By Galip Dalay
Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib is experiencing a deepening humanitarian disaster. Because the Russia-backed Syrian regime pushes to retake this final main enclave of the Syrian opposition, lots of of 1000’s of individuals have fled in direction of Turkey’s borders. In line with the United Nations, 700,000 folks have fled Idlib since December 1.
As the principle backer of the opposition in Syria, Ankara has desperately tried to persuade Moscow to halt the Syrian regime’s offensive, however to little avail. Aggravating the matter, the Syrian regime killed 13 Turkish troopers in two lethal Russia-backed assaults previously week.
These developments distinction with the rising image of Turkish-Russian relations in the previous couple of years, which have been quick enhancing (drawing a lot worldwide scrutiny). Certainly, that relationship has led many within the West to imagine that Turkey is shifting additional away from the West and nearer to Russia. A lot to the dismay of its NATO allies, Turkey’s buy of Russia’s refined S-400 missile system has additional contributed into this notion. The acquisition was the end result of a cooperative course of that was born inside the context of the Syrian imbroglio. Whereas variations between the U.S. and Turkey over the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), significantly in northeastern Syria, drove them aside, Russian acquiescence to Turkey’s army operations towards the SDF in northwestern Syria introduced them nearer.
Subsequently, the glue of Moscow-Ankara relations was Syria — to be extra exact, the Syrian Kurds. Moreover, the 2 nations’ cooperation on Syria has grow to be extra structured via Russian-led Astana and Sochi processes for the reason that finish of 2016. These Syria-focused processes didn’t solely search to discover a settlement for the Syrian disaster, in addition they reshaped Turkish-Russian relations.
Nonetheless, Turkish and Russian positions across the bigger Syria difficulty, together with their visions for the endgame for that nation’s disaster, have remained starkly totally different. Whereas Russia and its accomplice in Damascus lengthy centered on successful the civil warfare in different elements of Syria, the latest onslaught on Idlib has shed daylight on Russian-Turkish variations and uncovered the boundaries of their cooperation.
Past Syria, the strategic aspirations of Turkey and Russia, respectively, stay aggressive in virtually all of their shared neighborhood. The connection is characterised by distrust, not geopolitical convergence. As such, cooperative relations have confronted a built-in restrict from the beginning. Political expediency, realism, and shared discontent in direction of the West may need been sufficient to provoke this cooperation, however not ample to really carry Turkey and Russia collectively, geopolitically.
For Turkey, the state of affairs will get worse and worse
The disaster in Idlib happens at a time when Turkey’s authorities is already going through home backlash over the presence of round 3.5 thousands and thousands Syrian refugees. As such, it’ll resist new waves of refugees, doing its utmost to maintain the folks fleeing Idlib on the Syrian aspect of the border. But given the unfolding humanitarian disaster and hard winter situations, Turkey’s sturdy resistance to just accept new folks will include ethical and political prices — additional contributing to the Ankara’s worsening worldwide picture.
As well as, the pressure in Turkish-Western relations is additional deepening Turkey’s vulnerabilities. Turkey’s fast-improving relations with Russia in recent times have alienated Ankara’s Western allies, significantly the U.S. On the matter of Idlib, Turkey desires extra strong Western help — both to cease the Russian-Syrian onslaught or to reduce its results. U.S. officers have been providing rhetorical help to Turkey, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned throughout a go to to Turkey in late January that Germany and Europe will assist with extra monetary help for Turkey to take care of the rising refugee disaster. However at this stage, this is perhaps the utmost degree of help that Turkey can count on from the West.
It is usually doubtless that the U.S. sees a possibility in Turkey’s predicament in Syria. The U.S. is prone to push Turkey both to conform to some type of modus vivendi with the largely Kurdish-run SDF, towards which Turkey launched a army incursion in northeastern Syria a number of months in the past, or some concession on the S-400 missile system that Turkey bought from Russia. Nevertheless, given the present home political image in Turkey, little if any progress on both entrance may be anticipated, until Ankara-Moscow relations enter a extra conflictual section. As of now, Turkey remains to be attempting to diplomatically resolve its tensions with Russia.
In the meantime, Turkey’s place in Idlib continues to worsen. Syrian regime forces have taken over the strategic city of Maaret al-Numan, on the necessary M-5 freeway that connects Damascus to Aleppo, and entered the rebel-held Saraqeb metropolis, regaining management over key M-Four and M-5 highways. With the regime’s territorial advances, various Turkey’s army statement posts (seven, as of Tuesday) are successfully coming below the regime’s management.
