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How Turkish Foreign Policy Strategy Could Shape 2019


President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria came a few days after a phone call with Turkey's president, and that decision seems likely to increase Turkey's power. It caps a year where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consolidated his control over the country and increased his global influence.

To discuss the Erdogan's year and what it means for the region, Asli Aydintasbas joins us now from Istanbul. She's a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Hi, Ari - good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with that decision by President Trump to take U.S. troops out of Syria. How much responsibility do you believe Erdogan has for pushing Trump towards that decision?

AYDINTASBAS: Oh, I think he perhaps single-handedly made it happen. Erdogan had been calling Trump every week to complain about U.S. troops in Syria or support for Syrian Kurds. And all of a sudden, Trump said, OK, we'll pull out now, and I don't think it's what Turkish president expected.

SHAPIRO: Well, there's some question about the timeline for the U.S. troop withdrawal, but let's imagine that it happens right away. What does that mean for Turkey's power in the region?

AYDINTASBAS: It means Turkey will now have to own the fight against ISIS which had been carried out by Syrian Kurds. It also means Turkey will be responsible for reconstruction of Northern Syria. This is much more than Erdogan had bargained for. But it also possibly means Turks will carry out an across-the-border operation against Syrian Kurds who have been until recently America's allies.

SHAPIRO: Beyond the question of Syria, this seems to be one of many ways in which Erdogan has consolidated his power and influence over the last year. What do you see as the other major ways that he has done that?

AYDINTASBAS: Well, the migration issue is certainly one where Europeans feel beholden to Erdogan and therefore have to sort of strike a balance between criticizing his human rights record and doing business with him.

SHAPIRO: You mean because Turkey has so many Syrian migrants who wish to move to Europe, Erdogan can control that flow, so Erdogan therefore has some leverage over Europe.

AYDINTASBAS: Exactly, and that's a huge leverage given the way things are happening in Europe - the rise of far-right and the vulnerability of leaders like even Merkel or Macron. He really holds the trump card.

SHAPIRO: As Erdogan tries to make Turkey a global player in the region, do you see a risk of the country overextending itself? When you look at the tug-of-war between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, et cetera, does Turkey actually have the resources to match Erdogan's ambitions?

AYDINTASBAS: Oh, yes, there is a risk of Turkey overextending itself in terms the human resources and sort of military capability to own the fight against ISIS, which is part of the Trump-Erdogan deal of U.S. forces pulling out. It's not something that Turkey alone can shoulder. The government has basically run out of cash. And Turkey is a huge regional power but not a global superpower, and I think that gap is going to continue to be a problem.

SHAPIRO: We've also talked a lot about Turkey's role in gathering and publicizing evidence about Saudi responsibility for the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. At the same time, we should mention Turkey has locked up more of its own journalists than almost any country in the world over the last year. How does this fit into Erdogan's global strategy?

AYDINTASBAS: He's used the Khashoggi incident in a very smart way, I think, once again as a leverage over United States. We don't of course what types of negotiations are taking place around that idea. But the fact that Turkey can continue to put this on the table is something that worries President Trump. He does want Turkey to go quiet about this issue. I think Erdogan, again, has - his hand is very strong on this.

SHAPIRO: In addition to locking up many journalists, this week at Erdogan's orders, two of Turkey's most famous comedians were arrested. What does all of this mean for the people of Turkey?

AYDINTASBAS: It's a terrible joke. It's just not funny anymore. If your listeners have been following the developments in Turkey, it's democratic backsliding, so to speak. Now they're coming for the comedians. There is nothing more to say.

SHAPIRO: Asli Aydintasbas, thank you so much.


SHAPIRO: She's a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations speaking with us from Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.