21st Century Wire
Something unthinkable happened on 11th. March. The government of the Netherlands withdrew permission for a plane, carrying Turkish Foreign Minister Melvut Cavusoglu, to land in the country.
Cavusoglu was travelling to the Netherlands to address a rally supporting expanded powers for Turkish President Erdogan, ahead of a referendum in Turkey over the issue, to be held next month.
To add insult to injury, the Dutch police also deported Turkey’s Minister for Family Affairs, Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, to Turkey, after preventing her from addressing a rally outside the Turkish Consulate in Rotterdam.
Earlier, Germany had also taken similar action, by preventing Turkish officials from addressing rallies in Germany, aimed at mobilizing support for Erdogan in the upcoming referendum in April.
In a furious response, Erdogan accused Germany of reverting to “Nazi practices,” by blocking the planned rallies, whose objective was to address the 1.5 million-strong ethnic Turkish community in Germany. Erdogan’s comments were condemned by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who told Turkey to stop comparing the German authorities to the Nazis.
Erdogan, nevertheless, did that again, by comparing the Dutch government to the Nazis, while addressing a rally of his supporters in Istanbul on Saturday. He also threatened that Turkey would not allow Dutch planes to land on its territory.
There are other signs, also, of Western displeasure with Erdogan, who narrowly survived a coup attempt last July, which he accused the US of orchestrating. Erdogan ordered arrests of tens of thousands of government, army, police, and intelligence officers, in addition to professors, journalists, and other members of the Turkish intelligentsia. He accused them of being followers of Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher, who lives in the US.
Erdogan accused Gulen of masterminding the coup attempt and demanded his extradition to Turkey. The US asked Turkey to provide evidence against Gulen, which Turkey has done. However, the US does not consider the evidence sufficient, and has so far not agreed to extradite Gulen, who is widely believed to be a CIA asset.
Erdogan also alleged that the US and EU were behind the coup—an allegation for which some circumstantial evidence exists. Some analysts believe that Erdogan has become a liability for the US, EU, and NATO, by blackmailing them over the issue of Syrian refugees, more than 2.5 million of whom live in camps in Turkey.
Tens of thousands of these refugees have been smuggled by human traffickers into Greece since 2014. More than a million of them have travelled from there to other countries in Europe, especially Germany, Sweden, and Austria, straining the socio-economic fabric of these countries, as also their law and order.
In a deal reached last March, Erdogan agreed to prevent the refugees from travelling to Greece provided the EU met certain conditions, relating to financial aid and visa-free travel for Turkish nationals in the EU. So far, the EU has not agreed to the visa-free travel demanded by Erdogan.
Turkish-US relations are also coming under severe strain in northern Syria, where Turkish-backed troops recently captured the strategic northern town of Al Bab from ISIS. The Turkish army invaded Syria last August, in an operation named “Euphrates Shield,” ostensibly to prevent the Syrian Kurds from capturing more territory in northern Syria, which could have led to the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish enclave contiguous to Turkey’s southern borders.
Such an enclave could then have linked-up with Turkey’s own Kurdish areas, where the PKK has influence, to set up a Kurdish state bordering Turkey. This scenario was completely unacceptable to Turkey, which regards a Kurdish state as an existential threat.
A second ostensible Turkish objective in invading Syria was to uproot the ISIS from northern and eastern Syria. However, many observers were skeptical about this stated goal because it is well known that Turkey was one of the major supporters of ISIS in Syria. Turkey provided the supply lines for funneling mercenaries, weapons, money, and training to ISIS, with the approval of the US, EU, and some Gulf states. Turkey also sold and laundered Syrian oil stolen by ISIS, which was sent from Syria to Turkey by trucks.
After its recent capture of Al-Bab, Turkey wanted to capture Manbij, another strategically important town in the area. After taking Manbij, Turkey’s game-plan was to move towards capturing Raqqa, the ISIS “capital” in Syria. If allowed to do so, Turkey would have physically controlled a large chunk of northeastern Syria, which it would then, potentially, have tried to annex.
However, the areas around Manbij were handed over in early March by the Kurdish YPG militia, who controlled them, to the Syrian Arab Army—a move which met with US disapproval. The US itself is trying to control as much area in northeastern Syria as possible, for its future designs in that country.
On 9th March, a detachment of around four hundred US marines, along with heavy weapons, was reported to be moving towards Manbij, which they wanted to take, on their way to Raqqa. The Americans want to capture Raqqa before the Syrian Army does so, for reasons that will be explained below.
The question of the Turks taking Manbij, or Raqqa, therefore does not arise. Of course, for Syria, deployment of US marines in Manbij is bad news, since they are regarded as invaders, as President Assad said recently in an interview.
This is the second major development where Erdogan’s ambitions have been foiled by the West, even though Turkey is an ally and a NATO member. The US has chosen to support the Kurds, who are a sworn enemy of the Turks, rather than supporting Turkey. It is a major rebuff to Erdogan, in addition to the ban on Turkish ministers entering Germany and The Netherlands, indicating that he has fallen out with the West.
That cannot be helpful to Turkey’s internal stability, which is already fragile after the mass purges carried out by Erdogan in the wake of last July’s attempted coup.
But it would be a folly to think that Erdogan will take these rebuffs lying down. He has already said that he will not let Dutch ministers land in Turkey. He has another card up his sleeve, which he may now play to make life difficult for Europe—the Syrian refugee card. He can open the floodgates of the refugee camps in Turkey and allow smuggling of the refugees to Greece. He has hinted in the past that he may do so. And going by his record, he is capable of blackmailing Europe.
If Erdogan actually does that, Turkey-West relations may spin into a downward spiral, the consequences of which may be disastrous for Turkey.
One final point. Currently, the fashionable thing to do in Syria is to fight the ISIS. The US and Turkey, both of which launched and supported ISIS in Syria, are trying to move rapidly to capture Raqqa, the ISIS headquarters. But in the name of fighting ISIS, what they are really trying to do is to occupy substantial Syrian territory with the objective of setting up a “Sunnistan” in eastern Syria.
This “Sunnistan” will constantly harass Assad-controlled western Syria and, crucially, provide the territory through which Qatari natural gas can be exported to Europe via Turkey, reducing the continent’s dependence on Russian gas. Assad had committed the cardinal sin of saying no to this project in 2009.
Niraj Srivastava is a former Ambassador of India who has served in several countries including Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and the United States