Remember the time Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood tall and strong in the Arab world, facing down Israel on the Gaza blockade and blasting Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for ousting fellow Islamist Mohamed Morsi?
The irascible “Kasimpasa man” -- as he likes to describe himself after the hard-bitten Istanbul neighborhood of his childhood -- even took on Vladimir Putin after the downing of a Russian bomber near the Syria-Turkey border last year.
Turkey is still at it, talking tough with the Russians while stoking the Syrian conflagration with its latest shelling of Kurdish positions in northern Syria.
In one fell swoop, Turkey has managed to exasperate an inordinate number of players on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict.
Moscow is incensed over Turkey targeting Russian-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria, which it considers key to the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group. So do the US and France, for that matter, and this time, Turkey’s fellow NATO members lost no time calling on Ankara to tone it down.
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad obviously has no love for Turkey’s military games in his fiefdom even though he has no love for the Kurds in his own territory.
The anger over Turkey’s war games in Syria is not restricted to foreign capitals. In Turkish opposition circles, Erdogan’s latest foreign policy adventure has sparked panic buttons as Turks watch a long-cherished Turkish policy of maintaining working relationships with everybody crumble before their eyes.
Those ‘vile, cruel and barbaric planes’
You would think Ankara has got the message, but it hasn’t.
Turkish artillery has continued striking Kurdish positions in northern Syria since the weekend. On Tuesday, Turkish shelling struck the town of Tal Rifaat, which was captured the previous day from mostly Islamist rebels by a Kurdish-Arab coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Turkish media also reported shelling on Kurdish positions around the Syrian rebel stronghold of Azaz.
The rhetoric from Ankara is as belligerent as ever. On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed "uneasiness" about France's call over the weekend for an immediate halt to the shelling of Kurdish forces. Speaking with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault by telephone, Cavusoglu said Turkey was fighting against "elements of terror" in Syria.
Meanwhile Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been on a rhetorical roll, calling Kurdish fighters “Russia’s legion working as mercenaries” to harm Turkey’s interests.
Addressing parliament on Tuesday, Davutoglu blasted Russia’s “vile, cruel and barbaric planes”. There’s no doubt the Russian targeting of hospitals in Syria -- a charge Moscow denies, but nobody believes -- is vile and very likely constitutes a war crime. But characterizing planes as vile, cruel and barbaric is best left to the poets and bards chronicling the horrendous Syrian conflict.
Sunni powers rattle sabers, then retreat
Of course Turkey still has its allies in the Sunni Muslim world and they’re currently conducting military exercises in northern Saudi Arabia.
The leader of the world’s other Sunni superpower has turned out to be just as alarming as Turkey’s Erdogan. Since he ascended the throne last year, Saudi King Salman has taken his country to war in neighboring Yemen, pounding the impoverished Arab nation, keeping journalists out of the country, and ensuring the horrors of the Yemen conflict stay underreported.
Now Saudi Arabia is playing military games in the area, inviting the armed forces of 20 Muslim majority countries for “the most important” military maneuvers ever staged, as the Saudi official news agency SPA objectively reported.
But wait, just when Sunni superpower saber-rattling reaches a peak, comes the rhetorical retreat.
"We want a ground operation with our international allies," a senior Turkish official clarified to reporters in Istanbul Tuesday. A more accurate quote of course would have been, “We want a ground operation with the US.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, the public face and mouthpiece of the nouveau Wahhabi belligerence, mirrored the “wait, we can’t do it without the US” sentiment when he told reporters, “This is a US-led coalition, so the timing is not up to us. We have said that should the US-led coalition make a decision to introduce ground troops in Syria, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia would be prepared to participate with the deployment of special forces.”
So much for the display of raw Sunni power in Syria. But you can be sure Riyadh and Ankara are pushing Washington to take the next step in the Syrian conflict.
Except the US isn’t buying -- and neither are France and Britain, NATO’s two significant European military powers. The US views Turkey’s intransigence on the Kurdish issue with exasperation and Erdogan does not hide his ire -- he never does -- over Washington’s failure to unstintingly support Ankara’s obsession with the so-called Kurdish threat.
When US special envoy on ISIL (as the IS group is known in US policy circles) Brett McGurk met YPG leaders in Syria earlier this year, Erdogan fumed, “He [McGurk] visits Kobani at the time of the Geneva talks and is awarded a plaque by a so-called YPG general? How can we trust you [the US]? Is it me who is your partner or the terrorists in Kobani?”
The truth is, the US has no appetite for an offensive in Syria that would pitch it against Russia. This was true since the start of the Syrian conflict under President Barack Obama’s disengaged foreign policy. It’s certainly true now that Washington is pushing for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
The Sunni powers, on the other hand, have an appetite to take on the Russians and their Shiite allies, but not the military might.
That leaves Turkey alone in its face-off against Russia.
In a region where history lives and the wounds of the past are allowed to fester for centuries, you would think Turkey would know better. The Russians and the Turks after all know each other very well. They have a long history of belligerence dating back to the days when the Ottoman and Russian empires rubbed shoulders, and the Turks always emerged the losers – unless of course the Ottomans were backed by the major European powers.
But those major European powers of yore aren’t so major anymore. And the Russian Bear is as powerful as ever. In the battle of strongmen who take a page from history, Tsar Putin will crush Sultan Erdogan. Turkey’s chattering classes know it and they are increasingly jittered -- more than they’ve ever been since the last year’s downing of the Russian bomber plane near the Turkey-Syria border.
Since the Turkish shelling in Syria began, a number of Turkish newspapers have been pumping out columns warning about Erdogan’s dangerous foreign policy adventures. In Today’s Zaman, Abdulhamit Bilici wondered how did Turkey -- a country that managed a working relationship with the Soviets during the Cold War, was friends with Israel, and stayed above the fray in the Iran-Iraq War -- get to this state.
Erdogan may, just may, have to do a flip-flop on Russia. He’s been forced to do it over the past few months, so it’s not inconceivable. The “hero of the Arab world” who stormed out a Davos meeting with then Israeli President Simon Peres has made an about-turn on Israel.
A senior Turkish official on Tuesday told reporters in Istanbul that Turkey and Israel are close to a deal on normalizing ties more than five years after relations were downgraded.
Turkey is also opening up to Egypt after severing ties over Sisi’s ousting of Morsi. Erdogan has said he will not meet with Sisi, a man he routinely calls “the coup maker”. But ministerial level meetings have begun and it looks like the Kasimpasa man will just have to play nice with the coup-maker.
Will Erdogan at some point find himself in a warm bear hug with Putin? Well, never say never would be a safe position. After all, it takes one strongman to respect another. The sultan may just discover he will have to yield to the tsar after all.