Erdogan has blundered, and his current isolation is mostly self-inflicted. Instead of gaining middle ground and allies for a neo-Ottoman vision of a Trumpesque – “Make Turkey Great Again”, he has opted for a geopolitical partnership with Russia, defying the gravity of history. In Syria, he thought he could go it alone, without support from his partners in the West and is currently not only facing existential problems but is putting at risk his grip on power in Turkey.
Where he went wrong?
Russia and Turkey have been rivals in history, and despite playing against the historical tide, Erdogan has finally arrived at the same conclusion his predecessors have come to – Russia’s interests run inherently counter to Turkey’s.
If Putin needs to pick between a strategic partnership with Turkey and full control of Syria, essential for his Middle East posture, he will choose to confront Turkey. When possible not openly and not directly, leaving most of the legwork to proxies, but ultimately he will control the shots.
Two Russian frigates, equipped with Caliber cruise missiles, passed through the Bosphorus to the Mediterranean Sea, calling Erdogan’s bluff of shutting down the Bosphorus straits, which sends a strong signal that Putin plans to negotiate out of a position of strength.
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The Turkish President gaffed buying Russian S-400, which are useless against the Russians. He still relies on Russian technical personnel, which makes them worthless in defending his troops against Russian or Asad plane air raids. His main motive behind the purchase was to have an independent capacity to protect himself against Western planes, including his own air-force. Now he is $2,5 billion and the 40 Turkish soldiers’ lives off target.
NATO air-defense system still protects Turkey’s air space from the south. Again, it does not cover Syrian air-space, and NATO members are unlikely to agree to confront Russia beyond NATO borders without explicit mandate and purpose. US support is critical, but President Trump is unlikely to change his mind in an election year unless he sees the merit in helping Turkey behind the scenes with weapons and technology. The US president could use this in his campaign to counter allegations of being a Putin proxy.
A possible development, but unlikely, at least for now.
Erdogan has alienated the EU in search of an elusive energy kingmaker’s status in the East Med. Restoring trust is neither easy nor automatic.
Turkey has asked the North Atlantic Council, which includes the ambassadors of all 29 NATO allies, for urgent consultations on the situation in Syria under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty. While it is true that any threat to the territorial integrity of a NATO country is a threat to all members, it is unlikely that NATO will engage in Syria, not even to stop a refugee crisis.
Russia will not risk confrontation with NATO but is likely to stand its ground in Syria and protect its protege Assad in his attempts to kick out all remnants of the Syrian opposition. A new tide of refugees suits Putin well.
Unless the US gets involved, Erdogan will not dare move more aggressively.
Reversing Turkish-Russian relations is neither forgone nor easy. Putin’s going to walk a fine line, trying to avoid conflicts but will not back down. However, worst-case scenarios of direct war are premature for now. The Kremlin’s Tzar, regardless of his macho posture, will avoid a cowboy standoff with Erdogan. Although both like to play tough guys, they stand to lose a lot more than gain.
Today’s phone call between the two presidents could be the first step in a de-escalation process. This is a probability, not a certainty. The fact the Lavrov went out to meet the press means that the situation is tense and is above the grade of Peskov to explain. The condolences offered by the Russian foreign minister over the death of 33 Turkish soldiers, could be interpreted by Ankara as adding insult to injury.
In short, the chances for a full-scale confrontation between Russia and Turkey in Syria are slim, and the two presidents might meet soon.
The honeymoon, however, is over.
The critical takeaways – Turkey will reconsider its relations with Russia, including the purchase of military hardware and in the energy field. The immediate impact will be traced in the gas talks between Botas and Gazprom, as well as on the Turk Stream.
Turkey will play the refugee weapon against the EU but will need to reach a compromise and not overstretch. Turkey remains all too important for the EU – therefore, it will have the right to expect more significant help to stave off a humanitarian crisis.
Although President Erdogan deserves criticism for his selfish approach to the Idlib province crisis and in dealing with the Kurds – he is right that this is a major humanitarian crisis, and the West is doing little or nothing. Both the EU and the US have done little to bring to the fore the bombing raids of both Russian and Syrian government planes and the mass killing of civilians that have triggered the new refugee wave. This reaction to this perpetrated genocide by Assad’s regime constitutes a moral and policy failure of the West.
Finally, both the EU and NATO should get involved in warding off a new round in the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria despite a plethora of excuses back home.
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