Turkey’s Erdogan cripples US role in Syria

M.K. Bhadrakumar December 29, 2016 4:05 PM (UTC+8)
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In the improbable event of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization disintegrating during the coming decade, the blame will be put on the Donald Trump presidency. But the endgame must be deemed to have begun under the lame duck US president Barack Obama – to be exact, on December 28 – three full weeks before Trump took over as president.

That was when Turkey, second biggest military power in the western alliance, point-blank accused the Obama administration of consorting with the dark forces of terrorism that are undermining its security and threatening to destabilize it.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan alleged on Wednesday that Turkey is in possession of “confirmed evidence, with pictures, photos and videos” of the US’ support to the Islamic State.

It is a grave allegation that cannot be shrugged away and there are no precedents to such a showdown between two top NATO powers – or any two allies – in all of the alliance’s history.

The allegation as such may not be new. Other countries have also voiced from time to time in recent years their profound disquiet that the US kept covert links with extremist groups, including Russia and Iran.

The Iranians even claimed that they are in possession of evidence regarding secret nightly air droppings of weapons and supplies by American aircraft at select locations in Iraq that were under the control of the IS.

Quite possibly, other regional states too have similar “confirmed evidence” but choose to remain quiet – such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Israel.

Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the US Defence Intelligence Agency (and National Security Advisor-designate in the Trump administration), had himself claimed last year in a TV interview that the rise of the IS was a “willful decision” by the Obama administration in furtherance of its agenda to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

However, the difference here is that Turkey is a NATO power and the US uses the Incirlik base in eastern Turkey as a main base for its security operations inside Syria and Iraq.

Erdogan’s allegation signifies that Turkey-US relations have hit rock bottom. There is virtual breakdown of mutual trust between the two NATO allies. This is bound to have profound implications for regional security in the Middle East, including in Afghanistan where Turkey plays an influential role.

Erdogan could have held back until the Trump administration got into stride. But he decided instead to embark on a new policy trajectory on Syria. The Turkish-Russian accord on a ceasefire all across Syria is the latest evidence of Turkey collaborating with Russia and Iran to kick-start intra-Syrian peace talks.

If the Russian reports are to be believed, representatives from the Russian and Turkish militaries have been holding consultations with the Syrian opposition in Ankara about how a possible nationwide ceasefire might work.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that the Syrian government was consulting with the opposition ahead of possible peace talks.

“During the recent meeting in Moscow with my colleagues from Iran and Turkey we approved a joint declaration in which we confirmed our readiness to guarantee a future agreement between the Syrian government and the opposition. Negotiations about that are going on,” Lavrov disclosed in an interview with the Interfax news agency.

Turkey in turn has called for the inclusion of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the trilateral format with Russia and Iran. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been conspicuously restrained vis-à-vis the trilateral format which met in Moscow recently.

These two GCC states, which have been deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, would know that the US has rendered itself fairly irrelevant to the endgame in Syria. Therefore, the strong likelihood is that they will cooperate – tacitly at least – with the Russian-Turkish move to get the opposition to sit across the table with the Syrian government.

Significantly, at a meeting between Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani and the visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Doha on Monday, the Saudi-backed Chief Negotiator for the Syrian Opposition, Riyad Hijab was present.

The UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura has announced that the United Nations planned to convene a third round of intra-Syrian talks on February 8 next year. Conceivably, Turkey is positioning itself as the regional state best placed to mentor the Syrian opposition groups at the negotiating table.

All in all, therefore, the breakdown in the Turkish-American relations will not be helpful for the US regional policies in Syria and Afghanistan.

The Trump administration, which inherits the post-Obama Middle Eastern wreck, seeks to wipe out the Islamic State. But then, Trump has also ruled out ‘boots on the ground’, which means he’d be fighting terrorism without direct US intervention in the region.

This would necessitate that Trump and his team may opt to support Russia and the Syrian regime instead of the weak and fragmented Syrian opposition. In essence, therefore, Turkey is working with Russia on a package of compatible plans on Syria.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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