Twist and turns, a sharp u-turn, a clean break, starting over -you name it. These all may depict maneuvers of some sort, and yes you guessed right, as in foreign policy as well. Yet maneuvering is anathema in my humble opinion when it comes to Ankara’s Syrian adventure. For, to execute a maneuver one has to have an end game in mind or at least one has to have had charted a course from point A to point B. 

Here we are rather in cosmetics territory as in make-up. We may as well be in full lethargy territory. If you wish you can also hark back to late great thinker Berlin’s reference to the expression “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” But you would again be off the mark at worst or too optimistic at best. 

It is perhaps more reminiscent of the expression “let’s lift anchor first and then see whether the steam will push the ship forward -that I heard being used more than once by various experienced ambassadors during my time at the Foreign Ministry. It also reminds me of another top Turkish diplomat’s stark warning in Davutoğlu era that “zeal should not be mistaken as efficiency” in foreign policy. 

Let’s not turn around our subject matter any further: In short, Idleb will not end well for Turkey. Because there is no possible graceful exit. Any exit option is perceived as defeat by President Erdoğan and he is not willing by all the means to admit any defeat. Otherwise, Idleb for sure is not an existential matter neither for Turkey’s national security nor should have been a priority for its foreign policy.

Russian and Turkish delegations met in Ankara. Munich Security Conference created another opportunity for two sides’ foreign ministers to meet. And today, a Turkish delegation will be landing in Moscow. In the mean time we heard from various actors as Ambassador Erkhov, DFM Bogdanov or even FM Lavrov that time was up for Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) to pack up and leave Idleb. 

On the other hand, the hedgehog in question, namely President Erdoğan has spoken too and reiterated the “one thing”: Assad must go and it is not the TAF but the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to pull back from the entire Idlib pocket. Here we face a classic logical dilemma of a binary impossibility: Either the TAF or the SAA can remain where they are now. It is “on” or “off.”

The art of diplomacy, among other things, is to create time and space for a rationale within the possible outcomes. That would be in this case, for the recently heavily fortified TAF observation posts establish a new frontier line leaving the control of the M4 and the M5 highways together with all the towns along them to Damascus and keep a much narrower pocket including the Idleb town to host the almost a million Syrian IDPs and hence allowing them conditions not push for the Turkish border. 

This in turn too would have to be a temporary and not an open ended new status quo. There would ideally have to be a timeline attached to it. The wiggle room for Ankara would be then to connect that timeline with conditionality like “until a political solution will be found in entire Syria.” Ergo, the event horizon will be set in 2021 –the year when the elections will be held in Syria.   

The sweetener for Russia, and even perhaps for the lost and newly found Turkish allies like the US and the EU, would for Turkey to change its behaviour towards that political solution. All parties seem eager to re-energize Geneva process. Alas, Assad does not appear to be willing play ball, as he sees now that momentum is on his side and that any solution will by default be “Made in Syria” and not elsewhere.      

For Turkish diplomats and ministers rushing to NATO HQ in Brussels, receiving their Russian and American counterparts in Ankara, hurrying up to Moscow, it is a tough case to crack. To negotiate a rational outcome they need clear political instructions. To negotiate just for the sake of negotiating, hoping that an indeterminate lull will freeze all movements in Idleb as for example it did in Cyprus for over forty years will not work here. The situation on the ground is fluid and does not depend only of what Ankara chooses to do or abstain from doing.  

US and EU political support are not fully welcome or convincing either. Erdoğan made sure to let it known that he does not see the US position as being trustworthy and he was not wrong to expose the duplicity of the migration obsessed, short sighted and toothless EU policies. He will make the call politically as usual. This time around, Turkish public opinion does not appear to be consolidating behind his Idleb conundrum.  

Let’s follow our initial the hedgehog and the fox analogy through by way of conclusion: The bear, invited the wolf to kill the dog and then let the hyena loose to push the wolf out of the floor. Meanwhile, the eagle looked on from the branch of a tree nearby and lamented: “What do you expect me to do? To land on the ground and get in between the wolf and the hyena?” 

At the end of the day, not the multiple three way negotiations but the velocity of the SAA advance and the intensity of the RuAF aerial bombardment backing it will determine the outcome. Nothing short of a declaration of an all-out war with Syria will make any difference. As the coded message passed by Ricky Jay to Gene Hackman in David Mamet’s Heist (2001): “The situation is pristine.”