Soleimani’s death offers Erdoğan a precious opportunity with Trump

As if the swirling pace of events lately were not enough to expose the rudderless nature of Turkey’s regional foreign policy, the killing of al-Quds Force Major-General Qassem Soleimani along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia and deputy commander of Al-Hashed al-Shaabi, added to the confusion in Ankara.

Turkish media were once again mired in their blurred optics, with Islamist and leftist media joining ranks to condemn US imperialism while ignoring the divisive, violent and subversive activities of Soleimani in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in the furtherance of Iranian expansionism.

Turkish opposition media tried to determine what to make of the killings and their aftermath while Islamist pro-government outlets speculated about whether Soleimani’s death could benefit Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This explains the remarkable delay in Ankara’s reaction to the eruption of tension between Iran and the United States. In a routine statement, the Turkish Foreign Ministry employed cautious language, saying: “Turkey has always been against foreign interventions, assassinations and sectarian clashes in the region. We call upon all parties to show restraint and act responsibly, avoiding moves that can threaten the peace and stability in the region.”

From the various statements in Ankara, it was obvious that official sources had their eyes and ears locked on what Erdogan would say. Eventually, many of them focused on his hints that Turkey was involved in reducing tensions between Iran and the United States. This seemed to be an “aha moment” to suggest that Erdogan had realised that returning Turkey to a soft power role and adopting an intermediary mission would take him out of the dark hole into which he had squeezed himself.

While it was true that, in the killing of Soleimani, Erdogan might have seen windows of opportunity but it didn’t include a genuine recalibration of his pursuits in the region.

On the face of it, the death of Soleimani and Muhandis might have come as a relief for Erdogan’s government. They represented Shia expansionism in the region but, more important, a steady stumbling block for Turkey’s pursuit of regime change to the benefit of Sunni jihadists in Syria. Good riddance of anything supportive of Damascus, as long as it doesn’t rock the vulnerable boat Turkey and Russia are rowing.

Erdogan likely saw a tactical opportunity for a go-between role between US President Donald Trump and Tehran. Despite the historical rivalry between Turkey and Iran and despite the Sunni-Shia divide, Turkey under Erdogan’s predominantly Islamist rule since 2012 has deepened trade with Iran, often challenging the US embargo — on several occasions crossing the line. Two massive graft investigations in Turkey in 2013 brought about serious charges involving a US federal court specialising in organised crime.

At the centre of the cases stood top figures of the Erdogan administration and Halkbank. Experts said the findings constituted the tip of the iceberg, extending far beyond the $30 billion in an oil-for-gold scheme involving Turkish and Iranian governments.

The trial in New York continues to be the main parameter through which Erdogan shapes his policies with Washington. His once ceaseless obsession with having the cases in the US courts dismissed has evaporated. This is one of the major reasons he has Trump as the sole American figure who supports him in Washington.

If any of the suggestions that Erdogan may adopt an intermediary role in helping de-escalate Iran-US tensions are true, it is through calculations by the Turkish president. It may be true that Trump will need damage-control efforts and dialogue-by-proxy with Tehran. If he reaches out to his friend in Ankara, Trump is highly likely to have a familiar condition thrown at him: Help me so we all forget the breach of Iranian embargo that my folks have been involved in, free Halkbank of charges so we can all proceed to better times.

As the US 2020 election season begins, Trump and Erdogan know they need each other — badly. For the former, any regional victory he can sell to his public would secure a second term. For the latter, helping his sole friend win the election would grant Erdogan carte blanche for further consolidation of absolutist power at home.

It may be far-fetched but Soleimani’s death may provide such a breakthrough moment to serve the two men’s personal interests.