Erdoğan the crisis-creator may be eyeing Syrian oil, analyst says

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is known by his critics for creating frequent crises to help bolster his popularity, particularly since a failed military coup in October 2016 and currency turmoil two years later.

Those crises include conjuring up political tensions with Greece and Cyprus over natural gas rights and territory, sending Turkish troops and fighters to Libya and battling Kurds allied with the United States in Syria.

The question is what crisis will come next? Seth Frantzman, an op-ed editor at the Jerusalem Post and an analyst on the Middle East, says the next crisis may be centred on Syrian oil and pushing the United States out of the remaining parts of the country.

Hints of the blueprint came early this month, when Erdoğan spoke to his ally Russian President Vladimir Putin and said Turkey could build infrastructure and a safe zone in Syria’s north with oil from eastern Syria, which U.S. troops are guarding, Frantzman said in an analysis for the Israeli newspaper.

At the time, Erdoğan wanted a deal with Moscow to end a Russian-backed offensive by Syrian forces against the rebel-held enclave of Idlib, which he eventually got.

Frantzman said Turkey has a long history of working with Russia to partition areas of Syria, starting in 2017 with the Astana peace process agreed with Moscow and Tehran. Turkey has since turned Syrian rebels into the Syrian National Army and used them to fight Kurdish groups allied with the United States.

Moscow and Turkey both want the United States removed from Syria’s east, Frantzman said.

Turkey now wants to “revive Syria” and appears to have dropped its opposition to President Bashar Assad remaining in power, Frantzman said. At the same time, it labels the Kurdish, Arab and Christian fighters who make up the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria as terrorists.

Turkey claims that the so-called terrorists are now benefitting from the oil, Frantzman said.

 “Turkey is now turning to this oil policy during the coronavirus crisis as a possible new way to distract local media and create a new nationalist cause,” he said.

“Even as the pandemic spreads, Turkey’s media wants to remind viewers that it is fighting ‘terrorists’ in Eastern Syria”, Frantzman said.

Some U.S. diplomatic officials have now stopped mentioning the SDF entirely, he said. The U.S. State Department on the anniversary of the SDF’s defeat of ISIS in Baghouz, which cost the SDF 10,000 lives, did not even mention the group.

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo has also not talked about any support for eastern Syria to combat the coronavirus pandemic, said Frantzman.

 “Russia may see an opportunity to press the U.S. to leave more of eastern Syria, and Russia may think it can come to some kind of deal of trading Idlib to the Syrian regime in return for oil revenues to Turkey,” Frantzman said.

While it may be difficult for Erdoğan to both deal with the coronavirus pandemic and create a new crisis over Syria’s oil, it is in both Turkey and Russia’s interest to work together to reduce U.S. influence, he said.