Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be at odds with himself over his country’s foreign policy. In a speech Nov. 29, Erdogan reiterated Turkey’s goal to “end the rule” of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Though his words affirmed Turkey’s long-standing opposition to al Assad’s administration, they contradicted his earlier hints that Ankara might be open to negotiating with Damascus. The turnaround caused consternation in Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Nov. 30 that Erdogan’s statement diverged “from previous ones and from our understanding of the situation,” exhorting Ankara to explain its position. The same day, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to his Turkish counterpart — marking the leaders’ third telephone conversation in a week — and on Dec. 1, Erdogan walked back his statement a bit, clarifying that his country’s military efforts in Syria had always been directed only at terrorist organizations, not at “any country or person,” and denouncing any suggestions to the contrary.
Russia is not alone in its perplexity; the European Union, too, has found itself on the receiving end of Ankara’s mixed messages. Turkey’s EU minister, Omer Celik, was back in Brussels on Nov. 30 after Erdogan threatened to release a flood of migrants into Europe and to hold a referendum to demonstrate Turkey’s rejection of EU membership. During his visit, Celik reiterated Turkey’s aspirations to become a full member of the European Union. In fact, despite the vitriol, negotiations are quietly continuing between Ankara and Brussels over a visa liberalization deal as both sides try to rush toward an agreement before elections in Europe further complicate the negotiation process. Although Turkey’s seemingly fickle stances on Syria and the European Union are no doubt exasperating for leaders east and west of the Anatolian Peninsula, they reflect the country’s various, and sometimes competing, strategic goals.
Turkey has multiple objectives in Syria, but its primary motive is to drive a wedge between the autonomous Kurdish cantons. Once Turkey consolidates its hold over the strategic city of al-Bab, it will have a strong foothold to prevent Syrian Kurds from unifying into a viable autonomous zone. In establishing that foothold, though, Turkey must try to avoid clashes with the loyalist forces that Russia supports. Consequently, Ankara has had to be pragmatic in its dealings with Moscow and Damascus — hence Erdogan’s openness to negotiating with the al Assad government and frequent contact with Russia.
But Turkey’s interests in Syria do not stop there. Ankara is also competing with Iran in hopes of bringing the tattered Syrian state under Sunni control and into its sphere of influence. Al Assad’s continued rule does not comport with that vision, which is why Erdogan has stated his intention to bring down the Syrian leader. There are, of course, other obstacles standing in Turkey’s way: So long as Russia and Iran support the al Assad administration, the loyalists will hold a significant military advantage in Syria. Furthermore, as the United States becomes more selective in providing support to rebel groups, the Syrian government will have more opportunities to weaken the rebellion. This will compel Turkey and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council to bolster their own support for Sunni rebel groups. Russia’s presence in Syria and the threat of serious clashes on the battlefield, however, will limit how far Turkey will move in northern Syria, restricting its supply lines to rebel forces.
Similarly, Turkey has different objectives in its dealings with Europe. By virtue of geography, Turkey is the gatekeeper for large migrant flows into Europe and can be a useful counterweight to Russia in the Black and Mediterranean seas. If Turkey is to shoulder more of the migrant burden itself, though, it expects significant concessions from Europe in return — starting with a deal on visa liberalization. At the same time, Ankara needs to temper the negative market reactions to its political turmoil and its spat with Brussels to withstand the economic pain that a weak lira, dollar-denominated debt payments and portfolio outflows are causing it. Though Ankara could try to adjust the language of its anti-terrorism legislation to appease the European Union and sustain the migrant deal, it would be unwilling to make substantive changes. Regardless of any superficial amendments, the Erdogan government would continue to use the law as a pretext to crack down on a range of political opponents. It will be up to EU members to decide to what extent they can turn a blind eye to perceived human rights abuses to keep the migrant crisis contained.
Turkey is in no position to burn its bridges with the European Union, lest its tenuous arrangement with Russia give way to a confrontation. And so, Ankara will vacillate between hurling threats at Brussels and bargaining to keep a dialogue running with the bloc. The Europeans have too much at stake to shut the door on Ankara, and Turkey, likewise, cannot afford to sever ties with Europe.