What a week it’s been for Turkey. Practically overnight, it has become the most critical player in West Asia. The country now begins the New Year as the belle of the ball.
First, a little context. Since the Saudi-sanctioned murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Turkey has been warming up the US, which suddenly finds that it’s going to need a more credible partner in West Asia. (The irony of the country which leads the world in jailing journalists now being “credible” is an interesting lesson in how reputations work in international relations.) US President Trump, apparently wanting to prove that he knows how to be “decisive” after causing a government shutdown in late December, spoke to Turkey President Erdogan, who promised him that his country would take over the fight against ISIS. Trump then announced “victory” over ISIS and ordered an immediate withdrawal, prompting his overstressed Secretary of Defence to retire.
I wrote then that Turkey had an unprecedented opportunity for regional hegemony. And, it seems, the opportunity has been seized.
Trump has “discussed heavily expanded trade” with Erdogan, and will visit Turkey this year. US Sanctions on Turkey have been lifted. Trump’s NSA will be visiting this month. American prosecutors will also be visiting Turkey to discuss the possible extradition of Fetullah Gulen, Erdogan’s friend-turned-foe whom he blames for the failed 2016 coup against him. (The Pakistan Supreme Court has declared the Gulen Organisation to be a terrorist outfit and ordered the closure of its schools).
Turkey’s importance in resolving the Syrian Civil War is now even clearer than it was before to Russia, which was gleefully watching Trump’s earlier sanctions on Turkey. Now, however, Russia has agreed to coordinate military activity in Syria with Turkey after the American withdrawal, and will be arranging a tripartite summit in Moscow early this year with Iran and Turkey. It’s likely that some sort of agreement regarding the status of Kurds will be reached – at the very least, they will have to retreat from Northern Syria, where they hold territory bordering Turkey.
The Kurds aren’t sitting around waiting for Erdogan to attack them (which he had promised to do until Trump’s enthusiasm to withdraw took everyone by surprise). On the 28th, they invited Syrian troops to join them in Manbij, a crucial city which Turkey seemed interested in attacking. They are now in a standoff with Turkish troops at the border. Chaos is likely to ensue when the American withdrawal is completed – unless Russia and Turkey reach an accommodation, which cannot be ruled out. After all, Russia is doubling the quota of tomatoes it imports from Turkey in a bid to normalise ties!
(It is worth emphasising at this point that both the Russian and Turkish economies aren’t doing great. Whether this will make their leaders more or less interested in nationalist headbutting remains to be seen – a renewal of war in Northern Syria, with ISIS still active and Turkey involved as an active combatant, would be disastrous. Trump has managed to throw the entire region into confusion.)
Finally, some good news to end this update on: a Turkish policeman saved a puppy from a frozen lake.