Turkish artillery struck villages in northwestern Syria’s Afrin district on Friday, starting what Ankara’s defense minister claimed was an attack on Kurds in the border region. This was expected. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been raging against the alliance between the United States and the Kurdish forces that defeated the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and on Wednesday Turkey’s National Security Council agreed on Turkey’s invasion of Afrin.
The question now is what Ankara may be aiming at as it faces increasingly severe problems on all its diplomatic fronts. Its belligerence in northern Syria does not annoy only the Americans but also the Russians, who do not want to see an attack on the Kurds, nor against the Syrian regime, which Moscow supports.
On another front, Turkey’s minister in charge of European affairs declared on Friday that his country sees no reason to maintain the deal with the European Union according to which Ankara is supposed to control the flow of refugees and immigrants towards Europe.
In Syria, Ankara is on the verge of getting into something with unpredictable consequences. The Kurdish forces are fresh from victory over Islamic State, they have prepared for a Turkish attack and are armed by the US. Russia, which has recently been the primary ally of Turkey (which is, of course, a NATO member), by Friday had not given Ankara the green light to launch air raids on Afrin, apparently even after the head of Turkey’s armed forces visited Moscow for this. In addition, Damascus accused the Turks of cooperating with terrorist groups and warned that it would shoot down any Turkish planes entering its air space.
All these reasons suggest why Turkey’s activity was limited to artillery fire, without the air raids that would be a prelude to ground forces entering the region. A Russian news agency, RIA, quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying that media reports claiming Russian military units had been withdrawn from Afrin had been denied (he did not clarify who had denied this). At the same time, Turkey has been taking part in the peace negotiations, in which Russia is playing a leading role. So what would be the reason for Turkey to engineer its own isolation?
Regarding relations with the United States, perhaps the main reason why Erdogan has not been treated more firmly by Washington is the fear of what would happen if Turkey were to be destabilized. The US was quick to express its opposition to Turkey’s belligerence against its Kurdish allies (whom Ankara accuses of being allied to the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Turkey, supported by the US and the EU, lists as a terrorist group). Since US forces are to remain indefinitely in Syria, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday, they will certainly not want to be there without Kurdish support. In addition, any Turkish incursion will increase the risk of an accidental clash with US forces.
Highlighting tensions with the United States, Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli was dismissive of Washington’s stated objective for remaining in the region. “The threat of Daesh (Islamic State) has been removed in both Syria and Iraq. With this reality out in the open, a ‘focus on Daesh’ statement is truly a meaningless remark,” he said.
Washington, however, does not appear to have exploited the revelations from the New York trial of a former senior executive of a Turkish state-owned bank, who was convicted of violating the international embargo against Iran. According to witness testimony, Erdogan himself was involved in the violations. The Turkish president has claimed that the trial was just another link in an alleged CIA plot against him. In November, in an apparent effort to control the fallout from the trial, the Istanbul prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into former and current judicial officials in the US for allegedly violating domestic and international laws by prosecuting the banker of a Turkish-Iranian businessman who turned state witness.
Relations between Turkey and the EU, meanwhile, are also increasingly fluid. European Affairs Minister Omer Celik, in an interview with Reuters on Friday, expressed anger with recent statements by French President Emmanuel Macron, who told Erdogan a few days earlier that Turkey’s domestic developments (with a severe crackdown on suspected supporters of the 2016 coup attempt but also many others seen as Erdogan opponents) did not allow for progress in its accession talks. Celik said Turkey did not take seriously “a privileged partnership or similar approaches” and that “such an offer will not even be considered.” He accused the EU of not abiding by its commitments regarding the deal to control migrant flows and said that “technically, there is no reason for Turkey to maintain this deal.”
For Greece and Cyprus, Turkey’s incoherent behavior in the broader region, the increase in military activity in the Aegean, coupled with nationalist fervor stoked by opposition leaders, are heightening tensions. With so much pressure on all fronts, without the framework of a strong alliance with a major power to keep him in line, the Turkish president is becoming increasingly unpredictable and ever more dangerous.