Two days after the official count of 36 deaths of Turkish troops in Syria’s Idlib region when President Erdoğan spoke for the first time since the killings, and he was smiling. It appeared as if he had the ease of someone very confident about something. Was it the promise for help from NATO that made him smile, or was if the decision of Russia to lower its guard for a couple of days?
Syrian refugees have now been steered to Turkey’s European borders, images of which keep coming in and will surely be remembered in the future as signs of our shame. The number of refugees departing Turkey are continuously being announced - with pride –, with claims that they have reached 15 thousand, 30 thousand, 60 thousand…The domestic public has been much engaged with this. Messages are given that revenge for the martyrs has been taken. This is supported by images of the Syrian positions that have been knocked down or paralyzed. Promises have been received from NATO that Turkey’s defense will be heightened. The Greek veto has been withdrawn. Talks over the Patriot missile system with the USA has moved up to a serious stage. On the other hand, efforts have increased to reduce tension with Russia. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin will meet on March 5 or 6 which removes the feared scenario. Also, for the first time, Iran and Hezbollah fighters were targeted, pleasing certain Western partners of Israel.
Is this false picture the factor that lies beneath Erdoğan's determination to expand the war in Idlib? Are these guarantees real guarantees? Or it this an effort to drag NATO into the problem so that Russia might be forced to withdraw?
A new phase has started as of March 1, the deadline given by Turkey to the Syrian army to withdraw behind Turkish observation points in and around Idlib. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced the name of the military operation as “Spring Shield.” In other words, the already operational but undeclared war has been named.
It is now clear that in accordance with Erdoğan’s demand to Putin to “fade from the scene and leave us alone with the regime,” Russia has been ignoring the Turkish drones entering the Syrian air space since February 27. It is as if saying, “Go and hit them and relax, so that we are good, you and me.” In parallel with this, the Syrian Army, shifted its defense systems to Aleppo. Thus, it would be Syria and not Russia that would face Turkish air components if needed. As a matter of fact, the fact that Russia was in between was an insurance that prevented the confrontation of the Syrian and Turkish armies. This might be a temporary situation. It is not yet possible to say that Russia has withdrawn, and too early to say that there is no Russian insurance remaining. In other words, the picture I have drawn above concerning the factors that made Erdoğan smile belonged to yesterday, not tomorrow.
If we come to the picture that is getting clearer as of March 1, this is what we see:
Syria has closed its air space Sunday to all “enemy” components including drones. Then tragic developments occurred. Syria shot Turkey’s drone and Turkey shot two Syrian planes. According to SANA, the number of Turkish drones hit reached three.
NATO would back Turkey, US forces would step in and Israel would open a front in the south, forcing Russia to withdraw, and the Turkish army would not stop at Idlib, leaving Syria to be shared – these possible scenarios are accompanying this escalation.
Developments on the ground depend, to a great extent, on what Russia will do and, to a certain extent, on what Iran will do. On the other hand, it also depends on how long NATO will accompany Turkey on this road Turkey has opened. Turkey called for NATO consultations Sunday based on article 4. Its expectation from NATO is the declaration of a no-fly zone in Idlib; if this does not happen, then the deployment of Patriot missiles on the Hatay-Kilis line that would restrict Syrian-Russian planes. Turkey also expects an increase in military-technical support. Yet there is no way the first demand would be met, as it would mean a declaration of war with Russia. It is also impossible for the UN Security Council to reach a decision in which Turkey’s hand would be strengthened. Ultimately, NATO’s position is basically to avoid any clash with Russia.
According to journalist Murat Yetkin, it is the USA, UK, Italy and Spain that lead those who promise support to Turkey, and there is talk of the possibility of the USA sending Patriot batteries from Germany’s Rammstein base. It is also mentioned that electronic combat systems, together with two ships from the Sixth Fleet, will be nearby to contribute. Spain is offering military transportation support, and the UK may be present with their anti-missile systems and electronic combat tools.
With these pledges and the enlarged move Turkey has started with Spring Shield, the positions of Russia and Iran become significant. Iran has enough troubles and has limited energy and resources to allocate to Syria. While President Hasan Ruhani talked to Erdoğan trying to open way to diplomacy, the situation on the ground might trigger a break in Turkish - Iranian relations.
