It was the first time since the beginning of the Syrian crisis that President Erdoğan implicitly criticized both the U.S. and Russia at the same time. He could not hide his disappointment that the pro-Kurdish YPG militants did not leave the 30-120 km area that Turkey occupies in the northern Syria to the east of the Euphrates despite the two agreements signed successively with the U.S. and Russia last month, which envisaged the withdrawal of the YPG from the Turkish controlled area.
Under the AKP rule, Turkey has been deploying a traditional tactic in Turkish foreign policy but within a new context. The Erdoğan government, especially since the failed coup attempt of July 2015, tried to balance the U.S. influence by fostering closer ties with Putin. When the AKP’s ambitious regional domination plans collapsed, it was left without a viable policy option - because it did not have any-, and had to redirect its policy to prevent the formation of an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria by the PYD. From that time on, with no direct cooperation with the Assad regime, it had to rely on two outside powers to pursue its policy of impeding a possible Kurdish autonomy, a policy which had severe adverse effects on Turkish foreign policy and came with a high cost.
An old strategy
As early as the years of the War of National Liberation, balancing against the West, through receiving arms and diplomatic support from the Bolsheviks was a clever strategy carried by the founders of the Republic. Even under the Cold War circumstances, from 1965 on, there was a rapprochement in the relations which led the Soviet economic assistance that helped steady economic growth in the 60s and 70s. The former was critical in winning a war, and the latter was helpful in terms of economic development. Those two, military-strategic and economic balancing policies were successful examples of Turkey’s controlled balance of power options in the past.
Putin’s Russia as a balancer
In this third phase of using Putin's Russia as leverage in Syria is at least a risky business. First of all, the current balance of power policy is not a well-thought strategy but dictated by the conditions on the ground since it came after a failure in its previous policy. Secondly, any balance of power policy is sustainable until one of the balancing powers leaves the game. This means that the control of the situation is beyond the country that pursues the balance of power policy. In this case, Russia is well aware of the situation, and it has been trying to carve out its benefits, the most which have been to create a divergence between Turkey and the U.S. And thirdly, there is a structural asymmetry in this balance of power game. This is not about the strength of each of the outside powers. While Russia has the upper hand in the Syrian theatre, the U.S. holds critical instruments available to it against Turkey. And fourthly, Ankara does not seem to have a clear exit strategy, and nobody knows how this balance of power game will terminate.
This brings us to a possible consensus between the U.S. and Russia on the Syrian crisis that the Erdoğan administration did not take into account so far. There is still a serious risk that both the U.S. and Russia, which are cooperating behind the doors rather than engaging in a zero-sum game in Syria, can take a common stand against Turkey that may leave the Erdoğan government to face a humiliating end of its involvement in Syria.
Realizing the weaknesses of its weak position, Turkey tried to break through this deadlock by using its most effective tool that is the armed forces. But each incursion into Syria brought vulnerabilities as well as leverage on the ground. While Russia holds the “Idlib card," and can at any time urge the Syrian forces to press on the region causing a mass migration into Turkey, the U.S. adds “war crimes” allegations by the Syrian National Army, a force used as a proxy by Turkey, to its sanctions list.
The costs of the precarious balance
Each policy comes with costs, but this balance of power policy has already produced severe problems. To cajole Russia and gain a room for maneuver in Syria the, Erdoğan government had to purchase the Russian made S-400 missile systems, which led its expulsion from the F-35 program. To ease the U.S. anger, Turkey will most likely de-activate the missile system when it was installed entirely, and that means wasting nearly 2.5 billion dollars, and it will have to buy Patriot missiles.
Furthermore, the U.S. leg of the balance is getting more fragile with Trump is struggling with the impeachment process and fixing the after-effects of its decision to leave the Kurds in Syria. The Erdoğan government is now playing the balancing game, not between Russia and the U.S. and, under the conditions of personification of power, relations have turned into a trilateral interaction among Erdoğan, Trump, and Putin. Notably, the U.S. political mechanism is getting more anti-Erdoğan, and the capacity of Trump's protecting Erdoğan is not limitless.
At the structural level, the highest cost of the balance of power policy in Syria is the loss of multilateralism in Turkish foreign policy and the gradual isolation of Turkey in the international system. Turkey has to focus its energy not to alienate any of them and walking on a tight rope; it has neglected other regions and critical issues.