Erdoğan will not back down until you show him teeth: Outgoing Syria envoy

Outgoing Syria envoy James Jeffrey said that President Erdoğan "won't back down until you show him teeth." "You have to be willing, when Erdoğan goes too far, to really clamp down on him and to make sure he understands this in advance," Jeffrey said in an interview.

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Outgoing U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey has said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan "won't back down until you show him teeth." 

In an interview, Jeffrey was asked to comment on how the administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden approach Erdoğan.

"Erdoğan will not back down until you show him teeth. That’s what we did when we negotiated the ceasefire in October of 2019. We were ready to crush the economy," Jeffrey told Al-Monitor, referring to the agreement that was reached following Turkey's incursion into northern Syria last year. 

To further strengthen his argument, Jeffrey cited the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in 2015. 

"That’s what Putin did after the Russian plane was shot down. The Russians have now twice sent strong signals to the Turks in Idlib. They chopped the shit out of a Turkish battalion. It didn’t work out the way the Russians wanted to," Jeffrey said. 

According to Jeffrey, the Turkish position "is never 100 percent correct."

"You have to be willing, when Erdoğan goes too far, to really clamp down on him and to make sure he understands this in advance. The Turkish position is never 100 percent correct. They have some logic and arguments on their side. Given their role as an important ally and bulwark against Iran and Russia, it behooves us to at least listen to their arguments and try to find compromise solutions," he said. 

Jeffrey also said that "you have to separate Erdoğan from Turkey," adding that the biggest challenges for Biden will be China, Russia, North Korea, Iranian JCPOA and climate.

"Number six is Turkey, because Turkey directly impacts two of the first five: Iran and Russia. And it impacts number eight or nine, terrorism. They’re a very important NATO state. The NATO radar that is the core of the entire anti-ballistic missile system defending against Iran is in Turkey. We have tremendous military assets there," he said. 

"We really can’t 'do' the Middle East, the Caucuses or the Black Sea without Turkey. And Turkey is a natural opponent of Russia and Iran," Jeffrey added. 

'A great power thinker'

The outgoing envoy deemed Erdoğan 'a great power thinker.' 

"Where he sees vacuums, he moves. The other thing about Erdoğan is he’s maddeningly arrogant, unpredictable and simply will not accept a win-win solution. But when pressed — and I’ve negotiated with him — he’s a rational actor," he said, adding that the Turkish President is "pretty persuasive." 

When asked whether the U.S. can reach a consensus with Erdoğan on northeast Syria given that Turkey designates the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by the People's Protection Units (YPG) as a terrorist group due to its links with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

"Whenever you talk about northeast Syria, the most important thing is Turkish domestic politics. Erdoğan's battle buddy, [Devlet] Bahçeli, can be summed up in one sentence: The only thing that matters is the Turkish national agenda, and in that there’s no place for Kurds," he said, referring to the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), an ally of Erdoğan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

"That’s not the AKP’s agenda, of course. Erdoğan, who has had much better policies toward Kurds and the PKK than anybody before him, is being hampered by the MHP. If Erdoğan feels that he needs a victory [to] churn up national sentiment, he might do something more," Jeffrey added.