The aftermath of the missile strike on Sharyat air base further illustrates a fundamental problem standing in the way of a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict: the compulsive duplicity of Turkish President Erdogan.
Erdogan’s overweening “neo-Ottoman” ambitions – intended to carve out a role for Turkey as a Great Power achieving a sphere of influence in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean – are one of the primary reasons for the Syrian war.
It was Erdogan’s decision in 2011 to reverse his previous friendship with Syrian President Assad and to demand his ouster, and – critically – Erdogan’s decision to open the Turkish border to Jihadi fighters waging war in Syria, which transformed what had up to then been a limited conflict into an all-out war.
Ever since President Erdogan has been Syria’s most dangerous enemy, supporting Jihadi groups including at various times Al-Qaeda and ISIS, providing them with secure bases in Turkey, and pressing the US to attack Syria to overthrow President Assad.
The result has been disastrous for Turkey, exacerbating internal divisions, reigniting the internal war between Turkey and the Kurds, and triggering a terrorist campaign by ISIS within Turkey which dwarfs anything ISIS has done in Europe or Russia.
To compound Turkey’s problems, Erdogan’s meddling in Syria has provoked a massive flight of Syrian refugees to Turkey, and has poisoned relations with Turkey’s three neighbours: Iran, Iraq and above all Russia, upon whom Turkey is economically increasingly dependent.
This disaster is wholly of President Erdogan’s making. Had he at the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011 stood firm and rejected all pressure from the Western powers and the Gulf Arabs to involve Turkey in their campaign to achieve regime change in Syria, and had he instead acted as a moderating force in the Syrian conflict, not only would the war in Syria have been avoided, but Turkey’s prestige and influence in the region would have been enhanced.
The problem is that though President Erdogan has at various times shown some understanding of this, he seems temperamentally incapable of acting on it. The result is that though he appears at times to row back on his regime change war in Syria, at the slightest opportunity he returns to it.
Thus whilst in June 2016 he made a decision to improve relations with Russia – with which following the shooting down by his air force in November 2015 of a Russian SU-24 bomber on the Syrian border he had brought Turkey’s relations to the point of total crisis – he has ever since repeatedly acted in Syria in ways that cut across commitments he has made to Russia.
Thus in August 2016 he launched a large-scale Turkish invasion of northern Syria after pretending to the Russians that what he had in mind was no more than a short cross-border raid. Now following the US missile strike on Syria’s Sharyat air base instead of standing by his Russian partner and issuing calls for restraint he has instead been calling on the US to escalate by imposing a ‘no fly zone’ across Syria, grounding the entire Syrian air force, and supporting the establishment of Turkish and US controlled ‘safe havens’ in Syria (code for a joint US-Turkish invasion of Syria to overthrow President Assad).
This is in effect a dialling back to a plan Erdogan agreed with the Obama administration in the summer of 2015, but which was forestalled and prevented by Russia’s military intervention in Syria later that year.
What makes this all especially duplicitous is that shortly after the fall of the Jihadi controlled enclave in eastern Aleppo in December last year, Erdogan agreed with the Russians a ceasefire in Syria between the Jihadi groups he supported and the Syrian military. The ceasefire was secured by a UN Security Council Resolution jointly sponsored by Turkey and Russia, which led to peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana between the Syrian government and the Jihadi groups Turkey backs which are jointly chaired by Turkey, Iran and Russia.
However, having appeared to commit Turkey to a peace process in Syria as part of a policy of improving relations with Russia, Erdogan ever since has been double-crossing his Russian partner by trying to undermine it.
Firstly, he seems to have quietly supported – and probably actually instigated – recent Jihadi offensives in Damascus and Hama province, as well as a recent boycott by the Jihadi groups he backs of the latest round of the Astana talks.
Now – following the US missile strike – he has been calling for what would amount to an all-out US led NATO war in Syria to oust President Assad.
That this diametrically contradicts the ceasefire he jointly brokered, the UN Security Council Resolution he jointly sponsored, and the entire Astana process he jointly chairs, is obvious.
More to the point, Erdogan’s about-turn since the US missile strike goes completely back on all the commitments Erdogan made in recent weeks about Syria to Russia.
The Russian reaction has been swift. Reports appeared in the Russian media that the Russian government was about to order a stop of all Russian package tourist flights to Turkey, with rumours circulating of more sanctions to come.
With Turkey’s fragile economy increasingly dependent on Russia, a mass cancellation of Russian package tourist flights to Turkey on the eve of the summer holiday period would have been devastating for Turkey’s vital tourist industry. The mere threat to do it was enough to bring Erdogan back into line.
The result is that Erdogan telephoned Putin (the Kremlin’s summary of the conversation confirms the initiative for the call came from him) and pledged his renewed commitment to the Syrian peace process he agreed with Russia and to all the other promises had had previously made about Syria to the Russians. He also seems to have accepted the Russian view of the sort of investigation which should take place of the alleged Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack. The Kremlin’s summary of the conversation is short and clear
The discussion covered the situation in Syria. The presidents expressed their mutual commitment to further joint efforts to consolidate the ceasefire regime and foster the intra-Syrian negotiating process in both the Astana and Geneva formats.
The two leaders spoke in favour of an objective and thorough international investigation to be conducted as soon as possible into the use of chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheihoun on April 4, 2017.
While addressing bilateral issues, the heads of state agreed to direct their governments to intensify their efforts to implement the decisions of the sixth meeting of the High Level Cooperation Council that took place in Moscow on March 10, 2017.
This affair has its farcical elements, with Erdogan behaving like a perennially naughty schoolboy and with Putin acting the part of his increasingly exasperated headmaster.
However given the seriousness of the Syrian war, and the high stakes involved, the fact the Turkish government is incapable of pursuing a consistent policy of achieving peace or of abiding by its promises is actually tragic.