ISTANBUL — A raft of new American sanctions. An embargo on European arms sales. The indictment of a state-owned Turkish bank. Threats to isolate Turkey within NATO. A rise in global sympathy for the Kurdish cause. And the Syrian Army back in northern Syria.

The problems keep escalating for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose invasion of Kurdish-held northern Syria last week unraveled already tense relations with American and European partners and radically reshuffled the battle lines and alliances of Syria’s eight-year-old Syrian war.

But as challenging as Mr. Erdogan’s predicament appears from the outside, the international fallout may be more cosmetic than it looks.

Even as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary Mike Pompeo flew to Ankara on Wednesday to press Mr. Erdogan into a cease-fire, President Trump said at the White House on Wednesday that Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds ‘‘has nothing to do with us.’’

Mr. Trump also said he was not surprised by the Turkish campaign, which has already furthered one of Mr. Erdogan’s most important goals: Breaking the stranglehold of a hostile Kurdish militia on a vast stretch of the border, and the fracturing of the United States’ alliance with a group that Mr. Erdogan considers an existential threat to the Turkish state.

Analysts say all this will likely buttress Mr. Erdogan’s domestic standing after a series of electoral and economic setbacks, make it harder for the opposition to unite or to criticize him, and bolster his narrative that he and Turkey are the victims of an international conspiracy.

“Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Arabs — all united against Turkey,” the front-page of Sozcu, a newspaper usually fiercely opposed to Mr. Erdogan, said on Wednesday. “Bring it on.”

In the last few weeks, the Turkish national soccer team has backed Mr. Erdogan’s campaign by giving military salutes at the start of two international matches. Pop singers have expressed their support on social media. Even the head of Turkey’s largest art fair emailed its international mailing list to condemn the “black propaganda” of international media coverage of the military operation.

“Overall, this operation has been a success,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, an analyst who heads the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington-based research group.

Turkey has long opposed the influence of a Syrian Kurdish militia, known by its initials as the Y.P.G., since it is the offshoot of a guerrilla movement that has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. Turkish officials grew alarmed when the militia took control of pockets of northern Syria in 2012, following a retreat by government forces amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war.

Ankara became particularly alarmed when the militia expanded its grip by partnering with the United States military to force the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, from the border region.

To Turkish fury, the United States protected the Y.P.G. for nearly half a decade, encouraging the group to blur its identity by changing its name and enlisting more non-Kurdish fighters.

But this delicate peace was shattered last week when President Trump ordered American troops to withdraw from the Turkish-Syrian border. That allowed Turkish forces to invade, prompted American ground-forces and their international allies to abandon their bases in the area, and forced the Kurds to request protection from Russian and Syrian government troops.

The intervention by Russia and Syria came far quicker than expected, and will likely stop Mr. Erdogan from creating as large a buffer zone along the border as he previously hoped.

But it nevertheless brings him close to achieving his primary objective, said Mr. Unluhisarcikli.

“What’s Turkey’s objective? It’s to stop the Y.P.G. from controlling territory in northeast Syria,” Mr. Unluhisarcikli said. “Whether it’s Turkey doing it or the Syrian regime, the Y.P.G.’s control has been loosened.”

Mr. Erdogan once hoped to topple President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, but now seems to see Mr. al-Assad as a lesser evil than the Kurdish militia. On Wednesday, he told a gaggle of reporters that he could accept the Assad regime re-entering the previously Kurdish-held city of Manbij, as long as it expelled Kurdish fighters from the area.

“We are not very concerned about being in Manbij ourselves,” Mr. Erdogan said. “We have only one concern: Either Russia or the regime should remove the Y.P.G. from there.”

He called for Kurdish fighters battling his troops in northeastern Syria to lay down their weapons and withdraw from the border area “this very night.”

Mr. al-Assad’s predecessor and father, Hafez al-Assad, provided Kurdish guerrillas fighting the Turkish state with refuge and space to organize in Syria in the 1980s and 90s, and Mr. Erdogan may fear a similar outcome.

