Streetwise Professor

February 29, 2020

The Sultan’s New Clothes

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Turkey — cpirrong @ 12:28 pm

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan imagines himself to be a modern Ottoman sultan. Presumably he has in mind, say, Suleiman I (“The Magnificent”), but if he keeps it up he is more likely to be a reincarnation of Osman II.

The first object of Erdo’s imperial ambitions is nearby Syria, all but destroyed after 9 years of civil war–not that it was a paradise before 2011. Erdoğan supported the Muslim Brotherhood/Sunni jihadi anti-Assad forces early on, and worked hard to overthrow Assad. He failed: the Russian intervention in particular turned the tide in favor of Assad.

Erdoğan’s air force shot down a Russian SU-25 in November, 2015. This led to a tense standoff with Putin, and given the correlation of forces, Erdoğan was forced to back down. This led to a rapprochement with Russia, resulting in gas deals and most importantly an agreement to purchase S-400 air defense systems.

This mightily irritated the United States. Tensions between the ostensible Nato allies were already high in the aftermath of the July, 2016 coup, which Erdoğan blamed in large part on the US because of its giving asylum to erstwhile ally and subsequent arch enemy, Fethullah Gülen: Erdoğan believes that the coup was a FETO (Fethullah Terrorist Organization) plot.

Relations between Turkey and the US had been fraught since Erdoğan’s decision (when he was prime minister) to deny the use of Turkey to stage the 4th Infantry Division for the offensive against Iraq. Things have gotten progressively worse, as Erdoğan’s Ottoman pretensions have become progressively more grandiose. Moreover, the war on ISIS, which required the US to rely on the Kurds–the only force in the region that can fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag–further aggravated the relationship, because Erdoğan considers all Kurds terrorists too.

In sum, Erdoğan has been burning his bridges with the US for years. Decades even.

But now he needs us. The war in Syria has turned sharply against Turkey’s jihadist (Al Qaeda, actually) allies. Regime forces have made steady gains against the last rebel stronghold, Idlib. To try to stave off complete defeat, Erdoğan sent Turkish army units into the neighboring country.

Assad has responded predictably. He has bombed and shelled Turkish army outposts, killing dozens: last week, an airstrike killed 33 Turkish soldiers.

Assad’s calculus is quite simple and quite rational. He knows Russia has his back. Push comes to shove, if Erdoğan launches a full-scale offensive against Syrian Arab Army forces and their supporting militia units, Putin will almost certain order Russian forces (air forces in particular) to strike hard at Turkish units. So Assad has no compunctions about bombing Turkish forces. Indeed, he has an incentive to do so because this may bring the Russians in even more forcefully on his side.

Caught in a trap of his own making, Erdoğan is now spinning desperately–and pathetically–to find a way out. Amusingly, yesterday he asked Putin to “step aside” in Syria. Quite a plan there, Erdo! I’m sure Vova will graciously respond to your request!

Erdoğan is now appealing to the US for help–after years of chest thumping denunciations of the country. Most amazingly, he asked the US for Patriot air defense systems–presumably to shoot down Russian airplanes. (This further convinces me that the real purpose for the S-400s is to use against his own air force in the event of another coup.)

The Pentagon is adamantly opposed to this–good! But elements of the (Deep) State Department insanely and inanely want to accede to this request. FFS:

A senior State Department official is at odds with the Pentagon over sending additional military equipment to help Turkey fight against Russian-backed Syrian government forces, four people familiar with the matter tell POLITICO.

James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement, has been pressing the Defense Department to send Patriot missile defense batteries to Turkey to help it repel the Syrian government’s assault in Syria’s Idlib province, the people said. But Pentagon officials are worried about the global ramifications of a move they see as reckless.

Just to be clear: Jeffrey wants to run the risk of an armed confrontation with Russia to protect “rebels”–who happen to be, to a man, Sunni jihadis who are basically just rebranded Al Qaeda.

