He called him a "war criminal" and "mass murderer." In the years after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Turkish President Recep Tayyip had one main goal: to overthrow Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Erdogan armed rebels, including jihadists, in the fight against the Assad regime. For years, militia could move freely between Turkey and Syria. Driven by the megalomania of his then Foreign Minister and later prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan saw his country as a regulatory power in the Middle East. Political scientists coined a specific term for Ankara's imperial ambitions: "Neo-Ottomanism".
Erdogan's neo-Ottoman dreams had failed at the latest with the recapturing of Aleppo by the Assad regime in 2016. Since then, the main concern of the Turkish president in Syria has been to stop a development that his government has long underestimated: the emergence of Rojava, a Kurdish de facto state controlled by the YPG militia, Ankara as an offshoot of the banned Kurdish workers' party PKK considered.
Erdogan threatens a confrontation with Assad
The war in Syria has taken many cruel turns. But the speed with which the balance of power has shifted in the past few days is extraordinary, even for Syrian standards:
- First, Erdogan took the surprise withdrawal of US troops from Syria as an opportunity to invade the northeast of the country.
- His military, along with the "Free Syrian Army" (FSA), wanted to drive the YPG out of the border area and create a 500 kilometer long and 35 kilometer deep buffer zone.
- But then YPG closed a deal with Assad last Sunday, putting Erdogan in a bizarre position: by intervening against the YPG, he has allowed his archenemy Assad to recapture vast areas of Syria.
Assad's forces have taken positions in Manbij and other strategically important cities along the Turkish-Syrian border. For Erdogan, if he continues his operation, he risks a direct confrontation with the Assad regime - and, more importantly, his supporter, Russia.
The Turkish military operation is further hampered by the US launching sanctions on Ankara on Monday. Although US President Donald Trump gave Erdogan more or less the green light for an invasion in a telephone call just over a week ago, he has now bowed to intra-party pressure and, among other things, announced punitive tariffs against Turkey.
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Erdogan has isolated his country internationally through the war in northeastern Syria. EU states ceased arms deliveries to Turkey. Even North Cyprus government, a protégé of Ankara, calls for an end to the fighting. The Turkish president now has to decide how far he is still willing to go on his own.
Russia decisively decides how the Syrian conflict will continue
US Vice President Mike Pence plans to travel to Ankara in the coming days to negotiate a ceasefire with the Turkish government. More important for the development in the region, however, should be what Russia wants.
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President Vladimir Putin has managed to keep Assad in power despite countless war crimes through skillful diplomacy and ruthless warfare. He now decides what room he leaves Erdogan in Syria.
Putin could quickly put an end to the Turkish military operation, for example by blocking the airspace over northeastern Syria. However, it is also conceivable that he will grant Erdogan a buffer zone in the Turkish-Syrian border area - if only to deepen the division between NATO member Turkey and the West.
Erdogan has been driving the military offensive so far with great, nationalist pathos. Now he has to realize that he is dependent on other powers.