Developments unfolding around the alleged chemical attack in Syria’s eastern Ghouta might leave Turkey between a rock and a hard place.
Turkey, which had opened up space for itself in Syria by deftly taking advantage of the competition between the United States and Russia, is now being dragged to a crossroads. If the Western intention to punish the Syrian regime escalates to major clashes, Turkey might not be able to rely on the tactics of its opportunistic policy.
“It’s not all that easy to intervene between two superpowers and bring peace to Syria,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said April 11 during a public meeting in Ankara.
Russia supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Turkish government, which had been pursuing a policy of absolute hostility toward Assad, recently reversed its tradition of blaming the Damascus regime for every disaster.
Turkey’s presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, struck a defiant tone this week by saying on Twitter, “The Syrian regime should account for attacks in different parts of the country and at different times.” But Ankara’s rhetoric suddenly changed after a phone conversation between Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“We underline the need for an immediate investigation and finding the truth” about the alleged chemical attack, Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said at an April 9 press conference. “Of course, Syria must not be sacrificed in the power struggle between the US and Russia. The international community must act together or face other problems.”
This hinted that Turkey might be going along with Russia in a partnership that’s not all that robust. However, Ankara recently declared support for the US resolution before the UN Security Council calling for action against Syria for the alleged chemical attack. Turkey made a show of loyalty to its NATO partners, though Russia vetoed the resolution.
Ankara wants to punish the Assad regime. But Turkey has to be careful in its relations with Moscow for a number of reasons: the S-400 Russian missiles Turkey wants to buy, ever-deepening economic ties, rapidly progressing construction of the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline, Turkey’s offensive in Afrin and other military operations conducted in Syria with Moscow’s green light, and the Syrian peace process being forged in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Another topic calling for Turkish diplomacy is Ankara’s opposition to the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Russia supports and which is also strongly backed by the United States and France. And a striking reminder of the important, though sometimes costly, Russian green light is the very recent declaration by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Turkey should hand over control of Afrin to the Syrian army — something Turkey isn’t anxious to do.
Moreover, Erdogan counts on domestic political profit from operations in Syria — which could suffer under potential Astana compromises. Turkey almost certainly will have to modify its Kurdish policy, as Russia has stated the Kurds should have a voice in the Syrian peace process. And, if Erdogan agrees to follow the course set by the United States in coordinating with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and SDF, he could easily upend his domestic support in the coming elections.