But the younger al-Assad has repeatedly promised to re-establish control over every inch of Syria and few believe he will allow the Syrian Kurds to maintain their current level of autonomy.

Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian domestic policies have long been a target of international criticism and unease, but the assault on Kurdish-held Syria has prompted an unusually high level of censure, even by Mr. Erdogan’s standards.

This week, Mr. Trump raised trade tariffs on Turkish steel, called off negotiations for a new Turkish trade deal worth $100 billion and placed financial sanctions on three Turkish ministers. “I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path,” he said in a statement on Monday.

On the same day, the defense secretary, Mark T. Esper, asked NATO members to take “collective and individual diplomatic and economic measures” against Turkey.

Several European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands and France, have now imposed embargoes on arms sales to Turkey.

On Tuesday, Volkswagen suspended plans to build a new factory that would provide 4,000 jobs in western Turkey, saying it was concerned by the current situation but without explaining further.

Hours later, United States prosecutors in New York announced charges against a Turkish state-owned bank that is alleged to have helped Iran evade American sanctions by transferring billions of dollars on the Iranian government’s behalf. As a punishment, prosecutors are pushing for the bank to forfeit an equivalent amount and the situation could hurt the bank’s ability to make international transactions.

The case may also have implications for Mr. Erdogan personally, as he is accused in the indictment of directing the scheme himself.

But though Turkey’s economy is already teetering, some of these measures may turn out to be less effective than they appear.

“Maybe people will come up with creative ways of excluding” Turkey from NATO, said Amanda Sloat, a former State Department official who oversaw relations with Turkey. “But there’s no provision about the removal of a NATO member in the NATO founding documents.”

The United States has ruled out a Turkish arms embargo, while the European arms embargoes merely “symbolic,” said Marc Pierini, a former European Union ambassador to Turkey. “They’re not going to dent in any shape or form the Turkish military,” Mr. Pierini added.

The European measures apply only to future sales, blunting their effect on the current operation. And though Germany supplies some of Turkey’s tanks, the Turkish military was already more reliant on its U.S.-made tanks, because of pre-existing problems with the German models.

What’s more, the three sanctioned Turkish ministers have no known American assets. The $100 billion trade deal was never taken seriously in the first place. The new tariffs will likely not have much more effect, since Turkish exports to the U.S. are already low because of levies enforced last year.

Even if Congress imposes harsher measures of its own, the Trump administration could slow-walk putting them in place.

And though the economic crisis poses long-term challenges to Mr. Erdogan’s electoral prospects, in the past he has used external economic threats to boost his short-term popularity, portraying himself as Turkey’s only viable bulwark against a sea of foreign troubles.

The war has exacerbated an already heightened state of nationalist feeling and rhetoric in Turkey, which makes it harder for opposition leaders to criticize Mr. Erdogan without being accused of a lack of patriotism.

Even Ekrem Imamoglu, an opposition politician who defeated Mr. Erdogan’s candidate in recent mayoral elections in Istanbul, and who is perceived as a future rival for the presidency, has been careful to show his strong support for the invasion. In a series of Twitter posts, he described the Kurdish militiamen as a “treacherous terror group” and said he was praying for the operation’s success.

Such statements add another obstacle to attempts by Turkey’s opposition parties to defeat Mr. Erdogan’s party.

To win the mayoralty, Mr. Imamoglu required the informal support of a pro-Kurdish party, which typically receives around 10 percent of the national vote and whose supporters helped pull him over the line. But the party’s perceived links to the Kurdish militant movement may now make it an electoral liability.

“In the medium term,” said Mr. Unluhisarcikli, “President Erdogan has made it harder for the cohesion of the opposition alliance.”

Reporting was contributed by Jack Ewing from Frankfurt; Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels; Ben Hubbard from Dohuk, Iraq; and Carlotta Gall from Nusaybin, Turkey.



Source link