Erdogan’s Lack of Friends Dictated His Response to Syria Strike

(Bloomberg) -- It was an isolated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who had to consider Turkey’s response after the deadliest assault on its military in decades. And that lack of international support likely proved decisive.

As Erdogan gathered his security council for six hours following the killing of at least 33 Turkish soldiers in an airstrike by Syrian forces late on Thursday, he was aware that fellow NATO members, including the U.S., were unwilling to wade into the quagmire, and Turkey’s sometime ally in Moscow was firmly backing his enemy.

Erdogan ended up sidestepping any direct challenge to Russia, after his defense minister said Turkish forces retaliated against Syria.

The odds were stacked against Turkey. Russian warplanes and missile systems make it extremely difficult to provide air cover for the 10,000 Turkish troops Erdogan had sent across the border to halt the collapse of Syria’s last rebel bastion in Idlib and prevent potentially millions of refugees heading for Turkey’s frontier.

He spoke with President Donald Trump and Germany’s Angela Merkel on Friday, and was expected to talk to French President Emmanuel Macron, but the calls weren’t going to change who controls Syria’s skies.

“Erdogan’s options for a retaliation against the Syrian forces are limited in the absence of air support,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a strategist at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara. “The airstrike was aimed at deterring Turkey against moving deeper into Idlib” and retaliation would place Turkish outposts under greater threat.

A senior official with direct knowledge of Turkey’s policy in Syria predicted Erdogan had invested too much in his Syrian offensive to turn back now, and would seek sustained military retribution. The domestic backlash would only grow if desperate Syrian civilians were forced to flee into Turkey, he said.

But in his call with Trump, Erdogan said the “necessary response has been given to culprits of the heinous attack on our heroic soldiers,” according to a statement from the Turkish president’s office. The two leaders agreed to take “steps to prevent a massive humanitarian drama in Idlib without delay,” it stated. That said, Turkey remains determined to end the Syrian offensive on Idlib and further military action could follow.

Earlier in the day, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar had laid the groundwork for his leader’s stance, saying heavy Turkish retaliation had destroyed Syrian helicopters and tanks and killed hundreds of troops. Akar laid some of the blame for the strike at Russia’s door, saying it had been aware of the location of the Turkish troops.

Erdogan’s isolation is largely of his own making. For years, he’s been steering his foreign policy away from Turkey’s traditional allies in the West. That change of direction picked up pace after Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his support on the night of a failed military coup against Erdogan in 2016 while Western capitals appeared indifferent. The two leaders have developed a strong personal rapport even while their agendas in the Middle East differed.

Ankara last year chose to buy a Russian advanced missile-defense system over a U.S.-made alternative that would have come with constraints on where and when it could be used. Ties with Washington suffered and the Pentagon kicked Ankara out of the F-35 fighter jet program.

With the European Union, problems run deeper due to decades of differences over key issues such as Cyprus, where a breakaway Turkish republic has existed since Turkey invaded the island’s north in 1974 in response to a coup attempt by supporters of union with Greece.

Syria’s nine-year war brought new challenges. Erdogan accused European nations of not doing enough to cover the expense of looking after 3.6 million refugees who settled in Turkey during the conflict. And he repeatedly threatened to send them north to countries where politics had already been polarized by right-wing populists opposed to migration.

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In the wake of Thursday’s attack, officials again warned Europe that Turkey was full and something would have to give if the fighting in Idlib unleashed a new wave of the displaced.

The move’s unlikely to work, said Murat Erdogan, a professor at Istanbul’s Turkish-German University who studies migration.

“The desperate ones may try to cross into Europe but this will come to a standstill very soon,” he said. “For the tactic of opening border crossings to work, there should be an open crossing on the other side of the border too. But that end is closed.”

Mulling his options, Turkey’s leader also had to keep in mind the state of an ailing economy. It has bounced back from last year’s recession and is growing again but the currency is still fragile despite aggressive intervention by government-owned banks to support it.

Inflation and unemployment are at elevated levels and foreign imbalances are building, setting the country on course for another currency meltdown. A military adventure in Syria in the absence of support from NATO and the U.S. might amplify the market fallout, said Anastasia Levashova, a fund manager at Blackfriars Asset Management.

Last year’s defeats in municipal elections in key cities showed Erdogan that his electoral base, no matter how loyal, is growing weary of a stumbling economy. That’s a major consideration for the all-powerful Turkish leader, who can stand for re-election in 2023.

“A deeper involvement in the civil war in Syria would not only fuel tensions with regional power Russia but could also take its toll on the weak economy,” said Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Ankara’s Middle Eastern Technical University. Eventually that could “chip away at the support for Erdogan at the ballot box,” he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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