New Eastern Outlook 12.03.2016
While the ceasefire in Syria agreed upon by Russia and the US is being successfully implemented, the possible Turkish intervention in Syria that at some point seemed imminent is being gradually pushed aside from the front pages of the international media. Yet, everyone understands one thing – without Washington’s approval, Ankara would never dare to intervene even if it was supported by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Yet, those three states have found themselves in no position to embark on a new military adventure due to the dire internal conflicts provoked by the Saudi oil dumping strategy and aggravated by their involvement in the protracted bloody conflict in Yemen.
Under these circumstances in the last few days, Erdogan’s rhetoric has been getting less and less aggressive, which is of little wonder since he has managed to spoil Turkey’s relations with both the US and other NATO states. Moreover, there’s growing dissatisfaction within Turkey with Erdogan’s undeclared war on the Kurds who constitute over 30% of Turkey’s population. In fact, a full-scale war on the Kurdish population is being waged now in southeastern Anatolia, where Turkish soldiers and policemen are dying by the dozens, while the Turkish president is still trying to deal with Syria’s Kurds who have gained enough power to respond adequately to nearly any threat. Erdogan’s bet on the Syrian Turkomans has also failed, since they preferred to make peace with the government of Bashar al-Assad, instead of fighting the legitimate Syrian authorities as Turkey’s President demanded them to. Thus, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has put the country he was entrusted with on the brink of disintegration.
And that’s exactly where the effect of Russian sanctions are kicking in, which were imposed by Moscow against Ankara in response to the downing of a Russian warplane over Syria. With the vacation season approaching rapidly, Turkey will find itself deprived of 3.5 million Russian tourists that had been visiting Turkey every year. The panic in the tourism sector of the Turkish economy has been on the rise recently with countless hotels in Antalya, Bodrum, Marmaris and Fethiye being put up for sale. After all, Russians are not the only ones who won’t go to Turkey this year. Europeans too, are going to be repelled by the massive exodus of migrants from Syria and Iraq that are being shipped to the EU via the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. It’s just too dangerous to go to Turkey these days. And the fact that ISIS has been planning new terrorist attacks in Turkey doesn’t make it any more attractive for foreign tourists either.
The agricultural industry is also in a diminished state, since it is based on feeding tourists and exporting its products to Russia, and none of these options are available currently. If the political and socioeconomic crisis in Turkey becomes worse, it won’t take long for Erdogan to be impeached. But he will be most certainly replaced by his faithful ally – Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu or his old contender – the former President Abdullah Gül who is being heavily supported by the US.
Under these circumstance Ankara has decided to bet on the EU and Germany in particular. Experts, however, perceive the agreements signed by Turkey and the EU regarding the way that those actors will be settling the migrant crisis as a case of shameless blackmail. Yet, it’s unlikely that the proposed solution is going to help, since the stubbornness of German Counselor Angela Merkel has already forced certain EU states to commit a gross violation of international law. Slovenia has almost completely closed its border to immigrants. Now only those in dire need and those who seek asylum directly from the Slovenian authorities will be allowed in. Thus, one of the main transit routes from the Middle East to the EU has been closed. Immediately after the announcement, Serbian authorities stated that they were going to close the border with Macedonia and Bulgaria for all those who do not have visas or other documents authorizing their stay in Serbia.
The harsh steps taken by Slovenian and Serbian authorities have become the response to the preliminary plan that was agreed to by the EU authorities and Ankara on March 9. According to this plan, all migrants that will be coming to the EU from Turkey by the sea are going to be returned back, while the EU makes its visa regulations as amicable towards Turks as they can possibly be, along with handing over up to 3 billion euros to Ankara. One of the pivotal aspects of this plan is the “one for one” agreement which implies that each illegal migrant in the EU will be replaced by a legal one that will come from Turkey. The influential British Financial Times journal notes that there’s a number of challenges that could jeopardize this part of the plan: dubious legal grounds, the possibility of a sharp opposition that some EU countries may present, the technical complexity of its implementation and the dire absence of optimism among Europeans at the prospects of accommodating at least 75 million Turks legally swarming the EU states.
Yet, the most serious challenge Erdogan has to face is Russia and its attitude towards him. Can Turkey just lose a country that has literally been feeding it for over 25 years due to the actions of Erdogan? The number of those that are going to lose their jobs due to the recent rift in Russian-Turkish relations is estimated in the millions. But at this state it’s hard to imagine that sooner or later those two state will sit at the negotiating table. Turkey has not only underestimated the power of Russia in Syria, but has also made a strategic mistake of pushing all in on the West. Now Turkey has an extremely limited range of steps it can make in the Middle East, as well as the Caucasus and Central Asia regions, and has nothing up its sleeve to apply pressure on Washington. Unlike Erdogan, Putin is not going to lose his support in the Russian Federation any time soon, since he is perceived as a strong leader who has managed to establish equal footing with the United States.
Of course, it is too early to say anything about the Syrian crisis ending any time soon and to declare Russia the “winner” in this conflict. Moscow was forced to get involved in the war in Syria at the moment when it couldn’t calculate the consequences of this step. It had to bear the burden of the economic crisis, restore Crimea’s economy, and deal with the events in Ukraine. But Western experts got it wrong this time – it remained standing strong.
It is no accident the US will keep trying to keep its allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia away from Syria even if the ceasefire fails. After all, NATO and the majority of its leaders have no guts to get into a fair fight. Western powers do fear the escalation of the conflict and a possible clash with Russia, especially against the background of Saudi Arabia which is rapidly losing influence in Syria, while the influence Iran enjoys in the region is increasing daily. The crumbling Wahhabi state is running a risk of provoking a new Arab Spring wave with its fall, but this time it will be directed against the West and its allies.
Alexander Orlov, political scientist and expert Orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”