“Do you know how much a bullet costs?” President Erdoğan snapped at people who complained about the price of vegetables in the central Anatolian town of Sivas. Yet only those that fire the bullet can know how much it costs.
Relinquishing its vocation to be a social state, the Turkish government is now providing us with its bank details amid the coronavirus pandemic. What this shows is that the Turkish state does not intend to give a helping hand to citizens during tough times. Despite that, it is not ready to give up on its endless wars in Syria and Libya. If these wars were launched under the cover of ‘national security’ and ‘public interest,’ they clearly had to do with the survival of one man. In line with ‘one-man’ regimes, transparency does not prevail, and the public is not told how these wars are funded.
Was the call for a ceasefire by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres really necessary as the whole world is consumed by the coronavirus outbreak? Those wars are not carried for the people but for political leaders and warlords.
Erdoğan hasn’t even showed the slightest sign that he will at least halt or reduce the fighting in the Syrian and Libyan fronts. In fact, as the world is on lockdown, dramatic developments occur in Libya. On March 25, the Turkish-supported Islamists forces on the frontlines of Tripoli and Misrata launched a fresh operation against Haftar’s Libyan National Army. They called the operation “Peace Storm.” This manner to frame aggression as “peaceful” is typical of the current Turkish government. Turkish commanders and Ankara’s intelligence services (MİT) are directing the operation and Haftar’s forces were stunned to see the active participation of Turkish drones. The operation’s main target was the strategically important military base of Okba Ben Nafi, southwest of Tripoli.
Yet those who fiercely rejoiced on the first day of the operation as they took over the base soon had to withdraw from it after losing several locations at once. In a counter-attack, the Libyan National Army seized several locations all the way up to the Tunisian border. The coastal town of Zuwara was besieged from the south. The military base is exactly south of Zuwara. If Zuwara falls, only left as an important intersection on the coastal band. More importantly, Haftar forces seized the Ras Adjir gate at the Tunisian border, thus Tripoli forces no longer have a single connection to Tunisia. According to the Libyan National Army, a Turkish drone (Bayraktar TB2) was shot and downed after taking off from the Airport of Mitiga on March 30. The spokesperson of the LNA Ahmed Al-Mismari claimed missiles were fired from a Turkish war ship to El Agheila on April 1.
In parallel to these developments, the EU introduced an operation named IRINI to monitor the arms embargo against Libya on April 1. Prior to that, the French frigate Provence blocked a Turkish cargo ship on suspicion that it was carrying weapons and air defense systems. This is an adverse development that likely runs counter to Erdoğan’s calculations.
What is more, the mercenaries Turkey brought from Syria to Libya are also being defeated. The number of casualties amongst them has reached 156 in two months. The LNA claimed a figure that was three times as much as that. After their first month fighting, those mercenaries failed to receive the 2,000-dollar salaries Ankara had promised them. They were reported telling their colleagues on the way “not to come.”
As for Syria, Turkey’s so-called ‘Spring Shield Operation’ did not meet its target, and on March 5, Ankara again found itself at the negotiation table with Russia. With this summit, an agreement on the opening of the M-4 road was reached, as well as the forming of a 6-kilometer safe corridor on each side of the road.
Yet the road couldn’t be opened at the date that had been set at the summit. Some of the jihadist groups fed and protected by Erdoğan resist the opening of the road. After a first attempt at conducting a joint Russian-Turkish patrol, one of those jihadist groups opened fire against a Turkish military patrol. The joint patrol was soon abandoned. As of April 1, the Turkish Armed Forces have conducted 11 patrols unilaterally.
Yet despite the summit, a military buildup continues to prevail on the Turkish side. This makes further military confrontations between the Turkish forces and those of Damascus and Moscow inevitable.
The style of Turkey’s operations point to a desire to control Idlib like it controls Afrin. That is, to carve out new areas of influence on Syrian territory and, depending on the course of history, to annex them.
According to data from Syrian Human Rights Observatory, since February 2, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have deployed around 10,000 troops accompanied by 5,490 vehicles including armored vehicles, tanks, armored personnel carriers in Syria. According to open sources, the TSK’s most effective air defense system, the medium ranged Hawk, was deployed on March 27 in Idlib. This system had previously been sent to Libya.
According to a report by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) report, between February 1 and March 31, the number of Turkish troops deployed in Idlib exceeded 20,000.
Now, except for the Turkish military observation points that remain inside the regions controlled by the Syrian army, the new deployment order points out to this very clearly. Within the framework of the Astana agreement, the 12 military observation points set up in greater region of Idlib were given the task of forming “a barrier in to the Syrian Army.” The Islamist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham had accompanied Turkish troops in this enterprise. But with the loss of the M-5 road, this barrier collapsed. Now, the north of M-4 stands out as the new barrier. The different levels of military deployment at certain areas aim at Turkish dominance in the safe corridor in the north of the M-4 highway.
It is clear that Erdoğan is making field arrangements to alter the military balance. He is turning the ceasefire he struck with Putin into an opportunity. In other words, the new buildup strategy contains the preparation of a new war against the Syrian Army.
Yet turning the M-4 into a border would generate serious headaches for Turkey in the medium and long-run. The Turkish armed forces and the militias that accompany them have become a bargaining chip as Turkey’s calculations have gone down the drain. The Astana, Sochi and Moscow agreements all de facto take place between Ankara and Moscow, not between Damascus and Ankara. But in the meantime, Turkey – which imagines itself as the master of the Middle East, as the ruler of the Mediterranean and as leading a new balance of power in the Indian Ocean – has to give its IBAN to collect money to combat the coronavirus.