Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and US President Donald Trump,right, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Danang, Vietnam, November 11, 2017.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and US President Donald Trump,right, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Danang, Vietnam, November 11, 2017.

Ankara is key to strategic rebalancing

U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to bring home thousands of American troops triggered a new rebalancing in Syria and the Middle East.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to bring home thousands of American troops triggered a new rebalancing in Syria and the Middle East. All stakeholders in the region are currently revising their strategies and tactics. Turkey plays a key role in that process of strategic rebalancing. Although the Trump administration move will clearly benefit Russia and Iran, Turkey stands to win bigger than any other country.

Needless to say, it won’t be easy for Ankara to manage the risks of U.S. withdrawal. To coordinate their actions with Washington’s moves, the Turks will have to engage in lengthy negotiations. There will be discussions between official delegations on the status of U.S. military bases and the use of Syrian airspace. Against the backdrop of those talks, Russia and Iran could make new moves. Moreover, Turkey has assumed the crucial responsibility of fighting Daesh terrorists. Although managing the situation in Manbij is relatively easy, the Turks will need to reach an agreement with Trump on the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants east of the Euphrates. Turkey must not underestimate how much pressure Trump finds himself in from the U.S. public accusing him of “selling out the Kurds.”

Nonetheless, the counter-Daesh campaign will enable the Turks to position themselves east of the Euphrates. After all, the job isn’t just to remove Daesh remnants from Syria but to put in place a military force to prevent the group’s resurgence, and a local government to promote stability. That necessity will provide Turkey with an opportunity to address a crucial national security threat – the presence of PKK-affiliated YPG east of the Euphrates.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., President Trump faces criticism from all sides, including Israel. Critics accuse his administration of losing the trust of U.S. allies. To make the case that his decision to withdraw half of his forces from Afghanistan and all military personnel from Syria won’t undermine the goal of containing Iran, Trump paid a surprise visit to Iraq, where he was compelled to say that Washington can always use Iraq as a forward operating base if it wants to take action in Syria. Still, the future of the Trump administration’s Iran policy remains unclear. It seems that the White House wants to leave aside Syria and Yemen for now and focus on containing Tehran’s influence over Iraq instead. Yet the administration’s most significant accomplishment was to position itself to work with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Trump tackled a key problem, which had been straining the bilateral relationship for years, to facilitate rapid normalization. That move allows the U.S. to create a new balance of power between its traditional allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. At the same time, the Trump administration enables itself to meddle in the growing Russian sphere of influence in the Middle East.

The Russians, in turn, cautiously welcomed the decision. Although Moscow was quick to state that the territories that U.S. forces will vacate must be handed over to the Assad regime, there is no reason to assume that Russian President Vladimir Putin will undermine his cooperation with Erdoğan. Russian diplomats simply like to bargain down in negotiations. In the end, Putin and Erdoğan will talk directly and reach a reasonable agreement. Although Moscow doesn’t like the rapprochement between Turkey and the U.S., it won’t just throw its influence out the window. Russia won’t endanger the prospect of selling the S-400 air defense system to Turkey and completing the TurkStream natural gas pipeline, just to please Bashar Assad. As a matter of fact, Moscow could agree to the Turkish presence in northern Syria to keep Assad under control and counterbalance the Iranian influence. At the end of the day, Moscow’s real interest in Syria relates to its military bases and the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Russians understand that there can be no lasting political transition in Syria without Turkey’s help.

Iran, in turn, depends on Turkey to shelter itself from economic sanctions. Assuming that the Trump administration doubles down on Iran, Tehran’s dependence on the Turks will further deepen. Undoubtedly, the Iranians would understand that disturbing Turkish forces in northern Syria could lay the groundwork for a grand bargain between Turkey and the U.S. regarding Iran.

In the light of these developments, Turkey’s hand remains strong against a backdrop of strategic rebalancing in the Middle East. That power is rooted in Erdoğan’s active leader-to-leader diplomacy, domestic political consolidation and field experience. The fact that Trump learned from Putin and found a way to work with Erdoğan demonstrates Turkey’s key role in the region. Let’s hope that French President Emmanuel Macron and others reach the same conclusion before it’s too late.

[Daily Sabah, 29 December 2018]

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