Erdogan determined to achieve goals in Syria despite setbacks

Erdogan determined to achieve goals in Syria despite setbacks

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in Moscow, March 5, 2020. (Reuters)

The last fortnight has been particularly trying for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At the end of February, his troops in the Idlib area were subjected to heavy bombardment by Russian-backed Syrian forces, in which about 40 soldiers were killed. Erdogan responded by dispatching several thousand troops to the Idlib front. 

Here, they came face-to-face with Syrian government forces, which, with Moscow’s help, have been steadily expanding their control over the Idlib countryside. Turkey’s observation posts on the north-south M5 highway from Aleppo to Damascus were completely surrounded by Syrian forces. Direct conflict between Turkey and Syria thus became a distinct possibility.

Desperate to obtain domestic support after the soldiers’ deaths, Erdogan announced on March 1 that “Operation Spring Shield” had been launched against Syria and that heavy losses had been inflicted on Bashar Assad’s forces — over 2,000 soldiers, including three generals, killed and more than 100 tanks destroyed, along with several air defense systems. These claims were later rejected by the Russians as gross exaggerations.

To avoid further escalation, what Erdogan desperately needed in early March was a quick cease-fire arranged by Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is because the president’s Idlib policy enjoys little domestic support and further Turkish casualties would only increase opposition at home. Putin invited Erdogan to Moscow on March 5, when they finalized an “additional protocol” to the 2018 Sochi agreement, with a cease-fire coming into effect that night. The details of the agreement were finalized between the Russian and Turkish defense ministers in Ankara last Friday.

The agreement provides for a security corridor of six kilometers either side of a portion of the east-west M4 highway near Idlib, which is being patrolled jointly by Russian and Turkish personnel. This is very far from Erdogan’s demand that Syrian forces go back to their lines of September 2018, thus relinquishing the 2,000 square kilometers they have since occupied in their operations against the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA). 

The agreement also makes no mention of the M5 highway, which will remain under Syrian control and provide the government with a valuable economic lifeline. Turkish observation posts are expected to be quietly dismantled.

It is also silent on the fate of the extremist fighters, mainly from Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which are said to be holed up in Idlib. Under the Sochi agreement, Turkey had agreed to separate the “moderates” from the extremists and then initiate military action against the latter. Instead, Erdogan decided to co-opt HTS militants into the SNA by declaring them to be moderates. The refusal of the HTS elements to accept the Turkish game plan has been at the heart of the Russian-Turkish differences in Syria, which nearly culminated in conflict between them in early March. Now, Turkey will have to implement its commitments under the Sochi agreement and join Syria and Russia in war against the HTS and other radicals in Idlib.

Still, Erdogan does not seem to have accepted the setbacks his Idlib policies have suffered. He is attempting to strengthen his hand by getting support from the EU and the US, both of which he has scorned, while expanding political, economic and defense ties with Russia. 

He is seeking to get the EU onto his side in Syria by encouraging the Syrian refugees in Turkey to cross over into Greece. He is thus deliberately creating a refugee crisis for Europe and is now demanding greater financial support if he is to keep the refugees in Turkey. So far, EU leaders have shown no enthusiasm for Erdogan’s attempts to intimidate them into supporting him.

To placate the US, he has asked that the supply of Patriot missile systems be revived. This supply had been blocked by the Americans when Turkey opted to buy the S-400 missile system from Russia. Erdogan recently told Turkish journalists that the US could be “softening” its position, but he was quickly disabused by the US Department of Defense, which said that the Patriots would only be supplied if the S-400 system was returned to Russia. This is unlikely: The S-400 system has been tested in Turkey and is likely to be pressed into service next month.

So far, EU leaders have shown no enthusiasm for Erdogan’s attempts to intimidate them into supporting him.

Talmiz Ahmad

Finally, Erdogan has attempted to obtain domestic backing for his Syria policy by bringing in the Kurds — a useful target for Turkish public opinion. He recently revealed to the Turkish media his proposal to Putin to deprive the Syrian Kurds of their control of the oil fields at Qamishli and Deir Ezzor and use the money from oil sales to fund construction projects in Syria by Turkish companies. He added that Trump would be withdrawing US troops from the oil fields, thus facilitating the Turkish plan. Turkish commentators believe this proposal is far-fetched and unlikely to find favor with Syria, the Kurds or the US. But it does reveal Erdogan’s intention to pursue his policies in Syria despite the serious setbacks he has suffered. The cease-fire agreement is expected to have a very short life.

  • Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies at the Symbiosis International University, in Pune, India.
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