Turkey needs international support for new Idlib plan
The Syrian army on Friday attacked a Turkish army detachment in Idlib, killing 33 soldiers and wounding another 32. After the attack, statements by Turkish officials avoided directly accusing Russia, but both the pro-government newspapers and the remainder of the Turkish media insisted that such an operation could not have been carried out without Moscow’s acquiescence. The Russian Defense Ministry released a conciliatory statement saying that the attack was not carried out by its air force.
Turkish authorities point out that Russia was informed beforehand that the Turkish detachment was at the location where the attack took place. The Kremlin does not deny this, but says they were not supposed to be there. This means that Moscow does not want the Turkish soldiers to be deployed outside the areas designated for them. The Russian authorities further say that Syrian intelligence received information that terrorists were preparing an attack against its army and that it decided to carry out a pre-emptive attack. This claim insinuates that the Turkish army was cooperating with the terrorists.
Despite efforts made by both Turkish and Russian authorities not to directly accuse each other, mutual confidence seems to be bruised.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar released the inventory of the attacks carried out against the Syrian army: 200 Syrian military targets hit, 329 Syrian soldiers “neutralized,” 23 tanks destroyed, and five trucks and three ammunition stores hit.
After the attack, Turkey called an emergency NATO meeting. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg generously praised Turkey as a very important member of the alliance and said it would continue to support Ankara if Syria attacked it. In practice, this means that NATO is not willing to take part in any operation to be carried out by Turkey within Syrian territory.
Turkey’s relations with NATO have faced several setbacks, including when Ankara decided to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system. The US Congress went as far as imposing sanctions on Turkey because of this purchase. In such an atmosphere, there is little hope that Ankara will be supported wholeheartedly by its NATO allies. On the contrary, they may be tempted to use the present situation to press Turkey to give up its deployment of the S-400.
On Friday, Erdogan spoke to several leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, to explain what Turkey had in mind as a solution for the Idlib question. The details of these conversations were not released, but they must have demonstrated the complexity of the Idlib imbroglio. We do not know whether any of the leaders asked for concessions from Erdogan in exchange for supporting Turkey’s proposal.
A quadrilateral summit had been scheduled for Thursday in Istanbul, with the participation of Putin, Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Saturday said that no talks have been scheduled between Putin and Erdogan for that date. After Erdogan’s phone call with Putin on Friday, news was leaked from the Turkish presidential office that a meeting might take place this week. There is no confirmation of participation by Merkel and Macron. It is not surprising to see, in such a tense atmosphere, that news changes from one day to the next.
There is little hope that Ankara will be supported wholeheartedly by its NATO allies
Many political parties in Turkey — including the main opposition Republican People’s Party, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the IYI Party — have for years criticized the government’s Syria policy. But, after last week’s attack, all of them, with the exception of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, demonstrated strong solidarity with the government. This may help Erdogan to negotiate with the leaders of other countries from a position of strength.
The main bargaining will probably take place between Turkey and Russia. On the day of the attack, a Russian delegation had concluded its third round of negotiations in Ankara. But, after the news of the attack broke, the delegation held another meeting with its Turkish hosts. The deadlock could not be overcome in this additional session, and the delegations decided to report to their respective presidents.
Turkey has proposed an immediate and sustainable cease-fire in Idlib and the establishment of a no-fly zone. Erdogan must be raising this issue with the leaders he is talking to. The idea looks feasible, but it remains to be seen whether Turkey will be able to persuade Russia to support it and gather sufficient backing from other countries, especially with the current isolated situation it finds itself in. If not, the Idlib question may remain unanswered for a long time.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar