This article was published in Arab News on January 29, 2018.
Afrin assault to cause paradigm shifts in Turkey’s foreign affairs
Turkey’s military operation in Afrin is likely to change several paradigms in the region and beyond. One of them will be the test for NATO solidarity, which is enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. This states that an armed attack against one of the member countries shall be considered as an attack against all of them, and they shall take “such action as they deem necessary” to restore peace. Member countries may fulfil their treaty obligation stemming from this article by issuing a strongly worded statement condemning the attack.
Past experience demonstrates that NATO solidarity with Turkey is less than a contractual obligation for many allied countries. In 1964, then-US President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a letter to then-Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu saying that, if the Soviet Union attacks Turkey, its NATO allies may not come to their aid. Then, in 1974, the US imposed an arms embargo on Turkey because of the latter’s military operation in Cyprus. And, in 2015, NATO countries deployed patriot missiles in Turkey to protect it from air attacks, but these missiles were withdrawn before the threat had disappeared.
Lately in the US, several commentators have said Turkey has become a liability for NATO. And Germany has announced that any decision on the modernization of the German-manufactured Leopard tanks in Turkey’s inventory and the sale of new ones are postponed until the formation of the country’s new government. These attitudes are not compatible with the alliance solidarity, but solidarity is a behavior that countries adjust according to the zeitgeist, or spirit of the times. Therefore solidarity with Turkey will be shaped according to the mood of the post-Afrin environment.
The second paradigm shift may be in Turkey’s relations with Russia. The questioning, within NATO, of the solidarity vis-a-vis Turkey is connected, in one way or another, to Ankara’s relations with Russia. It is still unclear how the Afrin operation will affect Turkey-Russia relations. It may go both ways. A successful operation would promote the government’s image in Turkey, while failure may cause irreparable damage to its chances in the forthcoming 2019 elections.
Turkish-Russian relations will evolve according to their own dynamics but, if the mutual confidence between Turkey and the US cannot be restored, Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be in need of better relations with Russia. On the other hand, Turkey should not be surprised if Russia or the US does not meet its expectations because of their respective interests in Syria.
The third paradigm change may be in Turkey-Iran relations. Iran strongly opposed Turkey’s military action in Afrin and, if the operation expands to Manbij and to the east of the Euphrates River, Iran’s objection may become stronger. Turkey’s Syria policy has only minor overlapping interests with Iran. Even if a miracle happens and Turkey-Syria relations become normalized, Turkish-Iranian divergences will probably continue.
Because of the complexity of the Syrian crisis, it would be unwise to draw hasty conclusions from these changes, but Ankara’s relations with several parties are likely to be drastically altered.
A change may also be expected in Turkey’s almost non-existent relations with Syria. It took more than six years for Turkey to understand that the Bashar Assad regime was not going to fall immediately. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has finally admitted that “the Syrian regime is part of the business and it cannot be ignored.” In Afrin, both Turkey and Syria have a thinly overlapping interest in not letting the Kurds establish an autonomous entity in the north of the country. Turkey’s relations with Syria are so bogged down that gigantic efforts will be needed to bring them to an acceptable level after the Syrian crisis ends.
The last potential paradigm change may take place in Turkey’s relations with the Syrian Kurds. Since Turkey and the Kurds will have to live in this geography indefinitely, they have to find a common ground. The US and Russia will try their best to make their own Kurdish policy prevail, but they will have to withdraw from the region sooner or later. One of the minimum requisites that Turkey expects from the Kurds is that they should not resort to a forced alteration in the ethnic composition of the population in the areas where they have gained the upper hand thanks to strong US support. In Afrin, they are the minority, but they have taken prominence in the local administration. Conditions will eventually force the Turks and Kurds to find a way of living together in peace in this area.
Because of the complexity of the Syrian crisis, it would be unwise to draw hasty conclusions from these paradigm changes, but it is almost certain that the Afrin operation will cause important changes in Turkey’s relations with several countries.