Turkish Troubles

With a seeming spirit of negotiation sweeping the Middle East, it’s easy enough to make rash predictions. Saudi Arabia taking to Iran and the Assad regime in Syria – Egypt and Turkey talking to each other. Many commentators, notably in the United States, are already treating this as a fundamental change to the old ways of doing things, and in doing so are taking leave of things we know to be true.

Leaving aside the likelihood that each of these individual negotiations could fail to progress, there are other underlying realities to consider. One of those is the relative weakness, and even desperation, of the states currently seeking to negotiate.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is in a difficult position. With a new American president keen to produce a treaty with Iran, and in the course of losing its war in Yemen against Iranian proxies which now involves constant ballistic missile attacks on the Saudi capital and its oil economy, the kingdom is forced to the negotiating table in despair.

Turkey is in a somewhat stronger position. Its military has carved out a protected zone in northern Syria safe from the incursion of the Assad regime; and it has agreed a condominium of Syria with Iran and Russia. Meanwhile, Turkish forces assisted Azerbaijan in decisively winning the war in Nagorno-Karabakh last year, and prevented Khalifa Haftar, the candidate warlord of the EU, Egypt, Russia and the UAE, from conquering Tripoli and the whole of Libya in 2020.

But the Turkish position has its own precarities. Its economy remains weak, something that has not been helped by the pandemic. It is increasingly unpopular in western capitals, something linked closely to the person of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is thoroughly disliked in the United States and in Europe. The American administration of Joe Biden sees Erdogan as a nationalist, a thug, and a man with whom it cannot do business.

France and other European states think Erdogan a revanchist politician of Islamist sensibilities, and have accused him or marshalling the forces of international jihad to fight his proxy conflicts in Libya and Armenia. These perceptions are a notable stumbling block to Turkey being accepted in Western capitals, and without broader diplomatic thawing, they will continue to be perpetuated by Erdogan’s international opponents.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, a coalition of regional powers and smaller states have begun to coalesce around a status quo they feel they are defending against Turkish revisionism. There are tentative signs that Turkey is unwilling to escalate this increasingly fraught situation.

And in Syria, although Turkey has concluded an agreement with Iran which has guaranteed a lack of direct escalation between the two, there is persuasive analysis that conflict of some kind is inevitable. Instability within Syria continually draws Turkey into the country.

Turkey is ever spurred towards greater involvement, something which wholly conflicts with Iran’s plans for regional domination. Kamran Bokhari writes in Newlines magazine that either Turkey will find itself in Iran’s crosshairs or Turkey will be left the only power willing and able to resist Iranian expansionism. Either way, confrontation beckons.

Similarly, although Ergodan and Vladimir Putin have been able to turn extreme frostiness into something of a functional relationship between their two countries, an underlying brittleness remains. With Russian Wagner Group mercenaries fighting Turkish-backed Syrian rebels in Libya, it is not difficult to imagine a confrontation between the two countries becoming more general and less easy to rein in.

The United States remains essential to all of this. Just as the Saudi sense of abandonment by America spurs its need for ceasefires in Yemen and search for new arrangements with Iran, Turkey’s extreme unpopularity in Washington has its own effects. Dealing with the kingdom and with Egypt might alleviate not only some sense of Turkish aggressiveness, but could also disarm some of the Saudi efforts Turkey believes has deepened its poor standing in America.

It would be nice, in the Turkish mind, to alleviate this problem, and to face down the increasingly visible coalition against its interests in the Mediterranean Sea and in Libya.

But especially with Egypt, the Turkish position in Libya is a profound difference of opinion, and a sticking point. Turkey’s dead-set opposition to Haftar would prove intractable and inevitably bring those countries which support Haftar’s Libyan National Army into conflict with Turkey – If ever preliminary ceasefire agreements currently in operation break down.

Many countries currently feel battered and bruised enough to consider negotiation, but each still believes they can secure their own interests in so doing. Although desperation may push countries into talks, they do not guarantee success. On those areas of perceived vital interest, even desperate countries may be forced into fighting their corners – preventing even agreements between desperate men from being reached.

This essay was originally published in Correspondence, an occasional journal.

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