Middle East in Focus
After Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued several threats against Kurdish fighters in Syria and reiterated the need for Syrian refugees to return to home, it seems that the worst has been averted. News of a deal between the United States and Turkey on the creation of a safe zone in Syria was welcomed by many who did not want to see another conflict in the war-torn country. However, the agreement did acknowledge Turkey's security interests in the region and also ceded ground to Turkey's demands concerning Syrian refugees. Regional observers have long been skeptical of Erdoğan's rhetoric, particularly with the latest outburst after the humiliating defeat in the Istanbul mayoral race. For many, his threats amount more to an act of desperation born out of a difficult domestic political reality rather than a real geopolitical necessity.
It was only last week that Anadolu Agency posted ominous threats by Mr. Erdoğan, who had warned that because of a mounting terrorist threat in the border between Turkey and Syria, "Turkey's counterterrorism operations will move forward to a different phase in northern Syria soon. We wiII move the process which we started with the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations [in northern Syria] forward to a different phase very soon, Erdoğan said at the 11th Ambassadors Conference. The president has repeatedly warned that Turkey is preparing an offensive into Syria against the YPG, which Turkey sees as a terrorist group and the U.S. has supported as the main fighting force against ISIL.
News of a deal that seems to have quelled, at least for the time being, a conflict on the border was received with relief. However, pro-government supporters, such as Daily Sabah's Burhanettin Duran, were quick to point out that Turkey must remain vigilant and monitor closely the implementation of this week's agreement. "If the joint operations center serves to address Turkey's security concerns swiftly, Turkish-American cooperation could deepen and mutual trust could be re-established. By extension, it would facilitate new joint steps in Syria and Iraq. If the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) will merely pretend to implement U.S. President Donald Trump's orders to form a 30-kilometer safe zone, however, Turkish-U.S. relations will further deteriorate. The Turks would see it as an attempt to protect YPG militants and an act of deception. Removing the YPG from the area is an unnegotiable objective for Turkey. The Turkish government's position reflects a broad consensus at home."
Overall, the U.S.-Turkish deal has been seen as a victory for the Turkish president and has been interpreted by his supporters as a vindication of his handling of the S-400 missile defense crisis. In fact, Ihsan Aktas from the Daily Sabah believes that the deal was reached because of Turkey's purchase of the Russian produced armament. "Turkey's threat of military intervention in northern Syria to force the PKK/Democratic Union Party (PYD) to withdraw east of the Euphrates eventually led the U.S. to come closer to Turkey's position in the resolution of the Syrian deadlock. While Turkey's status as a regional power has been revitalized, we also achieved to not come face to face with the U.S., our NATO ally. Turkey is situated in the very axis of the new balances of power in international relations. Being aware of Turkey's power and its limitations, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emerges as a world leader who tests the limits of the multipolar new world order."
However, not all seem to agree with that assessment. According to a recent editorial by The National, Mr. Erdoğan's rhetoric and threats are meant to distract the voters' attention away from domestic and economic concerns and worsening relations with the country's NATO allies: "But this bravura is an exercise in flexing his muscles; it has little to do with counterterror efforts and everything to do with domestic politics. It represents a golden opportunity for Mr. Erdoğan to deflect attention away from the economic crisis that has crippled the Turkish economy and wiped 30 percent from the value of the lira.... In June, the AKP lost the mayoral election for a second time in Istanbul, the city that launched Mr. Erdoğan's political career. Its relations with the U.S. have also badly deteriorated after a dispute over Turkey's defiant purchase of the S-400, a Russian missile-defense system that is not compliant with NATO rules. Even Mr. Erdoğan's erstwhile comrades have criticized his policies."
Asharq Alawsat's Salman al-Dossary seems to agree with that assessment, adding that Mr. Erdoğan's bluster is the last bid for political relevance for a man whose best days lie behind him: "Between the transformation of yesterday's allies into today's enemies and the Turkish opposition's exploitation of the state of confusion in the regime's foreign and internal policies, Erdoğan's AKP seems to be living its darkest moments. The old days of its glorious popularity are gone, while political skirmishes within the ruling party are the most painful to the president. Successive defeats are seen from within the ruling party as a natural result of domestic political failure and reckless policies. It may be too early to say that developments in Turkey indicate that the Justice and Development Party has reached its end, but the enormous and extraordinary popularity that Erdoğan used to enjoy has become something from the past."
In an op-ed for the Saudi Gazette, Jameel Altheyabi suggests an alternative, albeit overlapping, explanation for Erdoğan's recent moves. Mr. Altheyabi argues that in addition to serving as a convenient distraction from domestic troubles, his rhetoric constitutes a thinly veiled bid for regional hegemony: "Erdoğan has never learnt from his continued failures and mistakes. He was greatly disappointed to see the failure of his dream of restoring Turkey's past glories and of taking the country back to the time of the Ottoman Empire by mixing Islam and secularism.... He is using the Muslim Brothers in his country as a weapon to achieve his goals... Erdoğan is betting on the destructive project of the Muslim Brothers to destabilize the Arab region and help him extend his hegemony and mandate over Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt. His polices and bad intentions have been uncovered. His slogans have become obsolete."
Finally, Jerusalem Post's Seth Frantzman offers yet another explanation, especially regarding Erdoğan's prioritization of the return of the Syrian refugees. According to Frantzman, the president's main objective is to redraw the demographic map of the border region between Syria and Turkey: "Turkey wants to totally destroy the PKK and all its affiliates. It has launched air strikes against Yazidi members of the PKK in Sinjar and against a PKK camp near Makhmur. It seeks a total war across the region against anyone linked to the group. As such, eastern Syria is a target.... For years, Ankara has threatened an operation. It increased rhetoric last fall — and its rhetoric is not just about launching a military operation, but about giving Syria to its true owners, as the Turkish President said on December 12. And who are the true owners? This is not spelled out, but Turkey has said it wants to help mostly Arab refugees return to Syria, who fled during the ISIS war. This already resulted in demographic change in Afrin, changing a historically Kurdish area into one that is more Arab."