Erdogan’s biggest gamble yet
The Turkish president’s misguided despatch of troops to Syria risks an unwinnable showdown with Russia
The Turkish-Syrian clash in Idlib province – resulting in the death of six Turkish soldiers when their convoy was shelled by the Syrian army near the town of Saraqeb – ultimately reflects Russia’s growing frustration with President Recep Tayyip Erodgan. Moscow has lost patience with the Turkish leader’s failure to evacuate terrorist-designated groups and factions from Idlib city under the terms of the 2017 de-escalation agreement.
The Syrian army’s advance in the Idlib countryside, retaking a succession of towns and villages from the Turkish-backed Hay’ at Tahrir ash-Sham (the former Nusra Front) and its allies, left Erdogan in a predicament. With the recapture of the strategic town of Maarat al-Numan and the imminent fall of Saraqeb, he faced the prospect of his allies being ejected from Idlib city too – which would, in turn, cause the flight of tens of thousands of its inhabitants across the Turkish border.
This prompted him to make his biggest gamble since he began his intervention in the Syrian conflict nine years ago. He sent a 350-vehicle military convoy to Saraqeb and fresh arms supplies to the opposition forces defending the town, effectively trashing his understandings with his Russian allies.
The official Russian account, given by Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, is that the Turks did not inform Moscow of their incursion, and their troops came under fire from Syrian forces targeting terrorists to the west of Saraqeb. Moscow also denied Erdogan’s claim that Turkey launched retaliatory airstrikes in which up to 35 Syrian troops were killed, as did Syria’s official news agency – basically accusing him of lying.
In short, when forced to choose between its Syrian and Turkish allies, Russia opted for the former, having grown weary of Erdogan’s foot-dragging and failure to live up to his commitment in the 2018 Sochi agreement to clear Idlib of terrorist groups.
Erdogan could not, or rather would not, curb Hay’ at Tahrir Ash-Sham and stop it from attacking the Syrian army in the Idlib an Aleppo countrysides. It even launched repeated drone strikes against the Russian airbase at Hmeimim near Latakia. This enraged the Russians and prompted then to launch a joint offensive with the Syrian army to capture Idlib, resorting to the military option after the political option failed.
It is hard to predict how events will unfold. But it is clear that if Turkey persists with its intervention it well end up clashing with the Russians as well as the Syrians – unless Erdogan backs down, as he has done in the past, and seeks a deal or truce with President Vladimir Putin. This would have to be based on a renewed commitment to implementing the Sochi agreement and abandoning the Nusra Front and its allies.
All the makings of a showdown are in place. The Russians and Syrians are not prepared to halt their campaign to retake Idlib, and Erdogan is not prepared to see his allies there defeated and bloodily decimated. Moscow, meanwhile, no longer feels bound by the Sochi agreement after it was broken by Ankara and its clients.
Erdogan is in escalation mode for now. His visit to Kyiv, where he denounced Russia’s annexation of Crimea, was a deliberate jibe, which Putin may not take lightly.
The death and injury of Turkish soldiers in Syria for the first time since the start of Ankara’s intervention in the crisis will also have domestic repercussions for Erdogan. The Turkish public is becoming increasingly hostile to Syrian migrants, and critical of the ruling AK Party in general. It will not easily put up with Turkish boys losing their lives in Syria. The risk of sustaining military casualties prompted a majority of Turks to oppose military intervention in Libya. How about a war of attrition in Syria, against both the Russians and the Syrians?
And what would it be for? Nine years of fighting sponsored by an array of world and regional powers – entailing the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars and the recruitment of 250,000 fighters – failed to bring down the Syrian regime. The despatch of a few thousand Turkish troops to Saraqeb cannot change that reality.
France’s exposure of Turkish arms shipments to Libya and its arrest of Jaish al-Islam spokesman Islam Alloush, and Russia’s bombing of the Nusra Front in al-Bab, serve as a message to Turkey. They signal that times have changed and that its adversaries are growing in number.
But will the message be received and acted upon? Or will Turkey continue walking into the traps set for it by the US – first in Syria, now in Libya, with Russia as a principal adversary in both cases – with eyes wide open?