Erdogan's About Face Confuses Regional Players

The G20 summit in China that starts in Sunday will be an occasion for learning the orientations of the world's most powerful countries and a test for personal relations between their leaders, as they assume their respective positions in the emerging world order with eyes trained on the others. The center of suspicions at the summit will no doubt be Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has a problem of trust with both his US and Russian counterparts, as a result of his major intervention in Syria, despite Putin and Obama's ostensible support for Turkey's decision to join the war on ISIS. Erdogan's violent authoritarianism worries other coolheaded leaders. He has become obsessed with power following the failed coup attempt against him, and is determined to consolidate and expand his powers by all means necessary. Erdogan has judged Syria to be a favorable arena for him to show his determination and strength, in the process reshuffling the regional and international deck of cards. Some believe his actions prove he is weak. Others say he has strong cards and can impose fait accompli(s) in Syria and Europe itself. What is clear is that he has decided to play all his cards but without revealing all of them. His about face in Syria has left many stakeholders confused or suspicious, including both Moscow and Washington. Indeed, he has paradoxically coordinated with the US, aligned himself with Russia, and sought accord with Iran under pretexts like the fight against ISIS and the suppression of Kurdish nationalist aspirations from Iran to Syria via Iraq. He has signaled he might backtrack from his absolute opposition to Assad remaining in power, by accepting a temporary role for him during the transitional process. And yet, Erdogan has provided air support and ground fire cover to Syrian Rebels as they made a major comeback in northern Syria. Many are thus confused by Edogan's moves especially in Syria. Some Gulf states are not just confused but annoyed by Erdogan's lack of coordination with his erstwhile allies in the Gulf. Russia and Iran, which initially welcomed Turkey's about face in Syria and saw it as deviation from the the US and Gulf policy in their favor, are now worried by Turkey's military presence in Syria and support for rebel groups on the ground there. For its part, the Obama administration is stunned by Erdogan's new post-coup attempt posture, which disregards US priorities in Syria including its alliance with the Kurds there. Everyone is asking whether Erdogan's assertiveness is temporary, the product of a man in a bind now implicated in quagmires in Syria as well as at home in Turkey; or whether the Turkish president has determined the weaknesses of all the stakeholders in Syria and decided the time is right to make his move and simultaneously bolster his power and position of his country in the regional security order. There are two opinions in the Gulf on how to deal with Erdogan's u-turn and paradoxical policies. The first recommends not antagonizing him and waiting until the dust settles around his hasty and dubious policies. After that, the special relation with him could be resumed. The other view is that the Gulf has lost trust in Erdogan and has no choice but to forgo of him. Erdogan controls many important keys needed by Gulf states's policies via a vis the players in Syria, and can cut off their arteries if the mistrust reaches the point of estrangement. For this reason, the proponents of this view say the Gulf interest requires prudence. And perhaps then what Erdogan is doing will lead to a breakthrough in Syria. The proponents of the other view counter by saying Erdogan is fighting an unwinnable battle in Syria against the Kurds that will have implications internally. In addition, he is fighting groups like ISIS which not long ago did not see Turkey as an enemy, but now could start mounting more reprisal attacks there. Regardless of the conflicting views, and the contradictory positions of the Turkish leadership and other powers, Turkey's military role in Syria is a major development irrespective of its outcomes. On the one hand, Turkey's incursion has brought back to life Syrian rebel groups that were on the verge of extinction. So the question is this: Does Erdogan intend to develop the abilities of these groups to bargain politically with Russia, Iran, and the regime in Damascus? Would that bargain be about the future of Syria and the opposition, or would it be about Turkish interests and national security? Perhaps there is a deal being prepared, wherein Kurds are Erdogan's to deal with, and Aleppo is Assad's, as some press reports suggested, with blessing from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Russia. However, the deal does not appear convincing. Indeed, it is not easy for the Turkish president to abandon Aleppo and offer it as downpayment for a deal that may or may not guarantee him concrete gains compared to Assad's in Aleppo. Everything is possible in Syria today, but there is a risk involved in over interpreting these deals. Aleppo remains a major juncture that is crucial for the future of all players in Syria. Just like there are signs the military escalation could lead to political accords, there is a possibility for Syria to become a quagmire for all those who intervened, including Russia, Iran, Turkey, the militias and the regime, while possibly sparing the US and the Gulf countries who have not intervened directly. The UN could fall into a moral quagmire in Syria, if the various allegations against the general secretariat are true, and the Security Council which seems willing to forgo of its duty regarding the chemical weapons evidence condemning the regime and ISIS. The US is intimidated by the Russian attacks on the commission of inquiry, which concluded that the regime used chemical weapons after the Russian-American deal to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal, the event that led Obama to backtrack from his famous red lines. Certainly, Moscow and Damascus had no option but to double down, because confessing to the crime would trigger sanctions or referral to the ICC. But it seems Washington so far accepts this, because it would otherwise have to take action, and the US does not want to rock the boat at this phase of the life of the Obama administration, which deliberately avoided involvement in Syria. The Europeans raise the voice then lower it, hiding behind America's dithering. Despite ethnic cleansing clearly taking place in Syria, no one in the West is raising their voice, despite their habitual claim of the moral highground. The images of Syrian children burning from napalm and outlawed weapons have been ignored by the international conscience without anger or action. When the leaders of the G20 meet this week and take group photos with broad smiles, perhaps they will remember the images of Syria's children . But then this is unfortunately unlikely. As those leaders will meet then decide the future direction of the global economy, policy, and security as the world's most powerful leaders, it is their fear of Syrian refugee inflows, and the expansion of jihadist groups to their countries that will impose Syria on the agenda, not the suffering of Syrians. Erdogan is now the star player in Syria meanwhile. He will be the focus of G20 leaders, because of the implications of his game for their interests rather the the weight of the Syrian tragedy, fueled by local, regional and international policies in equal measure. Translated by Karim Traboulsi