Why Turkey won’t hitch Syrian wagon with US

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on rare visit to frontline in northwestern Idlib province, October 2019. (File photo)

The remark by President Recep Erdogan on Friday that Turkey might militarily intervene in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province fuelled speculation that tensions between Ankara and Moscow have reached a point of no return. 

However, this is nothing but wishful thinking. The calm rebuttal by the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov signalled a measure of confidence that Moscow’s ties with Turkey are in no such danger. Peskov said in measured tone, “We don’t agree with this view [of Erdogan]. Russia is in full compliance with the Sochi agreements on the Idlib zone. At the same time, we regret to say that the situation is far from perfect.”  

He added that “a large number of terrorists remain in the area and continue aggressive attacks on the Syrian army and Russia’s Hmeymim air base. It causes us huge concern.” 

Moscow is on strong ground. Turkey failed to honour its commitment under Sochi agreements to separate the ‘moderate’ groups supported by it from the al-Qaeda affiliates ensconced in Idlib (also with covert support from outside.) Besides, the Sochi agreements on Idlib do allow operations against extremist / terrorist groups. 

Peskov’s ‘reasonableness’ suggests that Moscow is seeking Erdogan’s understanding and wouldn’t want the US to exploit the Turkish disquiet over any refugee influx from Idlib. The US is already fishing in troubled waters, as evident from the sudden visit to Ankara on Friday by Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of the US European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander-Europe. 

The US doesn’t want the Russian-Syrian operation in Idlib (with the participation of the Iran-trained militia groups) to make headway and wrest control of the sole remaining preserve of the al-Qaeda affiliates armed and equipped by western powers. 

Wolters’ mission to Ankara also aimed at persuading Turkey to help eject the Russian military presence in northeast Syria, which the US regards as its exclusive zone. The Pentagon wants to revive its deal with Turkey establishing a ‘safe zone’ 145 kilometers in length and 30 km in depth in northern Syria, with the US undertaking that its Kurdish allies would be withdrawn from that area. (The US didn’t keep its word and Turkey eventually struck a deal with Russia on similar lines.) 

Interestingly, on the eve of Wolters’ arrival in Ankara, Russian and Turkish forces conducted yet another joint patrol in the countryside of Al-Darbasiyah and Ras Al-Ain in the northeast extreme of the Turkish-Syrian border. Despite the US provocations to make life difficult for the Russian military presence in that remote Kurdish region near Iraq, Russian forces have dug in, which of course is also in Turkish interests. 

The Russian objective is to steadily expand the Syrian government control of the border regions with Turkey, which would incrementally lead to direct dealings between Ankara and Damascus on issues of border security. In sum, Moscow doesn’t seem to be unduly perturbed that the US is about to get back into bed with Turkey. 

Turkey harbours serious misgivings about the US intentions regarding Kurds. Ankara has failed to break the nexus between the US and the Kurdish militant groups and if anything, the Pentagon commanders are lately rather blasé about the axis. Therefore, Turkey cannot afford to put its eggs in the American basket when it comes to northeast Syria. 

Importantly, the suspicion is deep-rooted in the Turkish mind that the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan by the movement led by Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen (who lives in exile in the US since 1998) was supported by the US military and intelligence circles.

Meanwhile, US-Turkey relations may become toxic what with the US prosecutors in New York asking a federal judge on January 21 to impose escalating fines on Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank for failing to respond in court to criminal charges that it helped Iran evade US sanctions. The proposed fines on the bank is a $1 million-per-day fine – a penalty that would double for each week of further non-compliance. It could total $1.8 billion after eight weeks. 

The case against Halkbank has been a longstanding point of tension in the increasingly fraught relationship between Ankara and Washington. Some analysts estimate that it is the single most explosive issue that could blow up the Turkish-American relationship. 

If Halkbank decides to acquiesce and appear in court, the case will tarnish the reputation of the Erdogan government. The case implicates senior Turkish ministers, top Halkbank executives and even Erdogan and his family members as beneficiaries of the sanctions-busting efforts. 

On the other hand, if the Halkbank insists on its civil contempt of court, that might ultimately severe its ties with the US financial system, hurting not only the bank but also Turkey’s financial sector, and send Turkish-American relations into a free fall.

Can the Trump administration intervene in the Halkbank case and rescue Erdogan? That likelihood can also be ruled out in the downstream of the reported allegation by former NSA in the White House John Bolton in his upcoming memoirs that Trump who has a property in Turkey was inclined to grant favours to Erdogan. 

In such a sombre backdrop, it is highly improbable that Erdogan can afford to hitch Turkish wagons with the US. Having said that, Erdogan is under pressure from Turkish public opinion on the refugee problem. He may have to be seen doing ‘something’ to stall the Syrian offensive in Idlib.

No doubt, Ankara has sharpened its messaging but there is no clear Turkish strategy in view. The only viable option will be to accept the new facts on the ground. Possibly, as happened so often before, President Vladimir Putin will step in at some point to hold Erdogan’s hand.