Syria’s Civil War is a Shakespearean mix of vicious brutality and unending political intrigue. And this week, Turkey added another plot twist. Speaking yesterday, Turkey’s recent-to-the-job prime minister, Binali Yildirim, announced: “I am sure that we will return ties with Syria to normal, we need it. We normalized our relations with Israel and Russia. I’m sure we will go back to normal relations with Syria as well.”
That statement is a big deal. For a start, it represents an extraordinary shift in language from the Turkish government towards Syria. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, President Erdogan has fiercely criticized Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Just this month Erdogan described Assad as “a more advanced terrorist than ISIS.” And Turkey’s prime minister is no loose cannon speaking outside Erdogan’s authority. Yildirim is not only personally and professionally close to Erdogan, he’s essentially Erdogan’s puppet. Mr. Yildirim occupies his office to facilitate Erdogan’s continuing centralization of power. He does what his master bids. And that helps explain what’s going on here.
As I’ve noted before, Erdogan is a man of Trump-esque ego and oddness. He won’t personally kneel to Russia or Assad, but by having Yildirim forge the new deal with Russia, Erdogan can bend the political knee behind closed doors. Turkey’s prime minister is but a cutout for Turkey’s president — managing the change in course while sparing Erdogan any televised humiliation.
Still, what’s most interesting here is not the way in which Turkey is kneeling to Russia, but why it is doing so.
President Obama has repeatedly surrendered to Russia on every major issue concerning Syria.
First, it’s clear that the recent ISIS attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport has altered Turkey’s conception of the ISIS threat. Since 2011, Erdogan has happily turned a blind eye to ISIS in the hope they would force Assad from power. Neither the Paris and Brussels attacks, nor smaller-scale attacks on Western tourists inside Turkey changed Erdogan’s calculus. Yet the scale and complexity of the Istanbul airport attack was a wakeup call that Erdogan could not ignore. And that’s because Turkey cannot afford to lose Western tourism or business investment. That revenue is crucial to Erdogan’s dream of himself as a future Imam-Ataturk who rules over a modern, Islamic super state. For Erdogan, confronting ISIS has become more important than confronting Assad.
Second, Turkey has clearly lost all hope that the Obama administration will ever pressure Russia to accept a Syrian political transition. The United States had real opportunities to engage with Erdogan and force Russia and Iran to make concessions on Syria. But whether it be the August 2013 redline debacle, or Russia’s starvation-slaughter of innocent Syrians, or Russia’s repeated intrusions into NATO member Turkey’s airspace, or the Russia-Assad-Iran axis’s consistently brutal breaches of ceasefire agreements, President Obama has repeatedly surrendered to Russia on every major issue concerning Syria. Individually, these setbacks are explained away by the Obama administration and its supporters as temporary or insignificant. Yet U.S. allies in the Middle East — and indeed around the world — see these losses as the Obama administration “strategy.” Turkey is kneeling to Putin and giving Assad a pass, because it believes it has few other options.
#related#And this collapse of American leadership matters greatly. Especially in the Middle East, where influence is defined by perceptions of intent and resolve, as much as by physical capability. While America’s military strength and economic power continue to be recognized as unparalleled, our resolve is seen as increasingly nonexistent. That is why a comparatively weak Russia, mired in deep recession, has been able to so blatantly reshape the region’s balance of power. And be under no illusions, Turkey is not alone. Saudi Arabia is also drifting out of the American orbit. Others will follow unless Mr. Obama’s successor confronts his failures.
In the end, all of this leads us to an inexorable conclusion. In Syria, Vladimir Putin hasn’t just won. In short order, he has shredded over 50 years of U.S.-guaranteed balance-of-power dynamics in the Middle East. Turkey has grudgingly accepted that whatever happens next will be on Russia’s terms. We are unlikely to like it.