It is a bad time to have an ally on the fence. With US military action in Syria looking more likely by the minute, and the West’s frosty relations with Russia in danger of deepening into a new Cold War, Washington is eyeing the actions of Turkey’s President Erdogan with concern.
Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, the ally with the second biggest army and the only one to share a border with Syria, has spent the past two years cosying up to Russia. Ankara is part of the Astana troika alongside Moscow and Tehran – an initiative that has snatched the peace-broking lead in Syria from the UN and Western-back Geneva talks. Turkey and Russia are bumping up their bilateral trade ties, their joint projects, such as the new Russian-built and operated nuclear power station on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, and their military co-operation. Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system has been sped up and is due to be completed next summer. Furthermore, the personal relationship between Putin and Erdogan often seems to be one of genuine warmth. At their meeting in Ankara earlier this month, Erdogan said that their friendship had strengthened despite 'efforts to poison it'.
The message behind the press photos of Erdogan, Putin and Rouhani after their trilateral summit on Syria on 3 April was best summed up by the razor-sharp Lebanese satirist Karl Sharro. “Siri, what does the collapse of the US-led regional order look like?’, he tweeted alongside the image.
Yet Erdogan’s Russia calculation is a cynical one, and behind the comradely displays lies a power struggle. The Turkish president has watched the Western powers, who once shared his determination to help the armed opposition overthrow Assad, lose heart with the rebels and instead back Kurdish forces to defeat Isis. He has also watched the crumbling of the regional policy that he and his former foreign minister (later prime minister) Davutoglu engineered, which would have made Turkey the model for a string of post-Arab Spring Islamist governments and Erdogan the undisputed leader of the Sunni world. Today, the only firm Middle Eastern ally that Turkey can count on is Qatar.
Building an alliance with Putin keeps Erdogan in the Syria game and provides a handy stab in the eye to the West, which he feels has betrayed him. It also allows him to carry on his war against Kurdish militants in northern Syria, which is possible with Putin’s blessing: Turkish fighter jets must enter Russian-controlled airspace in order to bomb their targets.
But the Douma chemical attack and the rapid snowballing towards military action against Assad pose a problem for Erdogan: despite his Russian love-in and reported back-channel communications with Damascus since 2016, at home he has kept up his ‘Assad must go’ rhetoric. His base, most of them pious Sunnis who see their president as a world hero for his support for Syria’s refugees and opposition, expects nothing less. And with presidential elections looking increasingly likely to be called this year, it would be a bad time to start disappointing them.
Erdogan’s statements immediately following the Douma attack followed that line. “The Syrian regime must give account for the attacks in various regions of the country at different times,” he said on Sunday, as the scale of the attack became clear.
But following a statement from Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday, which suggested that Turkey should hand over its recently captured territory in Syria’s Afrin to Assad’s forces, Erdogan rolled back his rhetoric: it was a clear sign from Russia not to overstep the mark. A phone-call between Erdogan and Putin followed on Tuesday evening, in which the Turkish president “shared his concerns” about Douma according to reports from his office. On Wednesday, Erdogan said that he condemned the attack “no matter who did it”, while a day later his prime minister, Binali Yildirim, accused the US and Russia of “fighting like street bullies”.
Turkey, and Erdogan, have never made an easy allies for the US. Erdogan became prime minister a week before the US-led coalition of the willing launched its attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, and two weeks after the Turkish parliament voted against taking part in the operation. That decision was a surprise and a blow to the Pentagon, which had to redraw its plans for the invasion at the last minute. Erdogan and other high-ranking figures had been in favour of joining the coalition but an overwhelming majority of the Turkish population were against the war, and so that was the policy they followed. The country’s parliamentary deputies and ultimately its government decided to go with the will of the people.
This time, Erdogan’s populist instincts may just work in the US’s favour. He has spent seven years demanding that Assad step down and criticising the hypocrisy of the West on Syria. Although he is puppet-master extraordinaire when it comes to policy reversals, to oppose action against Assad now may be too much for even his most loyal supporters to swallow. Meanwhile the West is battling to get him back on side: Trump and Erdogan held a phone call on Syria last night, while NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg will be visiting him in Ankara on Monday.
For now he is sticking to the safe middle ground in his daily speeches – humanitarian aid, in which Turkey is second only to the US. “The money spent on armaments in the Middle East alone would be enough to provide for all the poor in the world,” he told a reception at his palace yesterday.
Should the US and Syria’s reckoning come, though – and the signs all say that it will - Erdogan will be forced to decide who his friends and enemies are. The decision he will have to make is whether standing up to Assad or sticking it to the US is the more popular choice with his voters.
Hannah Lucinda Smith is the Times's Turkey correspondent