Clarification Needed

Why has Turkey suddenly turned on Russia just as the US is preparing to attack Syria?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Many observers, ourselves included, were puzzled by the verbal hostilities that broke out between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the future of the Syrian town of Afrin. This was not just due to the timing of the row, amid American threats to attack Syria and Russian threats to respond. But also because the two countries have been bound by a close strategic partnership, which was affirmed and reinforced just days ago at the three-way Turkish-Russian-Iranian summit held in Ankara.

The crisis began when Lavrov declared that the quickest way of normalizing the situation in Afrin would be for Turkey to hand control of it back to the legitimate Syrian government. This infuriated Erdogan, who harshly criticized this statement and declared he would “return the town to its original inhabitants at the appropriate time, but this time will be decided by  Turkey, not Lavrov.” He did not explain what he meant by “original inhabitants” nor give any indication of how or when he would return the town to them.

Erdogan’s response, and the outraged manner in which it was delivered, raises many questions about the nature of the Russian-Turkish relationship these days, and whether latest developments on the Syrian front may have affected it and prompted this unexpected escalation by Erdogan. Specifically, has the Turkish president decided to ditch his alliance with Russia and Iran and return to the American fold in light of President Donald Trump’s declared intention of ordering a devastating strike on Syria and the growing likelihood of a US confrontation with Russian forces and bases in the country?

The Russian position on Afrin does not conflict with Erdogan’s earlier statements in which he stressed that the Turkish forces that took the town and ejected Kurdish forces from it were not occupiers, and would not remain there after they had completed their task of ridding it of Kurdish ‘terrorists’. Were it not for direct Russian support – withdrawing Russian troops from the area and opening its airspace to Turkish warplanes – Turkish forces would not have been able to take control of Afrin and reportedly kill more than 3,500 of the Kurdish fighters who were protecting the autonomous entity set up there. This support surely entitles the Russians to a say, at least, in the town’s future.

Erdogan faces numerous threats these days. He needs to make fewer enemies and more friends and preserve the allies he has, most especially Russia, and to move back towards a process of reconciliation with Syria. This would not only be in Turkey’s interest but that of the Arab and Islamic worlds as a whole.

Turkey is in dire economic difficulties these days and faces European and regional pressure. Its best course for overcoming them and strengthening the Turkish economy is in conjunction with Russia and Iran, with both of whom it is planning to more than triple the value of its trade – from$30 to $100 billion and $10 to $30 billion respectively – over the next few years.

The Turkish lira plunged to an all-time and the Istanbul stock exchange fell by 2.5% on Tuesday, and Erdogan charged that this was the result of a conspiracy by Turkey’s enemies. If that is the case, this conspiracy cannot be confronted without the support of Russian an Iranian allies – and perhaps Syrian and Iraqi ones in due course.

Afrin is a Syrian town, and calling for the restoration of Syrian sovereignty over it is no crime or outrage that could warrant an outburst of fury and trigger a crisis between two strategic allies over a mere statement. Unless, that is, there are other reasons at play which remain hidden from us and everyone else. We wish the Turkish side would provide clarification.