The US is withdrawing from Syria and Turkish President Erdogan has an unprecedented opportunity to seek regional dominance.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is certainly one of the most interesting figures in modern West Asia. His career has, in general, seemed like a barely-cloaked attempt to restore the mantle of the Ottoman Empire by extending Turkish influence over the region.
Over the last few months, after winning a closely-fought election, Erdogan has successfully manoeuvred Turkey into a position of influence by smartly using the cards he has been dealt. On the other hand, the country’s economy is almost certainly on the brink of recession because of his mismanagement. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s announcement of an imminent withdrawal of US troops from Syria, it’s worth taking a step back to understand the geopolitical hurricane that Turkey is now in the eye of, and what its next move might be.
1. Saudi Arabia, a major regional rival, has shot itself in the foot.
Under its current Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia has attempted to increase its regional influence – often in competition with Turkey. Saudi Arabia seemed also be aiming to attenuate Iran’s influence in Iraq and Syria with de facto US support. MBS was instrumental in organising the regional blockade of Qatar (perceived to be friendly with Iran) and even seemed to be helming efforts to normalise relations with Israel, whose implacably anti-Iranian stance is well attested. The Crown Prince was the kingdom’s progressive face, headlining major diplomatic initiatives, seeking investment from abroad, and casting himself as a reformer while simultaneously purging opponents and carrying out a bloody war in Yemen.
The murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi (a vocal critic of the kingdom) suddenly threw MBS into an unpleasant limelight: destroying his already-troubled reputation and discrediting his foreign policy moves almost overnight. The murder was a gruesome and short-sighted action that seemed to test how far Saudi Arabia’s reach could extend – and it rapidly became clear that it had overextended itself. Turkey rapidly investigated Khashoggi’s disappearance and linked it to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Over the next few weeks, it released evidence in bits and pieces, fuelling more and more international outrage. MBS’s attempts to reach an entente with his rival in Turkey failed as Erdogan, sensing blood in the water, announced that “all those responsible … will not be allowed to avoid justice.” This implicated aides close to the Crown Prince, and crippled him domestically. The immense reputational costs turned Saudi Arabia into a diplomatic nonentity in the region – US support for its wars in Yemen has evaporated and the Saudi-Israeli normalisation stalled, leaving Turkey and Iran as strong as they had ever been.
2. The US is on the back foot in Syria, clearing the way for Turkey.
US President Donald Trump’s peculiar domestic vulnerabilities have not gone unnoticed by Erdogan, an experienced politician. The slow but steady progress of the Mueller probe has seriously damaged Trump’s domestic credibility. In addition, the stalling of his legislative agenda, and historically low approval ratings have left him continually spoiling for short-term victories even at the cost of sacrificing long-term interests.
Luckily for Trump, Turkey had arrested the American pastor Andrew Brunson on charges of spying. Brunson was, perhaps, a hostage intended to be exchanged for President Erdogan’s ally-turned-rival, Fetullah Gulen, a billionaire preacher (blamed for the failed 2016 coup against him) who is currently a US resident. In the face of Turkey’s initial intransigence, Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium, crystallising a sudden drop in the value of the lira that failed to damage Erdogan electorally – though it seriously damaged his relationship with the US.
Turkey is a member of NATO and is crucial to US interests in neighbouring Syria, where the civil war seems to be winding down in favour of President Bashar al-Assad, who is inimical to both Turkey and the US. As a result of Trump’s hostility, Turkey seemed to realign in favour of Russia, which was responsible (with Iran) for supporting the Assad regime, and announced a deal to purchase the S-400 missile system.
Post-Khashoggi, as a gulf opened between the US and Saudi Arabia, the US was forced to reassess the Turkey relationship as it needed allies in the region. Brunson was recently released, a shot in the arm for Trump, in return for as-yet unclear concessions (Turkey claimed that Trump agreed to extradite Gulen though the US later denied it).
There is, however, another spanner in the works. In the Syrian civil war, the US-backed Kurdish militias were willing to fight against Assad and ISIS. Turkey, which has a significant Kurdish population and has outlawed the Kurdish Worker’s Party as a terrorist organisation, finds this worrisome. Soon after the Brunson release, Turkey announced a unilateral strike east of the Euphrates – further than any previous offensive – against these militias, in a region with a significant US military presence. On 19 December, perhaps to distract from his weakening domestic position, Trump announced that he would be withdrawing US troops from there – inadvertently clearing the way for Turkish military intervention and taking all US allies by surprise (including Israel, to whom, as mentioned, the Saudis were warming,) Once again, Turkey and Iran are the big winners.
3. Erdogan’s domestic popularity may be in for a hit.
Erdogan does not seem to be as gifted an economist as he is a politician. As inflation rose, his response was to attempt to “increase demand” by forcing the central bank to lower interest rates, seriously damaging Turkey’s credit rating, and laying the foundation for the downward spiral of the lira when US tariffs spooked investors. Despite later increasing interest rates and the WTO ruling in favour of Turkey on the matter of Trump’s tariffs, attempts to rekindle tourism and kickstart the economy have floundered owing to a bad loan problem, and there are reports of falling outputs and the first signs of a recession.
If this impacts Erdogan’s domestic popularity, the odds in favour of his ordering a dramatic military adventure increase. Military adventures to strengthen his domestic position are not new to Erdogan – he has ordered strikes on Kurdish militias in Northern Syria before, and with the US withdrawal, he now has a free rein to do so in eastern Syria unless he is stopped by Russia and Iran. This is unlikely, given that they are both against an independent Kurdish state and recognise that Erdogan’s cooperation is critical for the long-term stability of the Assad regime.
The US withdrawal allows Turkey freedom of action that is unprecedented, and a major offensive may be on the table to shore up Erdogan’s image as being tough on Kurdish “terror”, even if it jeopardises Kurdish campaigns against the remnants of the Islamic State. Though an unstable Syria is not in Turkey’s best interests, neither is a Syria with a strong Assad. Erdogan will likely also extract guarantees from Assad, Iran and Russia on the Kurdish question, on which their interests do align. Many other major uncertainties remain in this volatile region – and Turkey finally has the wherewithal to seize the initiative and seek to exploit them in its continued quest for regional dominance. But, knowing Erdogan, it will be a long and carefully-calculated process.