Turkey Briefing

As actors involved have notably toned down their objections to Turkey’s potential ground offensive in northern Syria, the ball seems to be in Russia’s court, but how can Ankara convince Moscow to give it a green light?

The answer might lie in a series of positive messages that Turkey has been signaling to the Syrian government over the past two weeks. After Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his fresh interest in a possible meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last week, Ankara offered a series of new olive branches this week.

Acknowledging Turkey’s part in Syria’s territorial divisions for the first time, a top presidential aide described the current status quo in the war-torn country as “not ideal.”

“Currently Syria is effectively divided into three parts. There are regions controlled by the regime, Russia, Iran. There are regions held by US-backed PYD/YPG-held regions and then there are regions that are under our control,” Erdogan’s spokesman and chief foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin said during a live interview Tuesday, by using the acronyms of Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing People’s Protection Units (YPG). “Now, in fact, this is not an ideal situation,” he added.

In Ankara’s official narrative, Syria’s “territorial integrity,” has been always on the forefront, with statements arguing Turkey was no threat to that, but Kalin’s remarks marks the first of its kind, and might hint at a shift in Ankara’s position on the Turkish military presence in Syria which the Syrian government defines as an “invasion.”

Speaking in Rome today, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also echoed the positive sentiment. “We need to set up a constructive dialogue with the Syrian regime,” he said.

Ankara appears to be aiming to ride the international climate which seems more favorable for itself, unlike when it was forced to shelve its plan for an operation in the face of strong international arm twisting last spring. This time the involved parties — including the United States, Iran and the Syrian government — appear less adamant in their objections to the Turkish incursion plans.

The shift has been best summarized by Amberin Zaman, who broke the news this week that all US civilian staff, including American diplomats, have been evacuated from their posts in northern Syria amid ongoing Turkish air strikes.

Turkey “has been threatening a ground offensive for months and Washington and the Kremlin have refused to give him the green light,” Zaman wrote. “But the war in Ukraine has upended their calculations. With its control over the Bosporus Straits, a critical supply route for Russian and Ukrainian grain, Turkey has emerged as a leading power broker in the Ukraine conflict, supplying drones to Kyiv while refusing to join Western sanctions on the Kremlin. Turkey’s resurgent strategic clout appears to have come at the Kurds’ expense.”

“In the past when Turkey threatened to attack, [the US-led] coalition troops would make a show of force, flying large US flags on their vehicles as they drove through the imperiled towns. There have been no such displays this time,” she observed.

Our Pentagon Correspondent Jared Szuba’s assessment from Washington corroborated Zaman’s reporting.

“‘Just do not stand in our way, that’d be enough,’ Cavusoglu said at the NATO foreign ministers summit in Bucharest this week,” Szuba noted, adding that “CENTCOM and the US-led coalition are very likely to abide, regardless of what their commanders’ consciences say.”

In a podcast with Zaman, David Eubank, the founder of the Free Burma Rangers, an aid organization that operates in conflict zones, who was recently in northeast Syria, said that the locals in the areas hit by Turkey felt deeply betrayed by the United States, recounting the devastation wreaked by the ongoing Turkish airstrikes ongoing since Nov. 20.

Fehim Tastekin, meanwhile, analyzed the reasons behind Damascus’ unusual “low-key reaction” to Turkey’s strikes. “Only one calculus could explain this situation,” Tastekin argued, “destroying all prospects of the Kurds gaining a constitutional status down the road after their establishment of de facto autonomy in the north.”

The warning coming out of Iran was also dialed down, unlike when Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei personally warned Erdogan against a possible incursion in July. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian cautioned his Turkish counterpart Cavusoglu in a phone call Wednesday, saying a potential operation “would cause losses and complicate the situation.”

Meanwhile, as Ankara is lashing out its NATO allies in broad strokes for their support of the Syrian Kurdish groups, Cavusoglu struck a relatively friendlier tone towards Turkey’s prospective NATO allies, namely Finland and Sweden.

Speaking after a trilateral meeting with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts over the Nordic enlargement of NATO, Cavusoglu said “We are not dismissing the steps that have been taken so far.” Yet he added that his country was waiting for more concrete steps “on some issues such as extraditions and freezing of terror assets.” As we reported here, “asset freeze,” marks a demand that has not been publicly expressed by any Turkish official before Cavusoglu.

On the regional front, Erdogan’s government fence-mending efforts with its former regional rival appears to be “paying off” as Saudi Arabia announced that it would deposit $5 billion in Turkey’s central bank.

“With crucial elections looming in June, such inflows are important to prop up the embattled Turkish lira and avert another whirlwind of price hikes,” Mustafa Sonmez wrote, adding that “But how much those efforts could help remains open to question.”

Semih Idiz, meanwhile, analyzed the surprising handshake between Erdogan and his one-time arch enemy Egypt President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The handshake is widely considered “the penultimate nail in the coffin of Erdogan’s Islamist foreign policy in the Middle East,” Idiz observed, adding that “The final nail will be the meeting he is reportedly seeking with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

Finally on the domestic front, Turkey’s political opposition block unveiled its constitutional amendment draft. Yet the main-opposition led six-party bloc has yet to announce a joint candidate to run against Erdogan, who according to polls has rallied back to recoup the lead in recent months, as Andrew Wilks notes in his piece on Turkey’s media landscape through the lens of fact checkers — spoiler: it doesn’t look good.

And, if you feel overwhelmed by the war drums, breakneck inflation and political bickering, you’re not alone, even Turkey’s usually laid-back cats are feeling the heat, as you can see in this Instagram post.

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