Reading pro-government Turkish media, you might get the impression that the U.S. is finished. Or, at least, that this is the Turkish government’s opinion and that it bases its Middle East policy on the premise of American weakness. The U.S. wanted to "test" how much it can still be a superpower in the Middle East, writes Cemil Ertem, an adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The article appeared in the online edition of the English-language pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah and was intended for Western readers. In a smug formulation, Ertem wrote: "I think [the U.S.] should be given this opportunity" to find out the hard way that “the world is not the old world."
We are talking about the crisis surrounding U.S. pastor the Rev. Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned in Turkey amid questionable accusations of terrorism. He was detained for two years. The Trump administration tried behind the scenes to secure his release.
The pastor was released from prison on July 25, but has been under house arrest ever since. The U.S. threatened to sanction Turkey, and on Wednesday ordered the freezing of the Turkish interior minister and justice minister's assets.
Ertem more or less expresses the government's view − Erdogan's view − on this issue. According to him, this is not about Brunson at all; it is all about power. However, the U.S. is apparently too stupid to "fathom that the world is no longer [the] bipolar world" of the Cold War, but a multipolar world in which the balance of power is constantly shifting.
The question is how long the U.S. can maintain its supremacy in this changed world. According to Ertem, the answer is: "not for long." And the more it tries to put pressure on Turkey, the sooner U.S. dominance will end.
Originally, the Turks probably arrested the pastor simply because he is American, a hostage to get Washington to extradite the U.S.-based preacher and Erdogan's enemy Fethullah Gülen. The threat made on Thursday by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, whose office was affected by the sanctions, supports this thesis: Soylu declared that Turkey would "get" Gülen from the U.S.
In fact, however, there are indications that it is now also a question of supremacy in the Middle East. Donald Trump's threats and sanctions coincided with a visit to Ankara by U.S. General and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Curtis Scaparrotti to talk about Syria. Turkey and the U.S. have completely conflicting interests there.
Erdogan Considers His Only Real Rival To Be Iran
Turkey claims sole and long-term dominance in Syria and in the Middle East. This is an ambitious claim in a region where Russia, Iran, Israel and the U.S. are trying to dominate. Ankara wants to outdo them all in the long run. Whether Turkey can do this depends largely on whether it correctly assesses the capabilities and intentions of the other actors.
Erdogan's goal is both defensive and offensive. Defensive in the sense that it wants to prevent the emergence of a powerful Kurdish state on the territory of the failed states of Iraq and Syria. Offensive in the sense that he is striving for old greatness: Turkey wants to have as much influence as possible in the region that was once the Ottoman Empire. Turkey should be "the greatest possible power and influence in the region," according to Erdogan's then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in 2001.
From a Turkish perspective, Iran is probably the only serious long-term rival for hegemony in Syria and Iraq. The U.S., as Ertem explains, is diminishing in importance because its share of the world economy is declining, it is increasingly in debt and its currency is becoming less and less important in world trade.
The Russians are present, but who knows for how long; for instance, Putin may one day no longer be in power. Moscow is far away and Russia is not rich; it can only exert military influence, and that is expensive. But Iran is the eternal, powerful neighbor the Ottomans fought for centuries. Iran now informally rules Iraq, with the exception of Northern Iraqi Kurdish territory. Iran also sets the tone in Syria and Lebanon.
However, the greatest conflict of interest exists between Turkey and the U.S. The United States relies on the Kurds, its only reliable allies in the region, and Turkey is fighting them. The U.S. wants a strong Kurdish presence in Syria; Turkey prefers none, or only a Kurdish vassal state under Turkish control.
Turkey conquered the Kurdish province of Afrin and neighboring areas in northern Syria, and has 12 military bases in Idlib, another region in Syria. Here, fighters from numerous militias, strengthened by Ankara, are fighting against the Syrian ruler Bashar Assad. With Russian and Iranian help, however, Assad's troops have recaptured the rest of Syria, except those parts in the northeast where the Americans and Kurds are.
Assad has announced that he now wants to "liberate" Turkish-dominated Idlib, and Turkey for its part has threatened to extend its offensive to the part of Syria held by the Americans and Kurds. In Ankara, it is assumed that Moscow and Tehran would not mind a defeat of the U.S. in Syria.
It's a high-risk game. The next step, a Syrian attack on Idlib or a Turkish attack on the Kurdish areas in the northeast, may be disastrous for Ankara's political ambitions, especially since the Turks in Afrin are in a situation similar to that of the Americans in Iraq after the victory against Saddam Hussein in the third Gulf War. There are attacks against the occupying forces almost every day, more losses every week.
But with his tough stance against the U.S., Erdogan is also taking a considerable risk economically. Even though the punitive measures against the two Turkish ministers are economically insignificant, the national currency, the lira, collapsed in fear of further U.S. sanctions.
The U.S. Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee has already passed a bill that would prohibit U.S. representatives at the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development from approving further loans to Turkey. That would be a severe blow to Turkey.
It is therefore important not to misjudge. In this complex calculation, the Turks want to buy Russian S-400 air defense missiles and have the Russians build a nuclear power plant in Turkey. At the same time, Ankara is promising to remove Islamic extremists from Idlib so as not to provide a pretext for a Syrian offensive.
The Russians do not support, perhaps in return, a Syrian attack on Idlib for the time being. For their part, the Turks have stopped threatening another offensive against Kurdish areas around the city of Manbij.
It feels like the calm before the storm. Only one thing is certain: With patience and staying power, Turkey feels strong enough to use every weakness of the other actors to attempt the next push for power and influence in the region. Erdogan is looking for signs of American weakness. Trump is determined not to demonstrate any.