Last week, residents of Ankara’s tranquil Mesnevi neighbourhood awoke to find their usually calm streets swarming with unusual military activity that by the end of the day had turned their neighbourhood into something akin to a military camp. Had Mesnevi suddenly been transported to Diyarbakir or Mardin, they must have wondered.
As it eventually became clear, the armoured vehicles and barricades were concentrated around the Russian embassy. The reason: the frenzy of anti-Russian sentiment whipped up by the pro-government Turkish media against the backdrop of developments in Idlib in northern Syria.
“The Turkish authorities have taken additional security measures to protect the Russian Embassy in Ankara after Ambassador Alexei Yerkhov said that he had faced threats as part of growing anti-Russian sentiment in Turkey over the escalation of violence in Syria’s north-western Idlib province,” embassy Spokeswoman Irina Kasimova was cited as saying by the Russian Sputnik news agency last Friday.
Addressing the surge in anti-Russian “hysteria” in an interview with the agency, Yerkhov recounted some of the threats his embassy has received, including “say goodbye to life,” “no one will mourn you,” and “it’s time for you to burn.”
In a subsequent interview he said that “those who write [such threats] may not be fully aware of it, but they are starting a chain reaction of xenophobia, anger and hatred which can find a real-world manifestation. Many experts have recalled that the information and propaganda situation emerging in recent days is reminiscent of the one which reigned five years ago, and we all remember how that ended.”
This was a reference to the murder of Yerkhov’s predecessor, Andrei Karlov, in 2016 against the backdrop of the crisis in Russian-Turkish relations after Turkey downed a Russian aircraft over Syria.
Mesnevi residents, the majority of whom support the opposition Republic People’s Party (CHP), pointed the finger at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in Turkey. Many of their tweets not only blamed it for drumming up the hysteria, but also for having dragged their country into the predicament in Idlib to begin with. Some, joined by political observers, predicted that the developments in Idlib marked the beginning of the end of Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan’s ambitions in Syria, where Syrian government forces, backed by Russia, have been steadily reasserting Damascus’s control over most of the country’s territory.
Turkey was looking for more Russian understanding in Idlib, Andrei Chuprygin, a senior lecturer at the School of Oriental Studies at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
“In my view, Turkey’s activities in Idlib are akin to a nervous reaction to Erdogan’s failures in other areas, particularly in Libya and efforts to resolve the Syrian refugee dilemma in Turkey. He promised the moon to his voters but fulfilled few of them. Erdogan said he would resettle refugees in Syrian safety zones, but it was clear from the start that it was impossible. So now he is looking for someone to blame,” Chuprygin said.
Not surprisingly, the municipal authorities in Istanbul have torn down posters of a heroic-looking Russian President Vladimir Putin that once peered over the famous Istiklal Boulevard. The image jarred with the propaganda campaign against the Kremlin in part to drum up the fervour of the AKP’s ultranationalist and Islamist supporters and in part to cover up the failure of the government’s adventurism in Syria.
As journalist Çetin Gürer pointed out beneath the headline, “Horses run, Soldiers die, Kings rule,” on the Turkish AhvalNews site, “Erdogan is taking every sort of risk in order not to return empty-handed from Syria. Because he knows that with nothing to show, the average citizens who supported him will start to ask, ‘if there was nothing to be gained from this, why did so many soldiers have to die? Why did so much money have to be poured into it? Why did we have to grieve so much?’ Public support for him will then deteriorate further.”
These risks, Gürer added, would be “Erdogan’s last throes in his quagmire of despair.”
This explains Erdogan’s fervent support for the Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) in its offensive against Syrian government forces in Kafr Halab last Sunday. The HTS, formerly the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, sent in a suicide bomber and then stormed the strategic position beneath heavy artillery fire using newly arrived shipments of heavy weaponry from Turkey, including US-made anti-aircraft guns.
HTS leader Abu Mohamed A-Julani, designated in the US as a “global terrorist” with a $10 million bounty on his head, lauded the Turkish military presence in Idlib and said he would use it to the advantage of his group.
Such reports, which officials in Ankara have not been able to deny, have led Russian officials to say that they are deeply troubled by the fact that rebel “terrorists” in Syria have come into the possession of sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons that may have been used to down two Syrian army helicopters. Voicing its concerns over the Turkish support for such groups, Moscow reiterated its accusations that Turkey had failed to abide by its commitments under the agreements it signed in Astana and Sochi in 2018 and 2019.
The Russians are not alone in expressing such concerns. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a partner in the Astana Process and an Erdogan ally, said that Turkey needed to respect all agreements relating to Syria. Describing the “important agreement” that had emerged from Sochi as a successful peace-making model, Rouhani added that he hoped Erdogan “will fight terrorism and respect Syria’s territorial unity and sovereignty.”
Erdogan continues to insist on keeping Turkish forces in Idlib in order “to guarantee stability” there, whereas the Turkish intervention has been a major cause of the prolongation of the conflict and instability. “We will stay in Idlib to limit conflict and prevent a humanitarian disaster,” he said, whereas the reverse has resulted. Tensions have risen, military clashes have increased and humanitarian crises continue to unfold.
Erdogan claims that the Turkish army is there to protect the Turkish borders, even though Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces have never threatened these borders, which have long been the source of the influx of jihadist recruits into Turkish-backed militias. Erdogan has said he wants to prevent a new wave of refugees, whereas already more than 700,000 people have been displaced and have headed towards the Turkish border.
The situation in Idlib is growing worse for Erdogan by the day. Russian officials have cautioned Ankara against taking reckless actions in Syria, adding the reminder that the Turkish military presence there is illegitimate. They have also made it clear that the Kremlin’s patience is wearing thin, and the frequent reminders in the Russian press of the crisis in Russian-Turkish relations in the wake of Turkey’s downing of a Russian Su-24 over Syria are meant to drive the point home.
Evidently, the powers that be in Ankara are unable to face these awkward truths, let alone utter them openly. The fact is that Turkish forces are bogged down in Idlib. The Turkish observation points there and the Turkish soldiers in them are surrounded, and because of the intermeshing between Syrian government and Russian forces, their hands are bound.
Erdogan has threatened tough action, but it is difficult to see him coming through on this threat without some backing from the US or other NATO countries, which analysts agree is unlikely to be forthcoming.
The question now remains: when Erdogan is in a corner, what will he do next?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.