Erdogan and Trump have adopted risky foreign policies because they feel the need to cultivate domestic constituencies at a time both are facing major challenges.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has lost popular support over the past few years and last summer was defeated in nearly all of Turkey’s major cities in municipal elections. The AKP’s rout in Istanbul was a major blow to Erdogan, who launched his political career as its mayor. Former high-ranking AKP colleagues have deserted Erdogan, while his costly involvement in the Syrian war and hosting of Syrian refugees have alienated the population.
Erdogan has attempted to regain credibility by invading north-western Syria with the aim of forcing the Syrian army to withdraw from territory regained from takfiri and Turkish-surrogate forces in Idlib and compelling Russia to renege on its pledge to support the Syrian government’s drive to restore Syrian sovereignty to the whole of the country. Having quadrupled Turkey’s military deployment in Idlib, Erdogan has failed to achieve both objectives because Russia still controls the skies over Idlib and has used this decisive advantage to aid the Syrian army and its allies. He is set to travel to Moscow on Thursday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is in a strong position to dictate terms for the ceasefire Erdogan now demands.
To punish Europe for its lack of support for his Idlib policy, Erdogan has also encouraged thousands of Syrian refugees and migrants from Asia and Africa to attempt to cross into Europe through the Greek and Bulgarian borders. An angry Europe accuses him of “blackmail” in order to secure financial aid to support the 3.6 million Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey. The European Union has already paid Turkey or UN agencies supporting the Syrian refugees $6 billion but has not pledged more money. Erdogan has become the EU’s nemesis instead of a respectable ally.
Determined to win the 2020 US presidential election, Trump desperately seeks to “bring home” in stages the 13,000 US troops deployed in the unpopular war in Afghanistan. Launched in October 2001, the Afghan campaign achieved its declared objectives by toppling the Taliban government and eliminating for a time Al Qaeda, which had mounted the September attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York and Washington. But the US and its allies did not follow through by eliminating Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants, who revived and reasserted themselves. Today, the US-supported Afghan government controls only one-third of the country and administers 46 per cent of the population, while the rest is ruled by the Taliban or remains contested.
Nevertheless, the Trump administration has been negotiating with the Taliban for months and, finally, last week signed an “agreement for bringing peace” to that country. In fact, all the deal provides is a means of escape for US forces from the largest of Washington’s “never-ending wars” and allows Trump to claim he has honoured the pledge he made to US voters during his 2016 presidential campaign.
Under the deal, the Taliban accepted a “reduction of violence” — not a cessation of violence — ahead of talks with the government and other parties. The Taliban would cut ties with Al Qaeda and other radical “terrorist” groups while the US would reduce troop levels to 8,600 over 135 days and secure US complete withdrawal by 2021. Ahead of the proposed Taliban-government talks set for March 10, half the 10,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan soldiers would be released. However, Trump negotiators did not clear the Taliban prisoner release with the government, which argues that this should be included in negotiations on an overall peace deal. The Taliban has resumed attacks on government troops and positions but not on US and other foreign forces. This is hardly a recipe for peace in Afghanistan in time for the November US election.
For Trump, an end to the disastrous US engagement in Afghanistan would amount to a “victory” he could trumpet to his “base” of supporters. US voters are paranoid about losing wars. Since World War II, the US has fought five wars and “won” none. It has “lost” the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and Afghanistan largely because the US has deployed its overwhelming military power against dedicated local insurgents. To make matters worse, the US has not achieved its political goals in these countries. Korea remains divided between the Communist north and pro-Western south. Vietnam was reunited under a Communist government which has, on its own, successfully reformed politically and economically. Iraq has become a failed state and Afghanistan remains at war with itself.