Implications of the Turkish Stance on Western Military Strikes against Syria
The military strikes conducted by US, French and British forces against targets in Syria on April 14, 2018 – launched in response to the Syrian government’s apparent use of chemical weapons in Douma, east of Damascus on April 7 – has exposed cracks in the Turkish–Russian–Iranian alliance and raised hopes of renewed coordination between Ankara and Washington.
Turkish efforts to contain the after-effects of the strikes
In managing the after-effects of the airstrikes, Ankara has tried to maintain balance in its relations with Moscow and Washington, even intervening to limit the extent of military action with a view to preventing any escalation in tension between them. This was evident in the fluctuating Turkish position in the wake of the reported chemical attack in Douma on April 7; the day after the attack, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quick to assign responsibility to the Syrian regime and criticized Western governments for the delay in their military response. This caused concern in Moscow, prompting Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to call on Ankara to relinquish Afrin to the Syrian government on April 9. The statement was meant as a reminder to Ankara of its agreements with Moscow, and of Russia’s ability to pressure Turkey should it decide to align itself with the West in the crisis.
This message was clearly received in Ankara; “We know full well to whom we will give back Afrin,” Erdogan responded, adding that it was not the “Syrian regime at this point.” He also retracted his accusation that the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical attack. In a meeting with his parliamentarians on April 10, Erdogan said, “Whoever carried out this massacre will pay a heavy price.” Soon after, the Turkish President began to mediate between Moscow and Washington and sought to reduce the scale of the American-led airstrikes. He spoke with Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump on April 11, and said the next day that “things are moving towards calm on the issue of the chemical attack crisis and the potential Western strike.”
Implications of Turkey’s reaction to the trilateral strike
Turkey’s foreign ministry was quick to welcome the US–French–British strike. President Erdogan described it as “appropriate,” pointing out that it avoided targeting any Russian positions in Syria. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, reiterated his country’s position that President Al-Assad must step down, and Ankara remained tightlipped following Israel’s attacks against Iranian positions in Syria both before and after the airstrikes. Nonetheless, the US aircraft that participated in the strike took off from Al-Udeid airbase in Qatar, rather than Incirlik in Turkey, owing to fears in Ankara that Russian targets in Syria might be hit.
These developments confirm that Ankara continues to follow the Western stance on the Syrian crisis and is open to coordination. However, Turkey remains under pressure from Russia, which controls the stability of Turkish-held regions in Northern Syria. In this context, Ankara has moved from its alignment with the Russian–Iranian camp towards a more balanced relationship with Moscow and Washington. This illustrates Ankara’s desire to coordinate with Washington in Northern Syria – and particularly east of the Euphrates – and gain US support for military strikes against the strongholds of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Northern Iraq.
In this context one may recall the visit by former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Ankara on February 15, 2018, during which he held a private meeting with President Erdogan in the presence of Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu. After the meeting, Cavusoglu said that Turkish–US understandings had been reached – the precise details of which he did not disclose – to reduce political tension between the two countries in relation to the Syrian issue. President Trump then went on to express his intention to withdraw from Northern Syria.
However, Trump was later criticized by Turkish Presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin for contradicting this statement, postponing any such withdrawal and failing to establish an approved timetable; Kalin reiterated that Turkey retained its commitment to the understandings reached by Tillerson and Edrdogan.
This clearly reveals an ongoing Turkish effort to coordinate with Washington over the situation in Syria at the expense of its cooperation with Moscow, which appears to have diminished following “Operation Olive Branch” and the establishment of Turkish control over Afrin. Moreover, the significance of Russian threats to destabilize Afrin and Idlib – reflected in Lavrov’s call for Turkey to hand over control of Afrin to the Syrian regime – may diminish when the Turkish army has succeeded in seizing full control of Idlib, and after full US–Turkish military coordination is established in the eastern Euphrates area. Turkey retains control over much of the opposition forces in Afrin and Idlib, which are capable of repelling any attack launched by the Syrian regime or its Iranian allies in the area. Nevertheless, Ankara continues to hold the middle ground vis-à-vis Russia and the US while the details of Washington’s plans regarding Syria remain unclear.
In President Macron’s statement following the recent airstrikes, he said “We succeeded with Washington in separating the Turks and Russians on this issue,” acknowledging the shift in Turkey’s position with regard to the Syrian crisis. Although the Turkish foreign ministry was quick to condemn Macron’s statement, the French president had expressed what he had understood from his earlier conversation with President Trump, who had urged him to enhance coordination with the Turks in an effort to keep them from the Russian camp.
It is important here to recall Turkey’s rejection of greater French involvement in the Syrian crisis; from Ankara’s perspective, Paris has been ramping up its engagement ever since President Trump announced his intention to withdraw American troops from Syria. The French role in Syria will necessarily be based around providing more support for the Kurds in the north, urging Washington to keep its forces for as long as possible in this war-torn country, and acting as a mediator with Iran with regard to the Syrian conflict and the nuclear deal. The French approach tends to conflict with Turkish interests, as Ankara seeks to convince Washington to pull its forces out of Syria and stop its support for the Kurds. Moreover, France supports the deployment of Arab forces in northern Syria, should the US decide to withdraw its troops from there, while Turkey rejects the deployment of any foreign troops in the country and insists on maintaining full control over northern Syria.
Turkey’s support for the recent Western military strikes in Syria indicates a divergence between its position and that of Iran. The US reportedly agreed to reduce the magnitude of military action following secret negotiations conducted between Washington and Moscow to limit Iran’s influence in country. This has surely served Turkish interests, as have the Israeli air strikes targeting Iranian sites in Syria. These facts explain why, before the recent strikes against Syria, Iran threatened a broad-scale attack to retake Idlib, which is controlled by Turkish-backed militant groups and is home to 10 Turkish military forward observation posts.
Ankara requires more time to consolidate its military presence in northern Syria and convince Washington of the need to reach a settlement in the eastern Euphrates area. Until that happens, it will need to maintain its collaboration with Russia in Syria. However, the recent Western strikes against the Assad regime have revealed the potential for a new chapter in US–Turkish relations and for greater cooperation in Syria, which may well develop if negotiations resume to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in the country.