I have still to hear a remotely persuasive argument as to why the US should give a tinker’s damn about Assad winning in Syria, especially since the alternative is Al Qaeda in all but name. To risk a confrontation with Russia over this is beyond insane.

Erdoğan is also playing the refugee card in an attempt to force the pusillanimous Europeans to intervene on his behalf. What they would do–or are even capable of doing–is a mystery. But Erdoğan is desperate, and flailing about in the hope something or someone will save him.

All he is succeeding in doing is making the Europeans even more sick of him than they already are. Oh, and risking a naval conflict with Greece. As if he didn’t have enough fights on his hands.

Oh, and as if he didn’t have enough problems, Erdoğan has intervened militarily in the only country in the Middle East that could make Syria look at least somewhat functional–Libya. Moreover, he has intervened in opposition to the faction that Russia supports, thereby aggravating Putin either more, and making it less likely that Putin will “stand aside” in Syria.

There’s an acronym in the military–PPPPPP. Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance. Turkey’s new sultan is obviously unfamiliar with this. He plunged into Syria with little thought, and apparently no prior planning regarding Russian and Syrian countermoves, and his ability to counter those countermoves. And predictably, piss-poor performance has been the results.

It will be interesting to see how the US responds. Presuming that Trump overrules the lunatics in the State Department, I am guessing that the administration will give Erdoğan lip service, but leave him twisting in the wind.

Which raises the question of the political reaction within Turkey. A humiliated Erdoğan should be politically vulnerable, but he has succeeded in de-fanging the military and so the historical response to political failure in Turkey–a coup–is probably out of the question. The opposition in Turkey is divided, and its national leadership is hardly inspiring. The country is divided between the Rumelian fringe and the Anatolian heartland. Erdoğan still has strong support among the religious portions of the populace, especially in Anatolia. Meaning that I expect that he will be weakened, but will survive.

Indeed, I anticipate a crackdown on the opposition. The threat to dispossess the opposition CHP of its stake in İşbank  is perhaps a harbinger of such a move.

Watching Erdoğan’s pathetic, incompetent performance also highlights the pathetic, incompetent performance of the United States’ foreign policy elite, which viewed him as a harbinger of an enlightened political Islam that would prove a model for improved governance throughout the region.

They sure can pick ’em, can’t they?

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  1. I agree that US shouldn’t get involved in this conflict in Syria and that there is no moderate opposition to Assad.But their opponents are just as bad:IRGC and Hezbollah.They are Islamic extremists too and their complete victory in Syria will hardly lead to anything good.And by advancing in Idlib, Assad and his allies are killing and displacing thousands of people.In this situation the best thing which can happen is ceasefire, however I’m not sure this can happen and last long.

    Comment by mmt — February 29, 2020 @ 1:49 pm

  2. Turkish politics can be rather abrupt. WKPD:

    Ali Kemal Bey, Minister of the Interior 4 March 1919 – 20 June 1919, great-grandfather of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson …

    On 4 November 1922, Kemal was kidnapped from a barber shop at Tokatlıyan Hotel in Istanbul … Kemal was attacked and lynched by a mob … and hanged from a tree. His head was smashed by cudgels and he was stoned to death.

    Comment by dearieme — March 1, 2020 @ 9:03 am

  3. Better get to Europe quick to look at the art, because Erdogan has opened the immigration floodgates.

    Even if Europe declared a stop right now, it would take 50 years to recover.

    So long Europe.

    Comment by Joe Walker — March 1, 2020 @ 3:17 pm

  4. @dearieme–And more recently, Prime Minister Menderes was hanged in the aftermath of the 27 May, 1960 coup (along with two other members of his government). Years later, when three leftists including Deniz Gezmiş were sentenced to hang in 1972, representatives of the Justice Party (AP, a predecessor to Erdo’s AKP), referring to Menderes and his compatriots, shouted “Three from us, three from them!”

    They play for keeps.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 1, 2020 @ 3:19 pm

  5. To be honest, there’s far too much going on here for Trump to process so its pretty much guaranteed that he’ll do nothing.

