Earlier this month Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Turkey “will strike regime forces everywhere” and “do whatever is necessary”, regardless of the 2018 demilitarisation zone deal, if Syrian government forces did not pull back behind Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of February 2020. Syrian forces continue to advance on the ground and the deadline is about to end yet few observers think Erdogan will act on his threats.
Erdogan’s call for a meeting with his Russian, French and German counterparts seems to bear out such an assessment. “I expressed our resolve clearly to [Vladimir] Putin yesterday. I also mentioned it to [Angela] Merkel and [Emmanuel] Macron,” Erdogan said on Saturday, adding that he would be meeting with the three leaders on 5 March in Istanbul. Though the Kremlin has given no indication that Russia has agreed to the four-way summit it is unlikely Erdogan will risk any action in Syria before that date.
As he watches Damascus assert full control over Aleppo, Aleppo international airport reopen, traffic return to normal on the Aleppo-Damascus highway and his Syrian aspirations evaporate like a desert mirage Erdogan is growing desperate. So desperate that he has turned to Washington to ask for an urgent shipment of Patriot missile batteries, though Washington is still smarting from Erdogan’s stinging criticisms and accusations that it booted Turkey off the Pentagon’s F-35 programme simply because Ankara had purchased a consignment of Russian S-400s. Turkish social media has had a field day with this, not least because, as one Twitter user put it, even presuming Washington does agree, which is unlikely, by the time the Patriots are shipped and installed Bashar Al-Assad will be in control of the whole of Syria.
Twitter users have also had a good time with Erdogan’s attempts to blame others for the situation in Idlib and deflect any responsibility from himself. Last weekend his director of communications, Fahrettin Altun, said Russia’s support for Al-Assad was responsible for the worsening humanitarian situation in Idlib. Obliquely referring to the Russian charge that Turkey was not doing enough to keep terrorist groups in its area of responsibility under control, Altun said that Turkey was resolute in its fight against terrorists in Syria, a comment that elicited many raised eyebrows and exclamation marks.
Barely 48 hours after Erdogan’s weekend appeals to Putin, Macron and Merkel and his reiterated demand that Russia restrain Syrian government forces in Idlib, Russian warplanes carried out strikes against Al-Mastouma in southern Idlib, which neighbours a Turkish camp. Observers interpreted this as a sign of Moscow’s determination to do the job that Ankara has so far failed to do, which is to restrain Turkish-backed jihadists. According to media reports the missile bombardment ranged as far as Gabal Al-Zawiya. Damascus sent in heavy troop and artillery reinforcements to Kafr Sijnah, which is situated on the same strategic axis.
On the same day, 23 February, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “Naturally, offensive actions by the terrorists could not remain unanswered. The Syrian military, being in their own country, on their territory, naturally responded.”
Speaking in an interview with Rossiya-24 TV, Peskov added: “We can clearly say that the conditions of the Sochi accords that stated that Turkey would have to ensure demarcation, withdrawal of heavy weapons and so on, which were signed by the two presidents more than a year ago, have not yet been fulfilled… Very dangerous types of military equipment fall into [the terrorists’] hands. And all this, unfortunately, does not contribute to the normalisation of the situation.”
While implicitly blaming Turkey for the weapons transfers, Peskov nevertheless softened his message. Cautioning against “gloomy” prognoses and “negative scenarios” concerning Russian-Turkish relations, he said: “Thank God, both our militaries, Russian and Turkish, are in constant contact, and, as we see, when necessary our presidents join in discussions of this topic.”
In case Erdogan missed the message Putin provided a reminder the same evening. The Russian military had thwarted major threats to the country by defeating terrorists in Syria he said at a celebration to commemorate Defender of the Fatherland Day on Sunday. “They destroyed large well-equipped terrorist groups, prevented major long range threats to our country and helped the Syrians to defend their sovereignty.”
As the walls in Idlib closed in on Erdogan’s Syrian dream an earthquake struck Turkey, drawing attention to the Erdogan government’s shambolic performance. The epicentre of the magnitude 5.7 quake was near the border of Iran. It killed nine people, including four children, and wounded 37, eight of them critically, in southeast Turkey, and caused more than 1,000 buildings to collapse. The tremour was felt 90 kilometres to the west in Van. Coming on the back of several earlier earthquakes, the latest has triggered angry questions about what exactly the government authorities are doing with the billions of dollars that have been collected since Ankara introduced a permanent “earthquake tax” in 2004.
Evidently disasters come in threes, because the situation is not going well for Erdogan in Libya either. The Libyan National Army claims it has killed 16 of the 35 soldiers that Turkey officially sent to Libya to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). The figure does not include the hundred or so Syrian mercenaries that the Libyan National Army claims to have killed as well. Erdogan, who has acknowledged that there have been “martyrs”, seemed eager to pre-empt his critics when he said his country is “facing new traps” and that his Syrian and Libyan policies were “not an adventure”. He added: “Every struggle that we avoid today in Syria, Libya, the Mediterranean and our region will come back to us tomorrow to exact a heavier toll.”
The majority of Turkish citizens, reeling under rising taxes, utility price hikes and double-digit inflation would probably respond, if given a chance, that they are already paying a very heavy toll.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.