A Turkish soldier was killed and four more were wounded in northeast Syria on Saturday, delivering another blow to the so-called “Peace Spring” operation that Ankara launched in October. A week earlier, seven Turkish soldiers and a Turkish civil contractor were killed in an artillery attack in Idlib by Syrian government forces. Back home, skyrocketing prices and taxes are wreaking attrition on people’s pocketbooks, to support their government’s military adventures in Syria and elsewhere.
Today, after all the resources that Ankara poured into the Syrian quagmire, Russian-backed Damascus — as even pro-government Turkish news sites acknowledge — appears to be on the verge of ending the conflict in its favour. On Sunday, it was reported that government forces succeeded in seizing dozens of towns, villages and hilltops in southern Aleppo province, regaining control over more than 600 km2 of territory in addition to the strategic Aleppo-Damascus highway. Further, Turkish observation points in northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces are surrounded, raising the spectre of a direct confrontation between Turkish and Syrian government forces. In the event of such a geopolitical crisis, Turkey, as an invading and occupying power backing rebel militia, would be standing on feeble moral ground as Russian officials have indicated when they defended Damascus, saying that you cannot blame a government for fighting terrorists inside its borders.
No stranger to brinkmanship, Erdogan gave Bashar Al-Assad’s regime a deadline until the end of February to move its forces behind the Turkish observation forces. If not, “Turkey will be obliged to do the job itself,” he warned, adding that Turkey will deploy the Hisar-A missile defence system.
The Syrian regime’s response to the ultimatum came the same day, 5 February. Government forces captured the strategic city of Saraqib, cutting off three observation posts the Turkish army established there, precisely in order to forestall this advance.
So, what is the point of all those threats to respond in force against any attack against its observation points in Idlib? What is the point of sending in more artillery and commandos, if it cannot follow through on its threats? Is it all bravado for local consumption against the backdrop of the ruling party’s declining popularity? Is it a roundabout way of begging Al-Assad to adhere to the understandings reached between Turkish Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan and Syrian National Security Chief Ali Mamlouk during their recent meeting in Moscow? Evidently Mamlouk, during that meeting, agreed not to attack the beleaguered Turkish checkpoints.
Finding its hands tied and unable to avenge its dead soldiers, Ankara could only vent its anger against Russia. Given that the vast majority of Turkish media are at the beck and call of the presidential palace, it was no coincidence to hear a sudden surge of anti-Russian sentiment and criticism of President Vladimir Putin aired on Turkish talk shows.
On the other hand, Putin had reportedly kept his Turkish counterpart on hold for a long time before answering a recent phone call from Ankara. According to the Russian press, Moscow holds Ankara responsible for the attacks by Turkish-backed militants against Syrian government forces and Russian military structures in “Turkish zones of responsibility.” To drive the point home, Dmitry Peskov said, last Thursday, that there were no plans for a meeting between Putin and Erdogan to reduce tensions in Idlib, but that such a meeting could be arranged quickly if necessary.
That same day, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey expected Russia to immediately stop Syrian regime attacks in Idlib. “Our patience is wearing thin,” he warned, stressing that Turkey would respond to any attacks by Syrian government forces. Nevertheless, the diplomat took care to mollify his tone. Turkey needed to work with Moscow to solve the problems in the region, he said.
Indeed, a scheduled meeting between a Russian delegation and their Turkish counterparts went ahead as planned on Sunday in Ankara. However, the talks were inconclusive and the participants agreed to meet again next week. Observers described this as a form of dramatic pause before the Kremlin once again spells out Ankara’s responsibilities under the terms of the Astana and Sochi agreements.
Meanwhile, the Erdogan regime’s web of nepotism and cronyism appears to have extended to Idlib. The opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper exposed a clash of views between Erdogan and Turkish army command over the construction of the last Turkish observation post in Idlib. The army command wanted to undertake the task, but former military adviser to the president, Adnan Tanriverdi, was closer to Erdogan’s ears and persuaded him to hand the contract to Sadat, a private security company founded by Tanriverdi. Sadat is the Turkish version of the America’s Blackwater and Russia’s Wagner companies. Billing itself as an international defence consultancy, Sadat offers conventional, unconventional and special forces military training and ordinance procurement. The connection between its founder, Tanriverdi and Erdogan, is believed to date back to the 1990s and some claim that it was no coincidence that Erdogan appointed him to his cabinet in the immediate aftermath of the July 2016 “coup attempt”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.