Is change in the air for Ankara?

President Erdoğan’s combative foreign policy appears to let off steam and slow down on both Syrian and Libyan fronts. It is too early to tell whether finally reason had found a foothold in Ankara. For Mr. Erdoğan the hardest bit to tackle in 2020 will be the U.S. President’s repeated invitation for the NATO’s mission to be expanded to the Mid East and namely to Iraq.

Perhaps it is better to slow down and even halt for a while when events seem to overtake us. Yet, not so, it seemed for Mr. Erdoğan. To the contrary, Turkish foreign policy is (was?) in constant hurry and agitation in the face of imminent dangers and risks. And, to most of the self-appointed independent minded pundits, your humble servant among them, Turkish foreign policy either is a direct extension of internal politics or depends directly on the whims of Mr. Erdoğan. It almost always prioritized muscle over negotiation since a long while.

At the same time the twists and turns of the developments in the East Med and the Mid East region are mind boggling. Who would have predicted that Iran would shoot down a passenger plane and that Teheran which was the scene of the crowds mourning the death of Qasem Suleimani now would be the scene of crowds calling the same Suleimani a murderer while questioning the honour (“bisherem”) of the Revolutionary Guards? Who would have guessed that following the arrival of first Turkish troops on Libyan soil presidents Mr. Erdoğan and Mr. Putin would call for a UN brokered ceasefire on the ground and that call would be heeded by both the GNA and the LNA?

This is what the official presidential spokesperson and de facto National Security Adviser Mr. Kalın tweeted on Sunday: “Thanks to the intense diplomatic work of President Erdoğan, ceasefires have been reached in Idlib and Libya. This is a result of Turkey’s peace diplomacy. Diplomacy is a process management by different means. Our goal is to secure peace, security and prosperity for all people.” The last sentence is enigmatic at best, pretentious at worst but the bit on Libya perhaps heralds a change in Ankara’s (read Erdoğan’s) dominant approach to near abroad matters.  

It is also noteworthy that Mr. Putin, having left Istanbul and having himself pictured on board the Marshal Ustinov cruiser which fired a few missiles in the Black Sea, received in Moscow on Saturday the German Chancellor Ms. Merkel. In the aftermath of the talks the chancellor said she hoped Turkish-Russian efforts to broker peace would be successful, and confirmed that Berlin would be the site of upcoming ceasefire talks. Ms. Merkel also underlined that it would be the United Nations, and not Germany that would lead the talks. GNA PM Mr. Sarraj’s unannounced visit Istanbul on Sunday, where he was received by President Erdoğan happened in the wake of that statement. 

Again quite interestingly to me, a senior U.S. official delegation had met separately with GNA’s Interior Minister Mr. Bashagha and LNA’s General Haftar in Rome on Thursday -two days prior to Merkel-Putin bilateral talks. According to the statement put out by the U.S. Embassy the U.S. officials would have voiced their Administration’s serious concern about “toxic foreign interference” in the conflict. They would also have stressed the fact that “the deployment of Russian mercenaries fighting on behalf of the Libyan National Army AND Turkish-supported Syrian fighters allied with the GNA” would have significantly degraded security in Libya.

Still on Thursday Turkish Foreign Minister Mr. Çavuşoğlu was in Baghdad to meet the Iraqi PM Mr. Abdelmehdi who had resigned on the 30th of November. The two did not share any comments about their meeting with the press. Mr. Çavuşoğlu did not seize the opportunity to follow his visit up with a stopover in Erbil which was the target of five Iranian missiles just on Wednesday’s wee hours. A phone call was deemed sufficient to that effect instead. Furthermore, Ankara appointed a Consul General to Mosul and the consulate will be operational soon. Also to note on the Iraqi front is the killing of two journalists, Ahmed Abdulsamad and Safa Al Ghali in Basra by Iranian affiliated militia forces. 

Last, but not the least as the saying goes, a ceasefire in Syria's Idlib as well is enacted. This was mediatized as yet another concrete outcome of Erdoğan-Putin meeting in Istanbul. Initially, the Russian military officials seemed to complain about the Turkish backed combatants not sticking to their end of the bargain but later on the deepest worry of Ankara of having to face yet another wave of a hundred thousand Syrian refugees piling up literally near the wall built on its Syrian border appeared to have temporarily appeased. Why should this last ceasefire will hold whereas the previous ones have failed is anybody’s guess –yet, here we are.      

To sum, the Iranian regime appears to feel the pain inflicted by the U.S. sanctions and to lose ground on both home and neighboring Iraq fronts. Erdoğan’s combative foreign policy also appears to let off steam and slow down on both Syrian and Libyan fronts. It is too early to tell whether finally reason had found a foothold in Ankara. For Mr. Erdoğan the hardest bit to tackle in 2020 will be the U.S. President’s repeated invitation for the NATO’s mission to be expanded to the Mid East and namely to Iraq. That was anathema to Ankara’s national security gospel till now. We will also not wait for too long to see whether Ankara will put its money where Mr. Kalın’s above referenced tweet is.  

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