Erdogan caught between Putin and ISIS in Syria
President Erdogan could not get the approval he expected for a new invasion operation in Syria at his meetings in Tehran and Sochi. On the contrary, Putin urged him to come to an agreement with the Syrian government and solve his problem with Assad. After the heavy Russian bombardment in Idlib, where the number of military casualties is still unknown, Erdogan rushed to Russia and was received by Putin after a prolonged tour of his residence.
Eventually, a deal on Syria was agreed upon, the red lines of which were set by Putin, and the parties have largely complied with this agreement. However, given his country's aggravating economic situation, Erdogan is looking for a spectacular international success that will bend the agenda and, in the process, inflame the nationalist sentiments of the people.
The dogfights in the Aegean Sea and the mutual accusations with Greece after the last NATO exercise, as well as Defense Minister Hulusi Akar's aggressive take on the matter, would not serve him enough, because he knows very well that taking action against Greece would mean a confrontation with the entire Western bloc, particularly with the European Union. Things are not going as planned in Iraqi Kurdistan. Like everything else, the Turkish media has a total blackout on the operation, and even the downed helicopter and the alleged casualties of the Turkish armed forces do not make the news.
The only option available to Erdogan is Syria... Russia and Iran oppose an operation in Syria, as well as the United States and the heavyweights of the European Union, but Erdogan is rather concerned by Putin's reaction and approval. He is the reason why every time Erdogan takes a step forward, he has to take two steps back. Polls suggest that such an operation, like previous ones, would improve Erdogan's popularity ratings by three or four points. But for the rank and file, crushed under the weight of harsh economic conditions, such an operation will not represent a lasting concern. Therefore, if Erdogan gets the green light from Putin, he will either kick off the operation immediately before the elections, or he will opt to hold the elections concurrently with the operation.
As Turkey's pro-state opposition will fall in line behind Erdogan, that will not only create a deep rift within the opposition, but he will also gain power, albeit temporarily, and will manage to shift the agenda from economics to "jihad."
Another solution for Erdogan is to sit at the table with Assad... In this way, he can try to return some of the Syrian refugees, to whom he has channeled the anger of the starving population, and win the sympathy of the voters. He took the first step toward resetting his decade-long policy in Syria by declaring, "We have no desire to overthrow Assad," but he did not get the response he expected from Damascus. Assad has preconditions, such as Turkey's withdrawal from Syrian territory to sit at the table...
Even if he overcomes the Assad problem with Putin's intervention, there is still the problem of ISIS/Al Qaeda-linked fundamentalist militants that Erdogan has been feeding and equipping with his own hands. It was enough for these groups to pour into the streets in Turkish-controlled areas and burn Turkish flags, which demonstrates what is in store for Ankara.
Sitting at the table with Assad carries the risk that these Islamist radicals, thousands of whom live in provinces along the border, will turn their weapons against Ankara. The feeling of being betrayed by Ankara could lead these groups to commit acts of violence that are difficult to control. And it should be noted that these militants are spread across several major cities, including Istanbul. And there is no doubt they are also likely to attack the Turkish Armed Forces in Turkish-controlled areas. Therefore, war or peace with Assad are not easy options for Erdogan. He has no choice but to wallow in a pit of his own making, but this is also true for the opposition, who fantasize of striking a deal with Assad and sending the Syrians home. To sum up, Turkey risks facing a massive wave of Islamist terrorism in the near future.
*Ergun Babahan graduated from Istanbul University Law School in 1981. After a short time working as a lawyer, he stepped into journalism as a reporter in Yeni Asır. He worked as an editor, managing editor and editor-in-chief in Söz, Hürriyet, Sabah and Yeni Binyıl newspapers, respectively. He joined the John Knight Professional Program at Stanford University with a German Marshall Fund scholarship in 1988, and the American Foreign Policy Process program at the University of Maryland in 1990 with a Ford Foundation scholarship. Babahan served as the editor-in-chief for +Gercek and now works as editor-in-chief for +GercekNews.