US pressure on Turkey is set to increase as Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepare to depart for Turkey today. The high-profile US delegation will arrive in Ankara to hold discussions on the Turkish military operation currently underway in northeastern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared the Turkish offensive will continue. He has also ruled out the possibility of a ceasefire even as US and international criticism continues to deepen. Erdogan had initially refused to meet with Pence but now has reversed course and agreed to meet with the vice president.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Syria US troops continue their withdrawal from the northeast. Russian troops are moving into the area in an effort to fill the void, and limit Turkish territorial gains. This new Russian presence in the former US protectorate area will open the door for Syrian government forces to make further territorial gains and bring even more parts of Syria under the control of Damascus.
The US withdrawal is raising questions among America’s allies across the Middle East, especially concerning the United States’ commitments to their security. Russia’s leadership is already moving to take advantage of the situation. Vladimir Putin was in Saudi Arabia Monday, and the United Arab Emirates yesterday, ostensibly on state visits. Timing is everything in international relations, and Putin’s visits came as US troops were leaving their bases near Manbij, and Russian forces were moving in.
The Turkish government had a weapons system procurement decision to make and it was a simple one at that: Turkey could purchase the Russian SA-21 (S-400 to amateurs) surface-to-air missile system, or remain in the F-35 Lightning II program. Ankara could not have both. The Trump administration made it clear that if Turkey decided to purchase and accept delivery of the SA-21 Growler it would bring about their immediate exclusion from the F-35 program.
Turkey made its choice and took delivery of the first SA-21 missiles and launchers this week. Today the US responded with the announcement that it is removing Turkey from the F-35 program because the “F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities”.
Turkish President Erdogan had long assumed the Trump administration would relent and allow his nation to possess both the SA-21 system, and F-35 fighter planes. He was wrong, and now his country is on the outside looking in with regards to the US program.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suffered a major setback at the polls. The results of Sunday’s municipal balloting indicate the candidate of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has won the mayoral election in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. The mayoral race in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest and most famous city, appears as if it will be won by the opposition candidate. It has yet to be officially decided, but as of this morning, CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu was ahead by a thin margin.
For Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) the results were a major blow. Although AKP candidates won 51% of the municipal elections across the nation, it wasn’t enough for him to declare the results a victory. If the Istanbul race is officially called for Imamoglu, it will be a catastrophe for Erdogan and AKP.
Going into Sunday, the elections were regarded as a barometer for Erdogan’s. He’d campaigned endlessly, calling the vote a matter of “national survival.” In a sense, his words ring true. The Turkish economy has been mired in a recession and the lira has required constant propping up. The nation is also engaged militarily in Syria and despite growing involvement there, and the returns have been less than Erdogan was hoping for.
The election results could be a turning point for the opposition which has been relegated to the shadows in recent years. With Erdogan and his party controlling much of the nation’s media outlets, CHP and other parties opposing Erdogan have not had the ability to spread their message far and wide. With Ankara, and perhaps Istanbul about to be led by CHP candidates, that could be about to change.
Of course, economic performance motivates people to vote more often than not. Right now, with Turkey’s economy looking shaky, it bodes well for the opposition, and less so for Erdogan and AKP.
Disentangling the United States from Syria is proving to be far more difficult than President Trump has anticipated. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s snub of National Security Adviser John Bolton yesterday in Ankara serves as a warning of the difficulties that lay ahead. Bolton’s insistence that Turkey agree to safeguard the US-supported Kurdish militia in northern Syria before a US troop withdrawal begins struck a nerve with Erdogan. He refused to meet with Bolton following the remarks, claiming what Bolton proposed was in direct contradiction to the deal Erdogan and Trump agreed to in December. The Turkish president also made it clear he would prefer to communicate directly with Trump instead of through an emissary like Bolton. Until this issue is resolved to the satisfaction of all involved parties, the US troop withdrawal from Syria will likely be put on hold.
Trump is determined to pull US troops out of Syria quickly, and for good reason. Syria has no strategic value for the United States. Critics of the proposed withdrawal are quick to point to the notion that leaving Syria will embolden Iran and undercut US efforts to contain Iranian influence in the region. This is simply not true. The US has been very successful in containing and challenging Iran on multiple fronts across the Middle East. The same critics also argue that a US presence in Syria is needed to counter Russia’s expanding influence and power there. Again, not true. Syria has historically been a Russian ally and therefore Moscow regards the survival of Bashir al-Assad’s government as vital to its national interests.
The United States cannot say the same. Yes, there is a humanitarian disaster going on in Syria. However, after the debacle that post-Gaddafi Libya became, it’s unlikely that Washington will ever mix foreign policy, military action, and humanitarian goals together again. This particular combination has proved to be volatile, especially in the Middle East.
Turkey continues to generate considerable scrutiny across world today. There is no sign that the nation’s afflictions will ease anytime soon. The currency crisis continues on with the lira having lost almost 40 percent of its value against the US dollar so far this year. Turkey’s relationship with the United States is spiraling downward nearly as fast as the lira, spurring geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fallout at home and abroad. Ankara’s push to end the lira’s downfall has brought no tangible results yet, and there is considerable doubt forming about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ability to navigate the Turkish economy through this difficult time.
Europe is watching events in Turkey closely, especially Berlin. Germany’s Federal Ministry of Finance has identified Turkey’s ongoing economic difficulties as a risk to the German economy. On the heels of this, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated she sees no need to offer Turkey financial aid in the midst of this currency crisis. Merkel and Erdogan are expected to meet in September when the Turkish leader makes a state visit to Germany. Much like the United States, Germany has seen its relations with Turkey grow strained since the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016.
Events of the last twenty-four hours reinforce the belief that there is no end to Turkey’s woes in sight. Earlier today, the US embassy in Ankara came under gunfire for a brief period. The identity of the attackers remains unknown, though the Turkish government was quick to condemn the incident. Pre-recorded remarks by Erdogan were also released today to mark the beginning of the Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday. The Turkish president promised his people they would not be brought “to their knees” by the currency crisis. He also described the crisis as an attack on the Turkish economy and likened it to an attack on the national flag, and call to prayer. Language such as this will do nothing to alleviate Turkey’s troubles, and in the long run will only serve to deteriorate things even more.