Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Image Credit: AP

Turkey’s petulant president, whose speeches are regularly peppered with insults and threats to friends and foes alike, is seemingly empowered by the US and Russia to say and do as he pleases without having to pay a price. No wonder this object of a tug of war between Washington and Moscow feels invincible! He is a master game player, a manipulator who wields his not unsubstantial cards like potential weapons.

He knows his value. In recent times he has threatened to oppose Nato’s Baltic defence plan and to bar the US from accessing vital military bases where up to 50 American nukes are stored in an effort to deter the US from imposing economic sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems.

At the same time he has forced EU leaders who opposed his so-called Syrian ‘safe zone’ to bite their lips else prepare to receive a flood of 3.6 million refugees. The social upheaval that would ensue should he follow through on that threat would likely topple European governments like ninepins while fuelling the rise of the far-right.

Image Credit: Reuters

Red carpet treatment

Whereas the president of Ukraine waits patiently to receive the promised invitation to meet his US counterpart, President Erdogan gets the red carpet treatment during visits to the Trump White House not to mention effusive praise and pats on the back from the Leader of the Free World whose admiration for strongmen is well known.

Likewise the Kremlin is almost his home away from home, with 11 visits under his belt since he assumed the presidency in 2014. Admittedly the relationship between Erdogan and Putin has been a rollercoaster over the years with its lowest ebb following Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane in 2015. Nevertheless it has endured primarily because these two leaders are friends with benefits in terms of trade, pipelines and regional cooperation.

However, that relationship is fast fraying and maybe on the point of becoming permanently undone over the Syrian military’s successful efforts to recapture the rebel/terrorist-held north-west Syrian province of Idlib aided by Russian air power. Moscow has accused Ankara of failing to live up to its commitments vis-a-vis Idlib, which is rightly described by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has being “one of the last hotbeds of terrorism”.

While Syria has every right to regain its sovereign territory under international law, its offensive has caused over a million civilians to flee towards the Turkish border that remains closed to refugees because, as Erdogan told Trump during a phone call on Saturday, his country is unable to absorb another million on top of the 3.6 million Turkey currently hosts. The answer is for Turkey to work with its ally Russia to root out and forcibly disarm the many thousands of terrorist elements that place the civilian population in harm’s way.

Unacceptable situation

Unfortunately, the Turkish street has been injected with unprecedented bitterness against Syria and Russia due to Turkish military casualties as reflected on social media and by newspaper editorials. At least one politician, Devlet Bahceli who heads the Nationalist Movement Party, has urged Erdogan to conquer Damascus. “Let’s burn down Syria; let’s demolish Idlib,” he told party members.

Signs of a contretemps between Turkey and Russia will have been music to President Trump’s ears. Talks between the US and Turkey on how to resolve the “unacceptable situation” in Idlib are ongoing and will no doubt conclude in Erdogan’s favour.

Simultaneously there are last ditch efforts currently underway between Erdogan and Putin to come up with a solution. In the meantime the Turkish president has given the Syrian Army an ultimatum. “I hereby declare that we will strike regime [Syrian] forces everywhere from now on regardless of the Sochi deal if any tiny bit of harm is dealt to our soldiers at observation posts or elsewhere,” he warned.

Whether this belligerent leader and fierce Muslim Brotherhood godfather is being courted or simply tolerated by major powers, his expansionist ambitions are being unwittingly massaged.

The fact that Erdogan cuddles armed fanatics in Idlib and pays proxy armies made up of extremist Syrian fighters to cleanse an area of northern Syria from Kurdish fighters even as he transports terrorists to Libya to prop-up an unelected Brotherhood-dominated government in Tripoli should collectively be judged the actions of a rogue state.

How many red lines must be cross before his ‘allies’ and ‘wooers’ under constant threat finally decide enough is enough? This US-Russian tug of war over Erdogan benefits no one apart from the man who looks in the mirror and sees a Sultan with Africa and the Middle East firmly in his sights.

— Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.

More on Turkey