As Turkey Struggles, The Sultan is Up to His Old Tricks
21st Century Wire
Facing an uncertain presidential election in what was once touted as the pinnacle event of his legacy as uncontested leader of the Turkish republic, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s path to reelection is fraught with obstacles.
The economic miracle of the first 20 years of his tenure is now a fading memory. Inflation has soared to 73% while the Turkish Lira has significantly depreciated in a context which has seen him directly getting involved in replacing economic experts who have challenged Erdogan’s economic policy choices relating to interest rates. In other words, Erdogan has complete control of the economic situation in Turkey.
Having relinquished control of major cities to the opposition in recent years, Erdogan hopes to stem the tide of discontent by registering wins in foreign policy. One of his latest moves is the culmination of a series of forays in northern Syria by Turkish armed forces – 2016’s Euphrates Shield, 2018’s Olive Branch, 2019’s Peace Spring, and 2020’s Spring Shield.
The first three allowed Turkey to establish outposts and seize significant control of many key areas deep inside Syrian territory and throughout the nearly 900 km border it shares with Syria in the North. The last operation was viewed as a setback which saw Turkey having to cede control of the crucial M4 highway to the Syrian Arab Army as a result of a memorable diplomatic dressing downin Moscow in 2020. The M4 arterial road connects the industrial centre of Syria in Aleppo City to Damascus.
Quick to take a leaf out of Washington’s playbook, Ankara justified his military interventions (and violations of Syrian sovereignty) in the name of the fight against terrorism (PKK). Erdogan’s long-standing beef with the Kurds to be sure never stopped him from entering into a somewhat cozy relationship with the notorious Barzani clan in charge of Iraqi Kurdistan. This rapprochement has been very beneficial to both parties. Washington has long been siphoning Syrian oil in the northeast of the country into Iraq where it undergoes refining allegedly carried out by a prominent member of the Barzani clan before being shipped into Turkey, seemingly under the watchful eye ofErdogan’s son-in-law.
“In his analysis of the flow of oil, Shadowproof’s Dan Wright noted that Daesh seems “embarrassed” by the reports of oil sales to Israel. Al-Araby reported that “someone close to [Daesh]” reported via Skype:
‘To be fair, the organisation sells oil from caliphate territories but does not aim to sell it to Israel or any other country,’ he said. ‘It produces and sells it via mediators, then companies, who decide whom to sell it to.’”
In Syria, Erdogan has essentially endeavored to forcibly remove all Kurdish presence from areas under Turkish control. This has led to constant clashes with the US-branded Syrian Democratic Forces (de facto US-managed Kurdish Separatist Contras) and affiliates while the “international community” has remained silent in the face of what amounts to ethnic cleansing which as everyone knows is a war crime. A war crime that has also been committed by the Kurdish Contras who have ethnically cleansed much of the North-East they control with the military support of their US handlers.
Last week, Erdogan made his final move when he gave a speech to his AKP party during which he proclaimed that operations would be under way to secure the return of 1.5 million Syrian refugees into the areas in and around Idlib. The Sultan has long had to face increasing complaints at home about the financial burden on the economy that is associated with tending to the most basic needs of the estimated 5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. This financial burden, while by no means the central cause of Ankara’s economic woes, is seen by the Sultan as a pivotal issue in the coming Presidential campaign, one that he intends to instrumentalize to secure reelection.
Erdogan calculates that he could come out on top if the 2023 centennial anniversary of the Young Turks Revolution sees him succeed in expanding Turkey’s sphere of influence by de facto annexing significant swathes of Syrian territories through the resettlement of refugees who would in turn depend on Ankara for the financing of social services there. To date, it has been announced that Turkey has financed the construction of nearly 150,000 prefabricated housing units in the areas it controls in northern Syria.
This project is however likely to meet its own demise before it is even implemented.
Damascus has perfectly understood the ramifications of Ankara’s power play and has massed troops to confront the Turkish army in Manbij and Tel Rifaat as Ankara aims to retake control of the strategic M4 highway.
Moscow for its part is aware that in the event the resettlement project is carried out, its own positions on the Syrian coast will be suddenly very vulnerable. Latakia and Tartous are a stone’s throw away from Al Qaeda-controlled Idlib’s missile-systems and the perspective of seeing this governorate become a reservoir of recruitment for NATO-member Turkey proxy forces has not escaped Moscow’s attention.
In order to send an extremely clear and unambiguous message to Ankara, the Russian Air-Force initiated a simulation of a massive bombing campaign using the coordinates of Turkish troops in the area under scrutiny.
In any future negotiation, Erdogan will presumably want to use Turkey’s veto power over the admission of Sweden and Finland into NATO in order to extract concessions from Moscow in Syria. It works in Moscow’s favour that Turkey is blocking the accession to NATO membership for both nations.
However, Moscow increasingly sees the two geopolitical spheres of Ukraine and Syria as components of the same equation. As Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov recently stated: “The West has declared total war on us.”
Arnaud Devaley, Center for Geopolitical Studies expert and human rights lawyer currently based in Damascus.