    Even before things kicked off over the the past few days, I was wondering what exactly Erdogan hoped to gain by continuing to support ‘his’ rebels in their ever-diminishing territory. As for reneging on his deal with Europe, well that was just attention seeking nonsense. As you say, what did he expect Europe to do – ride to his aid, militarily? As if.

    Talking of as-ifs, it does raise a wry smile when I think back to the heady days of our 2016 referendum with the idiot Brexiters working themselves up into a frenzy over the prospect of Turkey ‘imminently’ joining the EU…

    “Erdoğan’s air force shot down a Russian SU-25”

    Always happy to fact-check your posts, Craig, but the Russian type downed by Turkey back in 2015 was a Su24 not Su25 (coincidentally the same type they shot down over the weekend). I think its important for an ex-forces man and amateur military historian to be accurate in their description of any hardware employed in a conflict etc.

    Comment by David Mercer — March 2, 2020 @ 3:20 am

  6. It’s a pity they all can’t lose.

    But I will be glad if no Americans are hurt in the production of yet another all-against-all clusterfrack in the middle east.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — March 2, 2020 @ 4:33 am

  7. @ David Mercer “ To be honest, there’s far too much going on here for Trump to process so its pretty much guaranteed that he’ll do nothing.” What do you propose to do in Syria? I don’t see any good options.

    Comment by mmt — March 2, 2020 @ 5:55 am

  8. “…guaranteed that he’ll do nothing.” Is that not the primary lesson learned from the last two decades of our [however well-meaning] actions in the Middle East?

    “Doing nothing” is also an option — perhaps the best out of all the other “worser” ones? If doing nothing in Iraq was a better option than what Bush 43 did do (as I believe you suggested in another thread?), why might “doing nothing” not be the better option for Syria, as well?
    What’s the problem with weighing U.S. national interests against estimated costs and un- or likelihood of success (however measured?) in an area where none of the actors likes or wants you (although all are greedy for your weapons and treasure), and if the likely action choices come up short, then choosing to “do nothing”?

    Please, I readily confess that I’m a rank novice at trying to understand these complex foreign affairs and strategies, and am quite open to being educated about what effort we can exert in the Syrian conflict that has any likely chance of success (however measured.)

    Comment by ColoComment — March 2, 2020 @ 9:54 am

  9. @mmt Do nothing works for me too. I was just reassuring Craig who seems worried the Deep State Department may somehow force Trump’s hand. As if.

    That said, there would be some entertainment value to be had from watching the Turks square up to the Russians. I reckon Vova’s boys would have their work cut out if they did.

    Comment by David Mercer — March 2, 2020 @ 11:14 am

  10. The term for our policy should be masterful inactivity, to use a term coined by a Limey in the 19th century. As far as the land bridge to Europe my brother Hellenes have maned the borders, attacking mobs trying to cross and even had a ahem preplaned live fire artillery exercise. As to the Bulgars, forget about it. With the AFD in Krautland, don’t expect any noises of consequence. As to the Levant, the place has been a fuckup since Tiglath Pilesar III conquered Israel and made Judea a tributary state. Not much is going to change.

    Comment by Sotosy1 — March 2, 2020 @ 6:23 pm

  11. “our [however well-meaning] actions”: come now.

    Comment by dearieme — March 2, 2020 @ 6:57 pm

  12. #11. Well, ostensibly, we invaded Iraq to prevent assumed fostering of terrorism under Saddam.

    And, if we didn’t invade Iraq to colonize it (rather, to stand it up as a new democracy, if possible), nor forcibly convert it from Islam (rather, to honor its religious tenets and rites, to an almost an extreme level of accommodation), nor to rob it of its art, treasures and historic artifacts (rather, to protect and preserve them from destruction), all of which are historically common reasons for one country to initiate war on another then, please, how else should our motives and actions be better described?

    Comment by ColoComment — March 2, 2020 @ 9:05 pm

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