Turkey’s foreign policy is dominated by a heated nationalist narrative, which in turn has triggered military operations in Syria. At the roots of these developments are several threats to Turkey—some very real, some perceived, others imagined—and the ways in which the political leadership uses them.
But beyond the immediate horizon, littered with hard-to-digest news and a couple of unthinkable risks, lies a different set of issues on which Turkey has little leverage. The real world around Turkey is so complex—Iran, Israel, Russia, and the United States are waging battles out there—that it may warrant a sober look from Ankara.
For now, Turkey faces many short-term hurdles.
Turkey’s EU accession has in practice been blocked by Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. The European Parliament has just adopted a new resolution criticizing Turkey’s human rights record. A forthcoming review of EU financial support to Turkey will likely end up with a substantial downsizing of assistance. On March 26, the Bulgarian prime minister will host Turkey’s president and the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission in Varna, where the words of EU leaders are expected to be firm. In April, the commission’s latest progress report on Turkey is also expected to be very critical of the country’s rule of law situation.
Then there are developments in New York.
A U.S. court will issue its verdict in the Zarrab-Halkbank financial crimes case around mid-April. U.S. Treasury fines, thought to be in the billions of dollars, against Turkish state-run Halkbank for violating sanctions against Iran could follow. In addition, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control could exclude the bank from operating in U.S. dollars if it were designated as a foreign sanctions evader.
Closer to home, a fierce narrative is in train: the possibility of a direct conflict between Turkish and American forces in northern Syria. American think-tanks and media are abuzz with scenarios of a potential clash. A military confrontation between NATO’s two largest armies would cross into the realm of the previously unthinkable and, if an understanding is not negotiated, could prove irrecoverable. Diplomatic efforts are currently underway.
Also unthinkable is the possibility of the Turkish navy disrupting again the Cypriot government’s offshore gas exploration.
Whatever happens in Afrin, Manbij, Kobane, or off the coast of Cyprus, there is a much bigger game playing out around Turkey.
The stakes in Syria, especially its eventual post-war settlement, are immensely higher than the fate of ISIS, the creation (or not) of an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region in a post-war Syria, or the links between the PKK and the YPG. They revolve around two fundamental issues: the balance of power between Russia and the United States in the entire Middle East region; and the potential for war between Iran and Israel.
In the seventy-three years since the end of World War II, the Middle East’s security landscape remained relatively unchanged: the United States was the dominant regional actor and Russia a relatively minor one. Israel was created in 1948 and consistently labelled an “enemy of Islam” by Iran since 1979—but the two never fought a war against each other.
Since 2015, however, momentous changes have been engineered by Russia and Iran in the region, with Turkey’s help.
By rescuing the Assad regime with Iranian support, Russia has drastically changed some of the key parameters of the post-World War II equation in the Middle East: for the first time ever, Moscow has set up a sizeable air force base in the region (in Khmeimin, an extension of Lattakia’s civilian airport in the Syrian coast); it opens and closes the skies of western Syria as it chooses; it is enlarging its naval resupply base within the commercial port of Tartus; and it has driven a diplomatic effort—supported by Iran and Turkey within the so-called “Astana peace process” and Sochi talks—to impose its brand of political settlement for Syria.
Meanwhile, in the process of shoring up the Assad regime, Iran and Hezbollah have also set foot in western Syria. They have established bases and substantially upgraded their arsenals in the country to harass Israel, in particular by building small-scale factories to locally produce drones and missiles, thereby avoiding the hassle of air and sea transport from Iran. Recent incidents between Israel, Iran, and Syria are a testimony to this evolution.
In the face of these developments, the United States is now holding about one third of Syrian territory north and east of the Euphrates River through a combination of proxy fighters—the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the Syrian Kurdish YPG—and its own special forces. This, in essence, locks its position into future—and “real,” as opposed to the meetings in Astana and Sochi—negotiations about Syria’s future. At stake are the destruction of ISIS, the nature of the Syrian regime, local government composition, the right for foreign powers to maintain forces in the country, and ultimately—albeit indirectly—the security of Israel.
For its own reasons, Turkey has chosen to lend a hand to this geopolitical reshuffle: diplomatically, by participating in the Astana and Sochi talks; financially, by sending money to Iran—to the tune of several billion dollars—through the fully-documented “Zarrab-Halkbank scheme;” and militarily, by issuing threats to U.S. troops in Syria in the hope of pushing them back.
This bigger game playing out around Turkey is not made of somber conspiracies, as Ankara would like to convince its population. Rather, it is the theater of a massive transformation of the Middle East—to the benefit of Russia and Iran. It is as momentous as 1979 was for Tehran. The course that Turkish leaders will choose to follow in the Syrian war will have ominous, long-term consequences not only for their country but for the rest of the world, too.