By Ty Joplin
As Turkey invades territory in Syria held by U.S. allies, and threatens U.S. troops while buying billions of dollars in Russian arms, American diplomats and analysts are worried. Former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman and former advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden sum up the collective fear in a recent Politico article, claiming that Turkey is “out of control.”
But Turkey’s actions are not spontaneous or chaotic; they are part of a larger geopolitical realignment, one that involves a more ambitious foreign policy and a closer relationship with Russia. Turkey then, is not simply ‘out of control,’ but ‘out of the U.S.’ control.’
For years, Turkey has had to carefully navigate between the axes of the West/NATO, the Arab world and the Russian bloc. But after seeing an opportunity to pounce on regional power in Syria, Turkey now evidently sees Russia as a more valuable partner than the U.S.
The Syrian Land Swap
When Turkey made the decision to invade the Afrin region of northwestern Syria, it sought Russia’s blessing long beforehand.
In the Summer of 2017, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Turkish Chief-of-Staff Hulusi Akar met in Istanbul. As a result of the meeting, Russia gave Turkey partial permission to fly over Syria—a move that both gave Turkey the ability to enter into Idlib with aerial support to police the de-escalation agreement, and allow any offensive into Afrin to occur.
When Turkey launched its invasion into Afrin to oust Kurdish militias, Russia pulled its troops out of the region affected. Kurds saw the exchange as a sign that Russia had supported the invasion and decried Russia’s part as a ‘betrayal.’
The move also put the United States in an impossible position. With one U.S. ally and partner in NATO attacking another ally, it had to make a choice of whom to back. It ultimately decided that, though the Kurdish forces have been pivotal in the fight against ISIS, they are not worth defending at the cost of an all-out military confrontation with Turkey. So, it tacitly allowed the Afrin offensive to happen while warning Turkey not to stray east near Manbij, Syria where U.S. troops are stationed.
It is still unclear whether Turkey will risk attacking Manbij, but it is continually hinting that it will—a rebuff to the U.S.
For its part, just as Russia conceded Afrin and parts of Idlib to Turkey, Turkey, through its opposition proxies and partners, conceded a strategic airbase south of Aleppo. According to Dr. Mohanad Hage Ali “It is a trade of sorts, in which Afrin is being exchanged for Abou al-Duhour and the eastern side of the Hijaz railway in Aleppo governorate.”
The airbase was previously controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and is now firmly under the control of the Syrian regime. Russia and Assad view the airbase as vital to any future offensives into rebel-held Idlib, one of the last rebel holdouts in all of Syria. Turkey on the other hand, views control of Afrin as key to its own ongoing hunt against Kurdish rebels in both Turkey and Syria.
In other words, the land swap—the airbase for Afrin, signify a new level of strategic coordination between Turkey and Russia, one that reveals both how much Turkey stands to gain by partnering with Russia over the U.S. and how powerful Turkey is becoming regionally as a result.
By becoming untethered from the U.S., Turkey is gaining power at breakneck speeds.
Trading NATO for Russia
Turkey is accelerating the speed at which it gains power regionally. “Turkey views itself as a major regional player,” Dr. Ali explained. “Russia is a dealmaker in Syria, and is granting Turkey a major seat on the negotiations’ table,” making Russia a better partner through which to gain power.
To get a sense of Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions, Dr. Ali argued that “Turkey is a player in the Levant, GCC, North Africa and as far as Sudan and Somalia. In other words, Turkey is the region’s Sunni Iran.”
With that comes an uncomfortable prospect for U.S. policymakers and analysts: that the U.S. is no longer the key deal maker and arbiter of the Middle Eastern landscape, that it has withdrawn to the point of obsolescence, and in its stead, Turkey, Russia and Iran are quickly picking up the pieces.
Turkey’s success at doing this “places it as a serious contender to fill the U.S. power vacuum in the region,” concluded Dr. Ali in an interview.
The U.S. response, spearheaded by President Donald Trump, has been characterized as ‘chaotic’ with the global superpower unwilling or unable to decisively act to re-assert any influence in the region.
If the trend continues, the U.S. may lose more than just one ally if the Kurds fall in Afrin: it could lose Turkey as a military ally, which will hurt NATO’s ability to project influence into the Middle East and the U.S.’ ability to operate over the airspace of the region to fight against foes.
Without a clear path forward, the U.S. appears to be getting squeezed out of the Middle East and the emerging partnership between Turkey and Russia may simply be the latest example of that trend.