-supported and Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as an affiliate of the PKK, a terror organization according to Turkish law. Add to this the fact that Ankara has always seen Syria as its backyard, and Trump’s withdrawal was a surprising but welcome opportunity to expand its presence there.
Nothing has changed in long-term Turkish policy, Erdogan’s political interests and regional ambitions. The change is in U.S. policy. Trump has indicated that he has no interest in the region, sees no problem in leaving a power vacuum in Syria and doesn’t care who fills it. Erdogan – and, quite frankly, any other Turkish leader would be doing the same in his place – is planning to fill that vacuum.
Whether or not he angers the U.S. administration while doing so is not the main consideration. Turkey is a major buyer of American arms, and Trump has already shown he is willing to do a lot for arms sales. The Turkish Air Force is still on track to receive F-35 fighters later this year, despite also planning to purchase Russian S-400 air-defense systems, risking the F-35’s stealth capabilities. Erdogan’s snub of Bolton is based on his assessment that he can get away with it without incurring Trump’s anger. And he is probably right.
Israel’s security and intelligence communities have divided views on Turkey’s role in the region. There are those convinced that Erdogan has shifted the country decisively in an anti-Western and anti-Israeli direction, and that it should be viewed as a hostile actor in the region, along with Iran. They base this assessment on the coordination between the two countries in Syria and the fact that, despite previous commitments, Turkey is still a base for senior Hamas operatives, directing attacks in the West Bank from Istanbul.
The opposing view holds that while Erdogan is incurably hostile to Israel and quite likely an anti-Semite, Turkey’s geographical location, its membership in NATO and identity as a non-Arab nation mean that it remains a potential ally – at least after Erdogan leaves the stage.
Three players are now determined to establish strongholds in Syria: Turkey, Russia and Iran. Their leaders held two joint summits in 2018 to ensure they didn’t step on each other’s toes. The optimistic view in Israel is that Turkey, which believes it is the main Sunni power, will ultimately clash with Shia Iran over supremacy in Syria and that Russia will rein both of them in. But Israeli pessimists fear the deep antipathy toward Israel shared by Erdogan and the Iranian leadership will help them overcome their rivalry.