Acutely aware of its unpalatable decisions, Ankara reached out to Moscow to push for a ceasefire. But, regardless of Turkey’s repeated efforts to stop the army onslaught on Idlib, Russia has supported the Syrian regime in its offensive there. Even worse, Russia is arguing that Turkey has didn’t ship on its September 2018 dedication (below a bilateral deal whereby Turkey was imagined to strain average opposition teams in Idlib to separate from the unconventional ones resembling Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) to do away with the extremist forces in Idlib. Therefore, Moscow is totally on board with the regime’s offensive.
Ominously, because the latest killing of Turkish troopers illustrates, the state of affairs in Idlib can shortly get out of hand — what is basically a proxy warfare might grow to be a direct army confrontation between Turkey and the Syrian regime. In reality, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened a army strike anyplace, together with utilizing air energy, if another Turkish soldier is focused.
At this stage, Turkey’s finest hope is to freeze the disaster till a political course of in Syria begins, at which level Turkey hopes to leverage its army presence for political concessions. To Ankara’s chagrin, Moscow has to this point ignored Turkey’s such calls for.
With all of this as context, under are some eventualities to think about:
- Escalation. Turkey might search to additional drive up the prices for Russia and the Syrian regime. In some methods, Turkey is already doing this by sending heavy weapons — together with tanks, armored automobiles, and howitzers — to Idlib and by facilitating the reinforcement of the opposition. Erdoğan’s threats and this army reinforcement — Ankara’s try at deterrence — haven’t produced tangible outcomes for Turkey, since Damascus believes it has the army momentum and is continuous its offensive. Turkey might select to grow to be extra disruptive in its relations with Russia, past the Idlib difficulty.
- Negotiation. Turkey might search a brand new association with Russia on Idlib or an up to date Astana deal. That is the almost certainly course for Syria, as it will additionally salvage Turkish-Russian relations. This could doubtless imply that Ankara and Moscow would reduce a deal on a Turkey-controlled buffer zone on the Syrian aspect of the Turkish-Syrian border (most likely coordinated with the Russians) for folks fleeing the humanitarian disaster. In reality, Turkish Protection Minister Hulusi Akar has already known as for the creation of a “secure zone” for folks leaving Idlib. On this case, Turkey would then doubtless interact with Europeans to fund, not less than partially, the price of this zone. This might, for a time not less than, deal with issues over a doable new wave of refugees. Nevertheless, this buffer zone dangers turning into a “no man’s land” down the street: Since Damascus is extra excited about controlling the strategic places in Idlib (moderately than its folks, whom it regards because the enemy anyway), it will be blissful to see the folks there grow to be Turkey’s drawback. To place it otherwise, such a deal would give Damascus a lot of the strategic places that it covets, ship the projected buffer zone for refugees fleeing from Idlib (to fulfill Turkey), and provides a diplomatic victory to Russia.
- Outreach to the West. If Turkey chooses to play a extra disruptive position vis-à-vis Russia, it might attain out to the U.S., which to a level is already taking place. In reality, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has shared a number of tweets wherein he was strongly supportive of Turkey’s place on Idlib. He additionally mentioned that he dispatched the U.S. particular envoy for Syria James Jeffrey to coordinate steps, with Turkey, to reply to the Russian-Syrian assaults. How these statements will translate into motion is but to be seen. The U.S. might strike sure regime targets the east of the Euphrates, the place Russia’s place is comparatively weak, or elsewhere; it might additionally present extra army help to the Syrian opposition or coordinate additional sanctions on the Syrian regime. Primarily, the U.S. and Turkey can take steps to drive up the price of the Idlib offensive for Russia and the Syrian regime. Nevertheless, Turkish outreach to the U.S. would in flip require some robust selections on its coverage in direction of the Syrian Kurds or on the matter of the S-400 missile system. Turkey is unlikely to offer on both of those issues. On this regard, U.S. help for Turkey will doubtless solely be rhetorical at this stage.
Turkish-Russian relations will doubtless survive this newest spherical of pressure over Idlib. Each side have an excessive amount of to lose, together with lack of leverage in the course of the political course of on Syria, from breaking off their relationship.
Nevertheless, this newest feud will nonetheless have an effect on their relationship, and divulges actual dilemmas in Turkish overseas coverage. Within the close to time period, Turkey must create a safe zone for the folks fleeing the deepening humanitarian disaster in Idlib. On the identical time, Ankara ought to reassess its hard-line, zero-sum strategy to the Syrian Kurds. The contradiction is one which Ankara should deal with.
On the identical time, Ankara must redress the imbalance in its relations with Russia and the West by re-strengthening its Western ties. In any other case, as has been the case in recent times, Turkey’s fixed fluctuation between Russia and the West will solely deepen its woes in its overseas and safety coverage.