Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should call German Chancellor Angela Merkel some point soon to compare notes on how it feels to be trapped between the U.S. and Russia.
Germany’s political center is collapsing under the weight of Merkel’s desperate attempts to hold onto power as her ruling coalition falls in the polls and her regional party leaders betray her. The shenanigans in Thuringia have set in motion a widening gyre within the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) which will likely end in tears at the next German general election in 2021, if the current coalition with the Social Democrats lasts that long.
Merkel’s CDU has suffered electoral rebuke one after the other in state elections around Germany much of which stems from her inability to stand up to President Trump which forces her to continue betraying the trust of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Germany’s near-term economic and political future are now bleak as the European Union is pushing for fiscal integration that Germans do not want. At the same time, Merkel keeps poking Trump on economic issues by allowing German companies to find workarounds to the EU sanctions on Russia as well as defy Trump on the Nordstream 2 pipeline.
German exports to Russia keep expanding after being gutted when Merkel acceded to Obama’s pressure in 2014 to cut off trade in the wake of the reunification with Crimea. But, things are reaching a boiling point for Merkel in Germany and it doesn’t appear at this point she has any solutions to a falling euro, deteriorating banks, populist challenges to EU diktats, and increasingly uppity behavior from the Visegrad countries like Hungary who courts Putin and Poland who courts Trump on energy and security issues.
Erdogan, interestingly enough, is in a similar position. He’s placed himself in the middle of a war in Syria in which he was tasked with controlling Idlib, Aleppo and Homs to split the western part of the country. This would ensure that all strategic roads and resupply routes would remain under NATO country control. It was Russia’s entrance that destroyed that plan.
Erdogan was fine with cutting deals with Putin in the early stages of this war as long as Russia and Syria didn’t touch Idlib. Retaking Palmyra and points west out to the Euphrates River was fine with him because it allowed him the opportunity to get what he really wanted, the northern 30 kilometers or so of the country to expand Turkey and disrupt the Syrian Kurds.
He played the U.S. and Russia off each other to get what he originally asked for as part of his spoils for destroying Assad. And in recent weeks thought he could continue his neo-Ottoman dreams by making a deal with the government in Libya, chasing European energy companies off the coast of Cyprus and laying claims to the Eastern Mediterranean that made China’s claims in the South China Sea look restrained.
Erdogan believes he can leverage access to the Black Sea as part of the Montreaux Convention of 1936 which gives Turkey territorial control over the Bosporus to get concessions from both NATO and Russia.
The problem for him is that he’s tested the patience of both Trump and Putin. And when you are blackmailing someone it’s important to remember there are limits to how far that leverage goes. Erdogan’s dreams of expanding into the vacuum being created by a weakening U.S. presence in the Middle East will run aground against Russia’s unwillingness to tolerate terrorists holed up north of Damascus to sow discord around the region.
He didn’t sign major energy deals with Turkey only to have Erdogan stab him in the back over Idlib. This is why Turkey’s reinforcing Hayat-Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib will only result in further Turkish military casualties.
And the U.S. will be happy to watch the mercurial Erdogan fail here, as all that does is weaken him at home, where his political position is fading, just like Angela Merkel’s thanks to Turkey’s abysmal exposure to a rising U.S. dollar. The only reason he survived the 2018 Lira crisis was because of interventions from Russia, China and Qatar to stabilize the situation and help Turkish companies get some of that corporate debt exposure reduced, restructured and redenominated.
This was a point I made back then and it seems that Erdogan’s good will from that lasted about eighteen months.
The problem for him now is that the U.S. dollar is rising quickly as a global fear trade unfolds thanks to a combination of German political instability, Trump beating the impeachment rap, Brexit and China’s economy being put on hold thanks to this coronavirus outbreak.
This is putting pressure on the Lira again as it approaches the 2018 spike high, keeping inflation high. Remember his AKP party lost the Istanbul elections last year. Erdogan needs political wins he can sell back home.
Avenging the Turkish troops killed by Syria during a recent advance seems to fit the kind of PR stunt that plays well at home while really just providing cover for HTS to abandon Idlib and be re-deployed to Libya.
The recent escalations, however, may have been provoked by Syria reaffirming diplomatic relations with Armenia and openly rebuking Erdogan by recognizing the Armenian genocide. This may have provoked him into this extreme reaction publicly.
It puts him, however, in a very bad position. The U.S. has not backed his play in Syria. Article 5 of NATO doesn’t cover a member getting attacked while it’s invading another country. It’s a defensive treaty. So, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is happy to watch Erdogan mung up the works in Idlib, there’s no way the U.S. will back him against the Russian Air Force.
At the end of the day, neither Russia nor the U.S. would be sad to see him leave the political stage. And Erdogan’s latest forays have him critically over-extended after years of craftily manipulating events to his advantage.
Like Angela Merkel’s outburst after the vote for Prime Minister in Thuringia, Erdogan’s outburst here may be the sign to everyone that his days are numbered.
Originally published in Strategic Culture online journal. The views of individual contributors do not necessarily represent those of the Strategic Culture Foundation.