The Sultan’s Hit List Grows, as Turkey Prepares to Enter Syria

It says a lot about post-failed-coup Turkey that you can spot the priority list of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign antagonists from the Government’s reactions to a massacre. The slaughter of at least 50 Kurdish wedding guests by a suicide bomber in the border city of Gaziantep on Saturday was swiftly blamed on Isis. Erdogan said it was the “likely” culprit. Certainly the target fits Isis’ gruesome track record.

But then Erdogan’s Deputy Prime Minister, Mehmet Simsek, broadened the scope of Turkey’s enemies. Describing the mass killing as “barbaric” – which it surely was – he then listed the “terror groups” who were targeting Turkey: the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party), Isis and the followers of Fethullah Gulen, the exiled and rather eccentric cleric whom Erdogan still claims organised the attempted military coup in July.

Quite a hit list to be provoked by an atrocity at a wedding. And all those “terrorists”, we must suppose, will also have to be crushed by an army and police force that have themselves been cut to pieces in the purge which followed the coup-that-wasn’t.

The list contains its own oddities. If the PKK had to be mentioned in the same breath as Isis, especially in reaction to the murder of Kurds, then we must also remember that the Turks regard the brave little militia of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of northern Syria as part of the same “terrorist” PKK. And that is the same YPG which has been receiving help from the US air force in its battle against Isis.

More intriguingly, however, is the absence from the list of the one institution which Erdogan has been trying to destroy for the past four years: the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

Few Turks would believe that the Syrian regime had anything directly to do with the wedding bombing at Gaziantep. But after his jaunt to see Tsar Vladimir at St Petersburg, Sultan Erdogan seems to realise that Turkey has really got to cut down on the number of its enemies.

Syrian opposition figures in Turkey have been alarmed at reports of secret talks between Damascus and Ankara – through what the French used to call “interlocuteurs valables”, or people trusted by both sides – and an apparently stray remark by the Turkish Prime Minister just before the attempted coup (and before the St Petersburg meeting) to the effect that relations will one day have to be restored with Syria.

Clearly Erdogan’s new love for Mother Russia comes at a price. The Tsar will surely have discussed his own affection for Bashar – and Turkey’s role in trying to crush the Government which Moscow supports with its armed forces – at their mutual summit. Could it be, therefore, that the Sultan is thinking of renewing his old friendship with the Lion of Damascus? Be sure he is.

Whoever he wants to blame for the Gaziantep bombing, Erdogan must realise that these now regular atrocities are a direct result of his personal decision to involve himself in the Syrian war. Having played footsy with Isis (letting their supporters cross the Turkish frontier to join the cult and then allowing Turkey’s business sharks to buy up Isis-exported oil) and recommenced his war with the Kurds, and having (just) survived a coup planned by his ally-turned-nemesis Gulen, Erdogan is now ruling a Turkey which looks, every day, more like Pakistan after it took on the role of chief supplier to the Afghan mujahedin in the early 1980s.

There’s a rather wearying adage in Damascus that Syria will never be the same again when the war there is over. But the truth is that Turkey also will never be the same again when the conflict finishes either. It will be interesting to see who Turkey’s President is when that day comes.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.