After two days of failed talks in Moscow that ended Tuesday, 18 February, Syria’s Idlib province has been on high alert. In these talks, Turkey and Russia tried to negotiate a climb down between Damascus and Ankara in the northwest of Syria.
Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that if Syrian forces do not return to their positions prior to February 2020, Turkey would launch a massive attack before the end of February. Already, the Turkish army has been sending reinforcements across the Turkish-Syrian borders. These reinforcements have two aims. The first is to help Syrian rebel groups to hold their lines after they had retreated before the advancing Syrian army, which has successfully regained full control of a highly strategic highway, the M-5, that links Aleppo to Damascus. The second is to advance deeper into Syrian territories if Russia fails to halt the advance of the Syrian army in regaining full control of Idlib province, the last rebel-held enclave in Syria.
Already, skirmishes between the two armies have taken place, and led to the death of several Turkish soldiers.
Last Saturday, 22 February, Erdogan warned that the Turkish army could attack at any moment.
Moscow has been strongly aiding Damascus by using Russian air forces to target rebel groups, inflicting substantial losses on these groups. Sustained Russian air support is a coded message to Ankara that Moscow has not changed its full support for the Syrian government, nor will it sacrifice its entrenched position in Syria for the sake of Turkish interests.
However, the Russians have kept the Turks engaged in diplomatic conversations and contacts in order to discourage Turkey from attacking the Syrian army. It has stressed that Syria is exercising its sovereignty on its territories. Meanwhile, Russia accuses Turkey of failing to honour the Sochi Agreement of September 2018 which committed Ankara to separate Syrian armed groups from terrorist groups, for example, Tahrir Al-Sham, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated previously named Al-Nusra Front group.
It goes without saying that the Turkish president has no interest in going to war with Russia, nor is he interested in creating tensions in his relations with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The two talked over the phone last week after the failure of the Moscow talks 18 February. However, the two sides gave different interpretations of their conversation, in a diplomatic tug of war.
The Turkish warning by Erdogan referred to above means that Moscow has not changed its calculus in Syria, and while its support for Damascus is as strong as ever, it remains keen on cementing relations with Turkey. In this context, the Russians talked about a summit meeting in the Iranian capital, Tehran, for the Astana powers — namely, Russia, Turkey and Iran. Till the time of writing of this article, Ankara had not made its position known. Probably, the Turkish president would prefer to attend such a summit in a stronger position than he is now in northwest Syria. But that is not guaranteed; nor a major military advance by Syrian rebel groups is certain. So, the proposed Tehran summit could provide him with an honourable escape route from his strategic dilemma in Syria which is turning into a bloody quagmire for his policies. Meanwhile, he acknowledged Saturday, 22 February, that Turkey has lost some soldiers in Libya without giving more details. The more his forces are mired in battles, the more body-bags will return to Turkey. His self-made image of invincibility is about to crumble under unsustainable overreach. He probably knows that Russia is his saviour, and not Washington nor NATO.
Attending the Tehran summit could provide him with a face-saving way out.
Erdogan’s balancing act between East and West is quickly approaching a certain demise. And even the four-country summit hurriedly proposed by both Germany and France last week to take place in Istanbul with the Russian and Turkish presidents will not be a diplomatic plus for Erdogan. The summit will not take place unless Putin says he will attend.
His attendance has a price, which is de-escalation on the part of Turkey in northwest Syria. The summit is slated to take place 5 March.
True to this balancing act, the Turks have asked the all-too-eager Americans to provide them with the Patriot anti-aircraft missile system. The US administration is willing to look into the matter. Turkey has said that it needs this weapon system to deny “enemy” aircraft from operating in the skies of northwest Syria. Which “enemy” aircraft? The Russians or the Syrians? Is the Turkish president desperate enough to risk a showdown with Moscow? Downing a second Russian plane, as in 2015, will cost him Russian understanding and cooperation in Syria, to say the least.
The Turkish president is about to begin the process of calculating his losses. The strongman who could help him execute a face-saving retreat from the brink is not the US President Donald Trump, but rather Russia’s Putin.
The illiberal demagogue, as The Washington Post has rightly called Erdogan, has overplayed his cards.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly