Falling Out Again

Just as it looked as though Syria and Turkey were reconciling…

By Abdel Bari Atwan

It is no exaggeration to say that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is among the most controversy-provoking leaders in the Middle East, if not the entire world, and the hardest for politicians and analysts alike to predict – whether in terms of his stances, his moves or his alliances. He proved that again at the joint press conference he held with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi at which he fulminated against Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, describing him as a ‘terrorist’ and declaring that there could be no solution in Syria while he remained in power.

Over the past couple of months, relations between Turkey and Syria had been on a hugely positive trajectory, thanks both to Russia’s efforts to mediate between the two sides and to the emergence of a common putative ‘Kurdish enemy’. There had also been a propaganda truce. Erdoğan had not publicly attacked Asad for a year or so, nor reiterated demands for his overthrow. Only last month, he indicated to journalists accompanying him on his flight home from the Russia-Turkey-Iran summit in Sochi that he might open channels of dialogue with Damascus. He denied a report in the daily Hürriyet that he had held a secret meeting with Asad, but remarked to the paper’s correspondent that ‘in politics, doors are always open until the last moment.’

So what happened to arouse Erdoğan’s wrath in this manner? – prompting a forceful response from Damascus. The Syrian foreign ministry issued a statement accusing Erdoğan of trying to deceive the Turkish public with a ‘typical’ piece of hyperbole aimed at ‘absolving himself of the crimes he committed against the Syrian people by providing all manner of unlimited assistance to terrorist groups in Syria.’ The statement went on to accuse him of megalomania and of ‘turning Turkey into a large prison.’

There are several possible reasons that could have contributed to Erdoğan suddenly reverted to attacking Asad and demanding his ouster.

First of these is Russia’s insistence on including the Kurdish PYD in the Syrian dialogue conference it hosted in Sochi. This was strongly opposed by the Turkish president, who expressed his opposition by urging more than 40 Syrian opposition factions to issue a statement rejecting participation in the conference.

Secondly, the joint Russian-Syrian offensive against Idlib aimed at bringing it back under government control. If this were successful it would put an end to the Turkish presence in the city and surrounding province – and effectively in Syria as a whole – and could also trigger another big refugee exodus into Turkey.

Russian Foreign Minister Segei Lavrov recently announced that the immediate goal of the war in Syria was to completely overcome the al-Nusra Front – a process that included the evacuation of its fighters from the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. After that, the final campaign to retake Idlib is expected to begin.

Erdoğan may also have been acting on reports that the Russians and Syrians were scheming to assassinate Nusra’s leader Abu-Muhammad al-Jolani, who is considered close to the Turkish president and is seen by some as his client. Erdoğan is said to have seen this scheme as directed against himself.

Other intelligence reports reaching the Turkish authorities are said to have spoken of intensified military cooperation between the Syrian army and Kurdish forces in Afrin and other parts of northern Syria. This is anathema to Erdoğan. Visits to Damascus by Kurdish tribal leaders and elders in recent days will only have fuelled his suspicions.

It is difficult to foresee what will come of this sudden divergence between Erdoğan and his newfound Russian allies and of his resumption of verbal hostilities against Asad, nor how the Iranian partners he has been cultivating will respond. He seems prepared to turn the tables on everyone and reshuffle all the cards in order to force the Russians, specifically, to accede to his demands – especially his veto on Kurdish participation in the Sochi process and, by extension, in determining Syria’s future. Despatching Prime Minister Binali Yildirim to Riyadh was probably another of Erdoğan’s ways of exerting pressure, by signalling that he has alternatives available to him.

The Russians, according to sources close to them, are serious about pressing ahead with arrangements for the dialogue conference in Sochi – with the Kurds taking part as a components of the Syrian people – and also about ending the presence of Nusra and allied armed factions in Idlib. This could unravel the nascent Russia-Turkey-Iran alliance that began taking shape at the Sochi summit, unless the dispute with Turkey is contained and Erdoğan quickly reins in his anger.

Turkish anger of this kind is nothing new. Russian President Vladimir Putin has proven himself skilled at dealing with intemperate allies dispelling their rage, and ultimately bringing them back round to Russia’s view. If that does not happen this time, it could prove very costly.