The Ankara summit, which facilitated closer cooperation between Turkey, Russia and Iran in Syria, fueled two concerns in Western capitals. First, they were worried that the future of Syria would be shaped without Western involvement. Second, they were alarmed by the increasingly strong relations between Turkey and Russia.
To be clear, it was not the friendly family photo featuring President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani that rung alarm bells in the West. The real concern was that the three countries managed to work together on the ground despite their conflicting interests. To make matters worse, the Ankara summit established yet again that the Astana process was the only functioning mechanism regarding the future of Syria. In the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump's pledge to pull out of Syria "very soon," there is no doubt that Western countries are afraid of being sidelined.
Nowadays, political commentators argue that the Trump administration's pledge to withdraw from Syria, which contradicts its stated goal of containing Iran, creates a dangerous void in the Middle East. Meanwhile, American media outlets warn that, for the first time ever, the region is being reshaped without U.S. involvement. Under the circumstances, the Ankara summit was described by intimidated parties as a "reunion of evil" that created a "chilling alliance" which brought together "three warmongers" who were "united against the West." Based on this assessment, critics argued that Trump's decision to leave Syria was a huge mistake.
Ironically, Trump, whose campaign focused on domestic politics and the American economy, simply wants to keep his promise to his supporters. The bromances between Pentagon officials, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commanders and the PKK's Syrian branch, the People's Protection Units (YPG), are apparently less interesting to Trump than his next message to the American people.
Although Trump made more than his fair share of confusing statements over the past year, he cannot seem rid himself of the Obama administration's legacy in Syria. The White House, for example, has been unable to end Washington's partnership with the terrorist organization PKK's Syrian branch and prove its loyalty to Turkey, a fellow NATO ally. For some reason, U.S. officials seem to believe that getting France and Saudi Arabia more deeply involved in the conflict zone will make their problems go away.
Personally, I do not believe that the U.S. will leave Syria anytime soon. Trump, who recently complained that Washington spent $7 billion in the Middle East, is more likely to find a way to make Riyadh foot the bill and keep his troops in Syria. Still, it is no secret that the idea of a potential U.S. withdrawal from the conflict zone creates a serious geopolitical void. Washington's lack of a clear and coherent Syria and Middle East policies plays into the hands of Turkey, Russia and Iran. To be clear, the U.S. was not sidelined in the Syrian crisis – it sidelined itself through incoherence and confusion.
From the perspective of Western governments, another problem with the Ankara summit related to the rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, whose relations hit rock bottom in 2015. With the two countries building the TurkStream natural gas pipeline and the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, finalizing the S-400 deal and cooperating in the Astana process, their partnership looks increasingly strategic. As such, Scandinavian and Eastern European governments are closely monitoring the potential geopolitical outcomes of Turkey's strengthening cooperation with Moscow. For the time being, Germany and France do not consider the Turkish-Russian friendship a factor that they need to counterbalance. Otherwise, French President Emmanuel Macron would not have hosted representatives of the YPG in Paris.
Let's make one thing clear: Turkey's decision to work more closely with Russia without severing its ties to the Western alliance was not an act of opportunism. The United States, the European Union and NATO created this situation by failing to treat Turkey like an ally for the past five years. At this point, Turkey simply takes care of its own business while waiting for its Western allies to rediscover their actual strategic interests. Waiting, however, is not the same as doing nothing. Right now, Ankara is pursuing an active foreign policy and working with various stakeholders to neutralize national security threats emanating from Syria and Iraq.
Ironically, Western officials, who now complain about Turkey's supposed drift away from the West, are directly responsible for the rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow. Expecting Turkey to maintain a certain level of commitment to the Western alliance and complaining about Ankara's "unreliability" as a partner, they cannot reverse the current trend. At this point, the West must take genuine steps beyond the question of refugees in order to address Turkey's concerns. Hinting that they appreciate Turkey's concerns regarding the threats of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), the PKK and YPG terrorism would be a good place to start.
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