Iran’s military advisor in Syria recently said they were attacked and suffered 10 casualties. Turkish military targets were within their fire range, but according to their leader’s orders they did not hit them. As you know, several Turkish military observation points are currently located in areas controlled by the Syrian Army.
Well, what position will Russia take?
Russia, at the same time, wants to see what the NATO wing would want to do, and to what extent. But, at the same time it is taking steps to demonstrate its toughness. In parallel with the intentions of certain NATO members to contribute to Turkey’s combat capacity, Russia has passed from the Bosporus a naval vessel equipped with cruise missiles and an electronic combat ship to the Mediterranean.
Russia does not want to experience a break with Turkey, but Turkey has entered a road which, if pursued, would result in Russia’s gains on the field being wiped away. Retired Russian Colonel Mikhail Kodarenok wrote in Gazeta.ru that in case the Turkish army launches a major military offensive, things might get out of control: “If Moscow chooses not to interfere, then it would be a military and political disaster. The Kremlin’s role as a geo-political player in the Middle East will cease to exist. Moscow’s five-year efforts in Syria could easily be wiped away.”
There are certain “certain things.” Kremlin has reiterated a number of times that it will not retreat from the fight against terror organizations. Sunday’s message was about the illegitimacy of forces other than the Russian ones in Syria, and Russia is not changing its emphasis on the fight against terror. The main actor among the forces that took back 23 military targets in the past seven days with Turkey’s support is the HTS (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), regarded as a terror organization. HTS is not only on Russia’s terror list; it is also among the list of terror organizations Turkey recognizes according to the UN decision.
Until the Putin-Erdoğan meeting, Russia may adopt a dual strategy: an attitude of “understanding” toward Turkey, and a “preventive and punisher” strategy against Turkey’s allies. It is difficult to predict what will come out of the leaders meeting now that the “rules of engagement,” protected more or less until February, have changed.
Now, will a new set of rules come out of the nearing summit? Or, will the war become more complicated, drawing international actors inside? While bilateral relations still act as breaks, when one of side dares to totally burn relations then the other side has no point in restraining itself. The rest is disaster. The Russia that we know may continue to cherish its strategic relations with Turkey, but it will not easily opt for a withdrawal that would wipe out its influence in the Middle East.
Turkish President Erdoğan pushes forward at full speed as if he has unlimited resources, with an overflowing domestic public he can address through invocation of the martyrs. However, this course of events requires serious resources and support. It puts Turkey into the position of a “proxy state” in Syria in the eyes of Syria’s enemies, starting with Israel. This war is provoked by both those who have an issue with Syria and those who are bothered by Russia’s return to the Middle East.
This campaign is accompanied by the prayers of the jihadist world. For instance, the mentor of HTS in Idlib, Saudi Arabian Sheikh Abdullah el Müheysini, gave examples from history in his last interview, recalling how the Ottoman sultans rushed to the help of Muslims. The jihadist Salafist crew calls Turkey the “blasphemy order” when it suits them, but their love for Erdoğan has peaked these days!
Moreover, while Turkey is oppressing its neighbor--the one it has to live side-by-side with for many centuries tomorrow--it is burying its own sons.
Let me finish with a note from a top-level Syrian authority:
- Turkey should stay away from clashes.
- Turkey’s future is in Syria, but not in this way. Ankara should focus on how it may take a role in Syria’s rebuilding process. At the end of the day, Syria has no other option but Turkey.
- Turkey should focus on strategic issues such as natural gas in the Mediterranean. Instead, it is spending its energy in Syria. This is a trap.
- Turkey should pay attention to who has interests in this war. Especially Israel who wants Turkey to enter the war.
I guess shared wisdom should take these points into consideration. In the second stage of this intervention, what is inevitably waiting for Turkey is to become a proxy state. Just like the proxy organizations now being used. Syria is not a place where Turkey can set the rules alone and play its own game. This region's capacities of destruction and dissolution are indisputable. And when it comes to reconstruction and governance, this region has features that leaves even “super powers” desperate.