Russian and U.S. diplomats in social media competition to court Turks

Turkey’s diplomatic strategy on Syria in recent years has been to play Russia and the United States off against each other in order to get what it wants, and, so far, it has seen some success. 

As President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan experienced problems with the United States in recent years, he shifted closer to President Vladimir Putin and Russia. Now that he has problems with Putin, over Syria, Erdoğan needs backing from the United States.

This week saw the two big powers both courting Turkey and Turkish public opinion, but it remains to be seen whether Erdoğan will get his way this time around, or whether the United States and Russia will leave him high and dry.

Russia’s Embassy in Ankara shared two pictures on its official Twitter account on Wednesday, saying “we leave it to you to appreciate”.

The first picture showed U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with Turkish and U.S. flags behind them. 

The picture was taken during an October visit to Turkey when Pence and Pompeo brokered a ceasefire in northeast Syria, after Turkey had launched a military operation against Syrian Kurdish fighters that Ankara sees as terrorists.

Over the picture was laid a quote from Pompeo who said on Monday “we stand by our NATO ally Turkey in the aftermath of the attack”, referring to Syrian shelling that killed five Turkish soldiers in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. 

Thirteen Turkish servicemen and one Turkish contractor were killed in a week in Syria’s last major rebel-held enclave, where the forces of Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar Assad continue to advance despite Ankara’s warnings and reprisals. Some 700,000 people have fled the fighting towards the border with Turkey, where the presence of at least 3.6 million Syrian refugees is proving increasingly unpopular and politically damaging to Erdoğan.

The picture the Russian Embassy shared was in fact a screenshot of a video shared earlier by the U.S. Embassy in Ankara with the hashtag #EYESONIDLIB. The video in Turkish denounced attacks by Russia and the Syrian government in Idlib and accused them, and also Iran and Hezbollah, of blocking peace efforts in Syria. 

Alongside the first picture, the second visual shared by the Russian Embassy was a report by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency about the Pentagon’s request for a $200-million budget to train the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the mainly Kurdish group that Turkey sees as terrorists, but which did the bulk of the ground fighting against Islamic State in Syria. The report listed the military equipment that the Pentagon plans to hand over to the Kurdish fighters in 2020.

The U.S. Embassy’s attempts to reach out to Turks in Turkish and the Russian Embassy apparently telling them that “the United States is no ally” is one of many awkward moments during Turkey’s Syria adventure.

But it was not the only interesting incident that happened this week.

Pompeo, after expressing his condolences for the families of Turkish soldiers killed, said on Monday that James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria, was heading to Ankara to discuss the situation in Idlib.

Jeffrey arrived in Turkey late on Tuesday, the day after it became apparent that the talks between Turkish and Russian delegations over the weekend had failed to ensure a ceasefire in Idlib. “We have martyrs in Idlib,” Jeffrey said in Turkish to the cameras.

Turks are used to ambassadors and diplomats of other countries speaking or writing in Turkish, but this was one of the rare moments when they heard a senior U.S. diplomat speak their language.

Jeffrey had meetings with Turkish delegations on Wednesday and also did an interview with Turkish broadcaster NTV. The same day Erdoğan said that Turkey would strike Syrian forces anywhere if they attacked Turkish soldiers again. 

Erdoğan also discussed Idlib on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday. Turkey’s foreign minister said after the phone call that a Turkish delegation would soon go Moscow for further talks to resolve the tensions in Idlib.

Turkey accuses Russia of not honouring the terms of a 2018 deal the two countries made to establish a demilitarised zone in Idlib. Turkey promised to drive off jihadist fighters in the province to prevent a potential assault by Assad’s forces.

But Syrian troops with Russian air support launched an attack on Idlib in April, saying that Turkey had failed to keep its promises and jihadist groups, particularly al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, had expanded their territory in Idlib. 

After a speech to his parliamentary party on Wednesday, reporters asked Erdoğan whether he would have a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump to discuss Idlib. “It can happen any moment,” Erdoğan replied. 

Now is the time to see whether that Turkey’s policy of leveraging its strategic importance to both big powers will pay off.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.