A truck bomb killed 28 people in the Turkish capital Ankara last week making headlines across the world because it was easy news. It was easy news because it sidestepped explaining the context of Turkey’s tightrope strategy in the Middle East.
Of course, this context can’t be captured in a short article, so the journalists covering the bombing garner some sympathy. But Turkey’s world is changing and while bombings don’t alter strategy, they are creating and removing Ankara’s choices at an alarming clip.
Turkey would prefer it wasn’t the centre of a fractured region. But it is. Not only does it bridge Europe and Asia, the landmass interacts with Russia on the Black Sea and stretches into Central Asia through the Caucasus. Turkish movements will always have a disproportionate impact on geopolitics.
Now the country can no longer avoid the conflagration in Syria and Iraq. A few years ago Ankara amateurish support of Syrian rebels may have helped trigger chemical weapons usage in the town of Goutta. It also clumsily moves weapons and intelligence to all corners of the conflict, flipping capriciously between secular and jihadist rebel groups.
Then Russia’s entry into Syria shook Turkey into seriousness. The lands south of Turkey are its historical backyard, and Russian escapades were too much. The eventual shoot-down of a Russian aircraft last year was almost certainly a high-level policy decision, reflecting the depths of animosity Turkey was feeling against Moscow.
Strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan understands and respects that Russian intervention is about painting Moscow as power capable of projecting force externally. But at the expense of Turkish influence in its region? Not a chance. For Turkey, both Syria and Iraq are strategically important in precisely the same way eastern Ukraine is for Russia.
Ankara doesn’t want to dash itself on the sharp Syrian rocks. Yet circumstance and Russian adventurism is forcing its hand. The world is also looking similar for both Ankara and Washington. Turkey was the linchpin of the US/NATO containment strategy during the Cold War and the US wants it to play that role again.
But Washington needs to be careful of what it wishes for a post-civil war reality in Syria. Russia is obviously committed to, at minimum, a Baathist remnant in Damascus. While the US seems to be accepting this as an inevitability too, through gritted teeth. But Turkey will not even entertain the thought of al Assad or a Baathist regime remaining intact.
The Kurds also worry Turkey because a fractured Syria makes it simpler for the group to carve a proto-state from the wreckage. And since the truck bombs were claimed by Kurdish militants, and Turkey continues to pound Kurdish military positions with artillery, a “beneficial” outcome in Syria for Turkey is probably very different to Washington’s.
Ultimately, Russia and the US can leave – Turkey cannot. Ankara would prefer to act in Syria with the promise of US support, but since that is not forthcoming, it may have to act on its own. A few years ago, Turkey was pretending all this didn’t exist. But as Russia collapses under the weight of low oil prices, Ankara could soon be responsible for much more than just its southern regions.
Turkey’s risks are high. But in a way the opportunities, both strategically and commercially, are opening up in ways it perhaps only dreamed of in past decades as a result of the mess around it. Perhaps this is exactly the circumstance Turkey has been waiting for. After all, it has the military and historical pedigree to pull all the pieces together. The question is when it will start this process, and how competently it will conduct itself.