James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy to Syria, recently brought a message from Mike Pompeo saying that Washington stands by Turkey against Syria, Iran, Russia and Hizbullah. Turkey’s Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın’s facial expressions showed gloom as Jeffrey spoke.
After deploying Turkish troops in Syria with a great deal of hubris, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar happened to call on NATO, Europe and even the world to help Ankara halt Damascus’ aggression. Despite that, Turkey is adamant it will push back the Syrian army behind the Turkish military’s observation points by the end of February.
On Feb. 12, President Erdoğan spoke to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and said the following: “We are determined to make the regime withdraw behind our observation points by the end of February. We will do whatever it takes to accomplish this, without hesitation, by land and by air.”
These are harsh words and as Erdoğan himself often likes to say in Arabic, “Men dakka dukka”, or what goes around comes around.
So far, more than ten Turkish observation posts have been besieged, in Idlib and its surroundings. Beyond Turkish troops, a war within this strategic framework makes the country’s borders open targets.
Unlike the operations “Euphrates Shield” and “Olive Branch”, the air space is closed to Turkish planes. Helicopters can’t even be flown to pick up the injured.
Turkey’s interventions did not halt developments on the ground. A barrier Ankara set up at Saraqib to stop the Syrian army cost the life of eight Turkish soldiers. Turkey also set up a barrier at Taftanaz in order to gain a better position at the negotiation table with Russia. It cost the lives of five more Turkish soldiers. As a result, neither Saraqib nor Taftanaz could be held.
The goal Turkey set for itself by the end of February would require going all the way to Damascus. Yet this war is waged by several different actors.
If the aim of stoking further tension is to draw a new ceasefire line with Russia, this strategy has failed so far. The Kremlin released a statement about the Erdoğan-Putin talk, emphasizing that it would fully implement the agreements between Turkey and Russia, including the Sochi Agreement. According to the Russians, what is happening on the field is no less than the implementation of the agreement by Russia and Syria. Turkey is not abiding by the agreement.
Moreover, none of Turkey’s allies in the field can be regarded as “innocent” actors. The main elements that currently dominate Idlib feature on Turkey’s own terror list. Ankara is asking for help from the international community to assist a strategy that would shield Al-Qaida and its derivatives.
And though Erdoğan might regard the borders that were drawn after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as temporary and artificial, this is Syrian territory. Turkey has no legal basis to enter Syria.
The only legal ground Ankara brings up is the Adana Agreement which it has actually long ceased to observe. This agreement would require recognizing the Syrian government, providing coordination, forming joint coordination and protecting borders in cooperation with Damascus.
As Turkey, a NATO force is currently halting operations from the Western coalition, another NATO force, that is combating structures regarded as terror organizations by the UN, the U.S., the EU and Turkey. And while Turkey is in Idlib – Syrian territory – it calls the advancing Syrian army in Idlib “occupiers.” This is sheer nonsense.
Eurasianist interpretations of Turkish foreign policy are wrongheaded. Those who see Turkey’s partnership with Russia as an alternative to being a valet to the West are misled.
This is not an issue of axis, it is spinelessness. Turkey has long ceased to be a “reliable partner or interlocutor.” Its relationship with Russia was never built on a trust basis. A rule of thumb when dealing with Erdoğan is not trusting him. The second rule is not forgetting to not trust him.
Meanwhile, the U.S. seems to be aligning its enemies. The U.S. wants to turn Turkey’s quagmire into an opportunity for themselves and are expecting Ankara to act as its traditional NATO ally.
The U.S. has two main motives. The first one is to widen the gap between Turkey and Russia. The Americans are emulating the logic followed by Putin in using the Turkish-American dispute to start the Astana process and move the partnership all the way up to selling of S-400s. In a timely manner, the U.S. Department of Treasury has lifted the sanctions it had imposed on three Turkish ministers and two Turkish ministries. In other words, an incentive package is being put forward.
The second one is if Turkey stalls Syria and its allies in Idlib, then US, present in the east of the Euphrates, are at no risk of being attacked by the Syrian regime. The low-level clashes that took place between the US forces and the local people in the east of Al Hasakah served as a hint of the strategy that consisting in withdrawing the U.S. from Syria. Rather than engaging in direct military confrontation, the Syrian regime activates local elements.
The disappearance of the U.S. forces’ means of safe operation could rekindle the debate on their presence in Syria. For this reason, Washington hopes that the Idlib fire flares up.
There is no difference between ISIS – which is why the U.S. deployed in Syria in the first place – and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that dominates Idlib. The only difference is that one of them is more of a deceiver and better in pretense.
Still, Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien recently said he did not believe the U.S. would intervene in Idlib. O’Brien added Washington was in no position to halt the actions of the Russians, the Iranians or Damascus.
What it could do, however, is let Turkey carry out the job in their place and stand alongside it. But if Russia seeks an entente with Turkey, it will not allow for a reversal of the outcome it has gained since 2015. This could jeopardize the weight Russia has achieved on the international stage.
Another possible scenario is for Russia to stand firmly behind Syria and relinquish its rapprochement with Turkey. This option would directly expose Turkey to the Syrian army, Iranian elements and other militia forces. I doubt this would be one of Erdoğan’s choices, in a situation where the US protection shield is lacking. Erdoğan does not have a free hand as to dare to burn bridges with Russia. As Erdoğan seeks to be present in the Syrian theater in this way or another while avoiding a full-fledged war, he still needs Moscow’s assurances. His continuous talks with Putin attest this.
On the other hand, Putin does not want to confront Turkey so Idlib turns into a NATO issue. Russia’s strategy in Syria is consistent with the path that has pursued since the onset of the war. What we should look at instead is the moves of Washington toward Turkey.