“The Presidency’s Communications Office has launched a new online portal that will announce a daily list of friends and foes of Turkey for the use of pro-government journalists,” read the lead paragraph of a “news story” in Zaytung, a Turkish online humor publication. Zaytung was poking fun at Turkey’s perpetual zigzagging between real and imaginary friends and foes and the difficulty this poses to pro-government media as they struggle to keep up with yearly, monthly, or even weekly changes.
Zaytung is only slightly exaggerating. At the end of 2015, Turkish columnists were busy tearing Russia apart. By mid-2016, they had gone in exactly the opposite direction, expressing exaggerated praise for President Vladimir Putin and his purportedly Turkey-friendly Russia while lacing furiously into the US. They were temporarily thrown when, last November, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Washington and won much praise from President Donald Trump, but they found a way to make sense out of it: Trump is good but America is evil. Our real friend, the Turkish journalists wrote, is Russia.
In the few weeks leading up to February 23, Turkey lost 16 servicemen in the northern Syrian city of Idlib, the most recent war theater between the Turkish and Syrian militaries, with the latter backed by Russian land and air support. In response, Turkey shelled scores of Syrian targets while Turkey-backed militants downed a Syrian military helicopter. Erdoğan vowed to take military action “everywhere in Syria” if another Turkish soldier was killed—and there has since been another Turkish casualty.
Erdoğan’s February 29 deadline to engage in military conflict unless regime forces withdraw from Idlib does not appear to be having a deterrent effect. In the past weeks, Turkey has dispatched thousands of troops and equipment to the towns in northwest Syria that neighbor Idlib. But an all-out military offensive appears unlikely because: