Turkey can’t win in Syria

Erdogan’s brinkmanship in Idlib could be the undoing of his presidency and his neo-Ottoman regional ambitions

The Green light given by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan to extremist groups to attack positions recently retaken by the Syrian army in Idlib province has lit the fuse of a military confrontation that could turn into all-out war.

The surprise assault by Turkish-backed armed Syrian opposition factions, with artillery support from the 15,000-strong Turkish army contingent deployed in Idlib, may be Erdogan’s way of reinforcing his ultimatum for Syrian forces to withdraw from the parts of the province they have recaptured in their current offensive – an area of some 600 square kilometres including important towns such as Ma’arrat an-Numan, Khan Sheykhoun and Saraqeb. If that was the intention, the outcome so far has not been as expected: the Turkish defence ministry admitted the loss of two soldiers and the injury of five others, and the Russian defence ministry announced the Syrian army had successfully repulsed the attacks.

Erdogan is pursuing a policy of brinkmanship aimed at strengthening his hand on the ground to improve his negotiating position. But he has done this so often in the past it has ceased to be effective. It no more likely to succeed this time than it did in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and other formerly rebel-held parts of Syria.

Russia’s response to this Turkish escalation was firm. It sent its warplanes into action against the groups engaged in the assault, and delivered a strongly worded warning to Turkey to hold them back or else its own forces would be targeted. The shelling was duly halted.

Moscow accuses Ankara of violating the understandings reached at Sochi in 2018 by continuing to backed armed Syrian opposition groups that are designated as terrorist and supplying them with sophisticated missiles that enabled them to shoot down two Syrian army helicopters. Russia was not prepared to accept this change to the rules of engagement or its consequences on the ground.

It is hard to predict how events will unfold in Idlib, but Turkey is unlikely to emerge as winner.

Erdogan’s adventurism in Syria is also increasingly becoming a domestic liability. It has been fiercely criticised even by onetime loyalists such as former president Abdullah Gul, and opposition can only mount if more Turkish soldiers get killed, a military confrontation with Russia ensues, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees flee across the Turkish border.

Three rounds of talks held between Turkish and Russian delegations over the past two weeks all resulted in failure, because the Russians support the Syrian army’s advance in Idlib and resent Turkey’s flouting of the Sochi accords, which make a distinction between extremist and other moderate armed groups in Idlib.

Erdogan’s repeated requests for a face-to-face meeting with President Vladimir Putin have meanwhile gone unanswered – and he will not have endeared himself to Moscow by urging the US to deploy Patriot missiles to intercept Russian warplanes and missiles.

Erdogan will ultimately have no choice but to stop trying to avoid implementing Sochi understandings. Idlib is a Syrian city and must revert to Syrian sovereignty, and it is clear that Russia is adamant about this. The struggle for Idlib may not only determine Syria’s future and the fate of the armed opposition, but also Erdogan’s future as leader of his country and his neo-Ottoman regional ambitions.

Turkey can’t win in Syria

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