Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin are blowing hard on the embers of the war Turkey narrowly avoided with Russia in February’s clashes in Syria
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin are blowing hard on the embers of the war Turkey narrowly avoided with Russia in February’s clashes in Syria © Pavel Golovkin/Pool/Reuters

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey cannot stop picking fights. He questions the mental stability of President Emmanuel Macron of France, a fellow Nato member with which he has already clashed in the eastern Mediterranean.

He is settling comfortably into a vendetta with the Sunni Arab leaders in the Gulf he is challenging for regional supremacy. And he is daring President Donald Trump, who until now has shielded Turkey from US sanctions for flouting the embargo on Iran and buying Russian arms, to throw any sanctions he likes at him.

To top it all, he and fellow-strongman President Vladimir Putin are blowing hard on the embers of the war Turkey narrowly avoided with Russia in February’s heavy clashes in north-west Syria. Fires have a habit of spreading.

The latest phase of Mr Erdogan’s antagonism towards Mr Macron was sparked by the latter’s uncompromising response to the beheading of a French history teacher by a young Chechen Islamist.

This was a sequel to the jihadist assault on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in 2015 for publishing satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Samuel Paty, the slaughtered teacher, had shown the cartoons to his pupils, and Mr Macron defended this as freedom of expression in a republic under siege from Islamist separatism.

Mr Erdogan has taken this as an attack on all Muslims to which he, as their presumptive leader, must respond. Charlie Hebdo’s decision to lampoon him personally will doubtless have confirmed him in his resolve. Yet whether from conviction or opportunism — or even an alloy of both — Mr Erdogan has chosen a sturdy stick with which to beat Mr Macron.

It is impossible for Muslim rulers, however much they may detest the Turkish president, to spring to the Frenchman’s defence, faced with popular anger against the perceived denigration of the Prophet.

Western leaders cannot back Mr Erdogan, not least because his headstrong adventurism keeps colliding with their interests from the Aegean to the Mediterranean and from north Africa to the Levant. His support for, and reliance on, Islamist fighters in northern Syria, Libya and, reportedly, Nagorno-Karabakh, is widely seen as dallying with dangerous radicals at a time jihadism is perceived as a top security threat worldwide.

Yet while the Macron spat has captured the headlines, it is Turkey’s rekindled rivalry with Russia in northern Syria that is the more red-hot menace.

Presidents Erdogan and Putin had more or less managed being on opposite sides of the civil wars in Syria and Libya, in order to maximise mutual interests. Russia, as the dominant power in Syria behind Bashar al-Assad’s regime, looked benignly on Turkish incursions into northern Syria in 2016, 2018 and 2019, to push US-backed Kurdish militia away from Turkey’s frontiers and its internal Kurdish insurgency. Turkey in return bought Russia’s S-400 missile defence system, calling into question its continuing membership of Nato — a bonus for Mr Putin.

But Turkey’s desire for strategic depth and Russia’s determination to recover all of Syria for the Assad regime collided violently in February, with heavy casualties on both sides in Idlib, the last rebel redoubt in north-west Syria where Ankara had deployed its army and its Syrian proxies.

This week, Russia’s air force bombed one of those proxies, killing an estimated 78 fighters, although the Turkish army had last week withdrawn from eight outposts in the province to more defensible positions.

But resumed hostilities in Idlib look like a Russian reprisal for Turkey’s intervention in support of Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Mr Putin seems to have withdrawn his consent to Turkey’s military presence in northern Syria.

It was surely only a matter of time before someone tested Mr Erdogan’s mixture of over-reach and vulnerability. The first to do so is his ally of convenience, Mr Putin. Yet, while Turkey’s interests were always difficult to harmonise with Russia’s, they are not really in alignment with anybody in the Middle East except Qatar, the maverick gas-rich emirate blockaded by its erstwhile Gulf allies since 2017.

That alliance — depicted recently by Turkey’s defence minister as “one heart, one fist” — could evaporate as the US works intensively to mend Qatar’s breach with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose hostility towards Mr Erdogan is even greater.

Turkey, moreover, is grappling with a weakening economy and sinking currency. Tension is growing not just with Europe and Russia but with the US after Ankara test-fired its Russian missiles as a prelude to deploying them, which if Mr Trump loses to the Democrat Joe Biden next week is even more likely to be seen as a line. Too many lights are flashing red.

david.gardner@ft.com

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