Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 November 2019

Turkish invasion has left Ankara weak and on the verge of economic meltdown

The Kurds' deal with the Assad regime means that the future of Turkey’s operation is dependent on the say-so of Moscow, not Washington

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul. AFP/Turkish presidential press office
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul. AFP/Turkish presidential press office

Ankara’s attempt to carve out a so-called safe zone deep inside Kurdish-held territory in north-east Syria has left Turkey alone, strategically weak and on the precipice of an economic meltdown. Even last week’s US-brokered truce was no victory for Turkey’s firebrand president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Sure, under the terms of the ceasefire, the White House agreed to practically everything Ankara wanted. US President Donald Trump froze sanctions and accepted Ankara’s demand for a safe zone and its calls for forces from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) to retreat. More ominously, there was nothing said about the hundreds of thousands of Kurds who fled the area, nor of Turkey’s odious intention to resettle millions of Arab Syrian refugees in the proposed safe zone – such a deliberate policy of demographic tampering being tantamount to ethnic cleansing. Instead, Mr Trump declared the Kurds were "no angels". By yesterday, four days into the ceasefire, Kurdish troops had withdrawn entirely from the key border town of Ras Al Ain in north-eastern Syria.

The so-called truce, agreed on Thursday, was the second time that Mr Trump sold out the Kurds. The first occasion was his announcement to pull out US forces from Syria in the first place, a de facto green light for the Turkish invasion that prompted the truce.

But all Mr Erdogan and his ministers got in reality was a memo hardly worth the paper it was printed on. For one, fighting still continues and the truce has no enforcement mechanism. Meanwhile, the YPG’s deal with the Assad regime means that the future of Turkey’s operation is dependent on the say-so of Moscow, not Washington.

For now, Turkey is in Donald Trump’s good books, but the US president is highly unreliable. He is prone to meltdowns and has threatened to destroy the Turkish economy on more than one occasion

Ankara might be loathe to admit it but its borders were a lot safer before the operation. The presence of US forces provided a buffer between Washington’s two allies, Turkey and the YPG. It was for the most part a quiet border. Now Turkey has a fully equipped, Russian-backed Syrian military on its doorstep protecting the battle-hardened YPG and seething at Turkey’s bombardments and the alleged abuses committed by Turkey’s ragtag band of militant Islamists, such as allegations Turkish-backed troops have been using white phosphorus to attack civilians, a possible war crime.

And even if Turkish forces manage to gain a little bit more territory with the YPG agreeing to withdraw, it would still fall far short of the 480-kilometre-long buffer zone Ankara intended. Turkey’s only hope is that when Mr Erdogan meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi tomorrow, he might gain a few concessions on the size of the safe zone. But that would involve a quid pro quo, such as a Turkish withdrawal from Idlib, and the "safe zone" could prove to be more of a deathtrap for Turkish forces and its proxies, who might face hit-and-run attacks by the YPG as they did in Afrin. Either way, Turkey’s Syria policy is worse off now than it was before.

Meanwhile, Turkey has little international support. Ankara’s only friends in the Middle East are Iran and Qatar. Despite Mr Erdogan’s threat to send millions of Syrian refugees to Europe, the European Union called Turkey’s bluff. Brussels issued an unequivocal condemnation of Turkey’s operation and called for the suspension of arms exports. Germany, France, Norway, Finland and Sweden have already done so. To make matters worse, European sanctions loom because of Turkey’s drilling off the coast of Cyprus.

Another blow to Turkey is the position of the UK. Until now, Westminster was Turkey’s best ally in the West. Trade was flowing, diplomatic visits were frequent and London was the first European country to show solidarity with Turkey after the 2016 coup attempt, even while Mr Erdogan was purging his critics. However, in the wake of Turkey’s onslaught on the Kurds, Westminster announced that it would review arms licences and freeze future exports. The utility of the involvement of BAE Systems and Rolls Royce in developing Turkey’s domestic TF-X fighter jet might also soon come into question.

Mr Erdogan addresses a press conference in Istanbul on Friday. AFP
Mr Erdogan addresses a press conference in Istanbul on Friday. AFP

For now, at least, Turkey is in Mr Trump’s good books. But the US president is highly unreliable. He is prone to meltdowns and has threatened to destroy the Turkish economy on more than one occasion. He also faces the very real possibility of impeachment. Mr Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds and Turkey’s invasion is resented by the Pentagon, the State Department, Congress and even Mr Trump’s own Republican Party for diminishing US influence, empowering Iran and Russia, and risking the resurgence of ISIS. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, even penned an op-ed for the Washington Post, publicly calling Mr Trump’s Syria pullout a “strategic nightmare”.

Congress looks set to pass more sanctions against Turkey for the incursion. The US treasury could soon dish out a hefty billion-dollar fine against the Turkish state-owned Halkbank for violating Iranian sanctions, and heavy penalties still loom under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act for Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 defence system. It is unlikely Mr Erdogan will understand that the US president’s hands are effectively tied on such matters as sanctions cripple the Turkish economy.

Meanwhile, reports of human rights abuses and possible war crimes by Turkish forces and the merciless militias it backs are not helping Ankara’s cause. Neither does the fact that Turkey’s resettlement policy is really an attempt to ethnically cleanse the region of its Kurdish majority. An ally capable of committing such outrages is hardly an ally for Nato or the West at all.

Not only has this latest operation brought Turkey few strategic gains but it has highlighted the extent to which Ankara has burned its diplomatic bridges. In effect, Turkey has transformed itself from being a pivotal member of Nato to little more than a minor piece on Russia’s strategic chessboard.

Simon Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London

Updated: October 21, 2019 05:00 PM

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