Today one is inclined to talk of a double impasse for Turkey. The massive Syrian offensive into Idlib province, backed by the Russian military, begins pitting Ankara against Moscow and it may prove the point of those arguing that the Sochi process was stillborn from the onset.
Whatever the case, one point is clear: the last stronghold of jihadist forces has surfaced as the area where Turkish and Syrian-Russian interests will clash.
It can be argued that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not only at odds with the United States. No matter what direction he chooses, he will be only playing for time, nothing more.
He knows the Americans will impose their will in the so-called “safe zone,” mainly to protect their local allies from Turkey. The United States is allied with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a hybrid combat front dominated by the Kurdish fighters in Rojava, north-eastern Syria. These forces will remain a deterrent against the Islamic State and the risk of advances by Iran. It will be also a bargaining chip when the time comes to redesign the Syrian administrative map.
The Russians have not trusted Turkey, especially under Erdogan’s rule. They do not see Erdogan holding to his commitments and still favouring regime change in Syria with hard-line Sunni fighters in mind.
Moscow may have calculated that the standoff between Ankara and Washington over the safe zone has made Turkey more vulnerable. To gain an upper hand over the future of Syria, it initiated a final thrust at the heart of Idlib, disregarding the humanitarian disaster it causes for the civilian population. After all, Russia may have reasoned, after the sale of S-400 missiles to Turkey, it has nothing to lose. Win-win for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Damascus ally.
In Ankara, some pundits close to the Turkish Army say the United States is the real game-setter on the safe zone and some generals are not happy about what they see as the sealing of protection of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units controlling the area. For now, it is only a tension-builder in Ankara. There is not much said about the Syrian offensive and Idlib issue from the same circles.
It has to do with the long-brewing division of views between Erdogan’s camp, which supports the jihadist-dominated Free Syrian Army against Assad’s military, and the camp that includes the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and a tiny Homeland Party, a hardcore, militarist-nationalist group with a strong influence within the Turkish security apparatus and demands, not a retreat from Syria, but to open direct dialogue with the Assad regime.
Divisions in Ankara leave prospects open for a final showdown over who will rule Turkey. Much depends on the pace of developments in the Syrian theatre.
On the surface, there is the Kurdish dimension, which keeps Ankara in convulsions. Stuck in a vicious circle for decades, Turkey’s political class has once more returned to the default position, as the battle against Turkey’s Kurds intensifies.
The unlawful removal of three elected Kurdish mayors by Erdogan has shown that the two alliances that competed against each other in recent local elections — “Public,” bringing together Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party with the ultranationalist National Movement Party and “Nation,” CHP taking side with the offshoot of the ultranationalist Iyi — have not been that far from each other, regarding the Kurdish issue. Opposition parties have given the impression they are closer to supporting the oppressive state than trying to salvage whatever remains of democracy.
If Erdogan knows anything, it is that he can extend his power and control the state apparatus as long as he can keep the secular-nationalist opposition bloc closer to his rule, by continuing to demonise the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). He thrives on this consensus.
With a double impasse in Syria, the appointment of government trustees in three major Kurdish municipalities added more elements to the social turmoil in Turkey. It is apparent that the move was premeditated, aimed at weakening the HDP and alienating some reformist circles within the CHP. A closure case against HDP is also on the agenda.
Another objective could be to provoke street violence or attacks by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) at home or against Turkish Army posts in Syria — just to create pretexts for countermeasures.
In any case, the removal of mayors, who were elected with more than 53% of the vote, is a blow to the will of the voters. Not only has it hampered prospects for a renewed peace process between Ankara and the PKK, it has acted as a silencer for optimists arguing that the process was only a matter of when, not if.
Erdogan and his partner in the alliance, Devlet Bahceli, have shown there is no room for wishful thinking or for hope. If anything, the brutal domestic offensive against the HDP should tell the world that, as long as Erdogan is in power and backed by extreme hardliners in key positions, there will never be a peaceful solution of the Kurdish issue.
So, we should not be talking of double impasse but rather of a triple impasse.
Yavuz Baydar is a senior Turkish columnist, and news analyst. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) in Istanbul, he has been reporting on Turkey and monitoring media issues since 1980. A European Press Prize Laureate in 2014, he is also the winner of Germany's 'Journalistenpreis' in 2018.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.