Independent: Turkey, Russia tensions after Erdoğan’s brinkmanship backfires

Analysis: Revoking the EU refugee deal is one of the few chips Turkish president has left to play

It has been a day of many grim records for Ankara. The most casualties for Turkish troops in Syria in a day since the civil war began. The highest number of attempted refugee crossings to Europe for years. The worst crisis with Russia since a fighter jet was shot down in 2015.

Thursday night, when the news first broke that 33 Turkish soldiers been killed in an air strike blamed on Syrian regime forces, was the point when multiple strands began to unravel from the Turkish government’s unwieldy Syria policy.

But make no mistake: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was pulling every lever at his disposal on Friday to make sure the world paid attention.

In the 12 hours since news of the air strike broke, the Turkish government has accused Russia of allowing the attack to happen, restricted public access to social media, called an emergency Nato meeting to discuss the crisis – and allowed millions of refugees living in the country to believe they will now be waved through to Europe.

Hulusi Akar, the defence minister, said the Turkish military had also retaliated against over 200 positions occupied by Syrian regime forces, destroying tanks, helicopters and air defence systems.

It’s had the effect of throwing dozens of bargaining chips onto the table at once.

The fact is that the Turkish government’s position on Syria’s hideous civil war has changed little since the early days of the conflict: it still believes Bashar al-Assad should go, Islamist groups should be armed to fight him, and the region’s Kurds should never have more autonomy.

When the balance of war changed, such as when Britain refused to militarily intervene in 2013 or Vladimir Putin pushed Russia into the conflict in 2015, Turkey did not shift those basic objectives — only the countries it worked with to achieve them.

Managing the conflict in Syria with Russia was a major reason why Turkey chose to buy the expensive S-400 missile defence system, despite Western warnings that it would not work with Nato defences and be a conflict of interest to buy weapons from the alliance’s main adversary.

But Mr Erdoğan’s supporters could argue, at least at first, that the arrangement was working – the president has joined Iran and Russia’s leaders at multiple summits in recent years to discuss and agree deals on Syria’s future. It was, they said, a remarkable turnaround in relations from when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet and a war seemed imminent.

And yet last October’s invasion of a Kurdish-dominated area of northern Syria served mostly to push the Kurds closer to Assad’s side, while regime attacks on Idlib, the main remaining opposition-held province, grow fiercer by the day.

Mr Erdoğan believed that, by coordinating troop movements through Moscow, an incident like Thursday night’s could be avoided.

In response, Turkey swiftly switched focus to the West.

No official ministerial announcement was issued, but suddenly every refugee in the country was led to believe they would no longer be stopped by Turkish border guards if they attempted to cross into Europe.

“All refugees, including Syrians, are now welcome to cross into the European Union,” an official had told Reuters.

Within hours, Turkish television was showing live pictures of families trudging across fields or loading into dinghies in an attempt to make it to Europe. Buses were even laid on from cities like Istanbul to get them to the border.

It’s a reversal of the deal struck with the EU to stop refugees in 2016, when Turkey agreed to take back those that made it across in exchange for billions of euros in funding.

Mr Erdoğan, well aware of the political impact that year’s migrant crisis had on European countries, has often threatened to revoke the deal. He did so today, hours after his arrangement with Russia appeared to crumble.

It is not yet clear whether this westward shift will be temporary, or deliver the support the Turkish government seeks in Syria.

But Thursday night’s vast death toll has generated anger among the Turkish public, many of whom are asking why their country is still fighting in Syria. As opposition parties call for direct negotiations with the Assad regime and proposals to return refugees to Syria finding wider support, Mr Erdoğan is finding he has few chips left to play.

Originally published in The Independent, 28 February 2020