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Internally displaced Syrians from western Aleppo countryside, ride on the back of a truck with belongings in Hazano near Idlib, Syria, February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Order from Chaos

Turkey’s unpalatable choices in Syria

Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib is experiencing a deepening humanitarian crisis. As the Russia-backed Syrian regime pushes to retake this last major enclave of the Syrian opposition, hundreds of thousands of people have fled towards Turkey’s borders. According to the United Nations, 700,000 people have fled Idlib since December 1.

As the main backer of the opposition in Syria, Ankara has desperately tried to convince Moscow to halt the Syrian regime’s offensive, but to little avail. Aggravating the matter, the Syrian regime killed 13 Turkish soldiers in two deadly Russia-backed attacks in the past week.

These developments contrast with the emerging picture of Turkish-Russian relations in the last few years, which were fast improving (drawing much international scrutiny). Indeed, that relationship has led many in the West to believe that Turkey is moving further away from the West and closer to Russia. Much to the dismay of its NATO allies, Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s sophisticated S-400 missile system has further contributed into this perception. The purchase was the outcome of a cooperative process that was born within the context of the Syrian imbroglio. Whereas differences between the U.S. and Turkey over the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), particularly in northeastern Syria, drove them apart, Russian acquiescence to Turkey’s military operations against the SDF in northwestern Syria brought them closer.

Therefore, the glue of Moscow-Ankara relations was Syria — to be more precise, the Syrian Kurds. Furthermore, the two countries’ cooperation on Syria has become more structured through Russian-led Astana and Sochi processes since the end of 2016. These Syria-focused processes didn’t only seek to find a settlement for the Syrian crisis, they also reshaped Turkish-Russian relations.

Nonetheless, Turkish and Russian positions around the larger Syria issue, including their visions for the endgame for that country’s crisis, have remained starkly different. While Russia and its partner in Damascus long focused on winning the civil war in other parts of Syria, the recent onslaught on Idlib has shed daylight on Russian-Turkish differences and exposed the limits of their cooperation.

Beyond Syria, the strategic aspirations of Turkey and Russia, respectively, remain competitive in almost all of their shared neighborhood. The relationship is characterized by mistrust, not geopolitical convergence. As such, cooperative relations have faced a built-in limit from the start. Political expediency, realism, and shared discontent towards the West might have been enough to initiate this cooperation, but not sufficient to truly bring Turkey and Russia together, geopolitically.

For Turkey, the situation gets worse and worse

The crisis in Idlib occurs at a time when Turkey’s government is already facing domestic backlash over the presence of around 3.5 millions Syrian refugees. As such, it will resist new waves of refugees, doing its utmost to keep the people fleeing Idlib on the Syrian side of the border. Yet given the unfolding humanitarian crisis and tough winter conditions, Turkey’s strong resistance to accept new people will come with moral and political costs — further contributing to the Ankara’s worsening international image.

In addition, the strain in Turkish-Western relations is further deepening Turkey’s vulnerabilities. Turkey’s fast-improving relations with Russia in recent years have alienated Ankara’s Western allies, particularly the U.S. On the matter of Idlib, Turkey wants more robust Western support — either to stop the Russian-Syrian onslaught or to minimize its effects. U.S. officials have been offering rhetorical support to Turkey, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a visit to Turkey in late January that Germany and Europe will help with more financial aid for Turkey to deal with the growing refugee crisis. But at this stage, this might be the maximum level of support that Turkey can expect from the West.

It is also likely that the U.S. sees an opportunity in Turkey’s predicament in Syria. The U.S. is likely to push Turkey either to agree to some form of modus vivendi with the largely Kurdish-run SDF, against which Turkey launched a military incursion in northeastern Syria a few months ago, or some concession on the S-400 missile system that Turkey purchased from Russia. However, given the current domestic political picture in Turkey, little if any progress on either front can be expected, unless Ankara-Moscow relations enter a more conflictual phase. As of now, Turkey is still trying to diplomatically resolve its tensions with Russia.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s position in Idlib continues to worsen. Syrian regime forces have taken over the strategic town of Maaret al-Numan, on the important M-5 highway that connects Damascus to Aleppo, and entered the rebel-held Saraqeb city, regaining control over key M-4 and M-5 highways. With the regime’s territorial advances, a number of Turkey’s military observation posts (seven, as of Tuesday) are effectively coming under the regime’s control.

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Conscious of its unpalatable choices, Ankara reached out to Moscow to push for a ceasefire. Yet, despite Turkey’s repeated efforts to prevent the military onslaught on Idlib, Russia has supported the Syrian regime in its offensive there. Even worse, Russia is arguing that Turkey has failed to deliver on its September 2018 commitment (under a bilateral deal whereby Turkey was supposed to pressure moderate opposition groups in Idlib to separate from the radical ones such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) to get rid of the extremist forces in Idlib. Hence, Moscow is fully on board with the regime’s offensive.

Ominously, as the recent killing of Turkish soldiers illustrates, the situation in Idlib can quickly get out of hand — what is essentially a proxy war could become a direct military confrontation between Turkey and the Syrian regime. In fact, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened a military strike anywhere, including using air power, if one more Turkish soldier is targeted.

At this stage, Turkey’s best hope is to freeze the crisis until a political process in Syria starts, at which point Turkey hopes to leverage its military presence for political concessions. To Ankara’s chagrin, Moscow has thus far ignored Turkey’s such demands.

Turkey’s choices

With all of this as context, below are some scenarios to consider:

  1. Escalation. Turkey could seek to further drive up the costs for Russia and the Syrian regime. In some ways, Turkey is already doing this by sending heavy weapons — including tanks, armored vehicles, and howitzers — to Idlib and by facilitating the reinforcement of the opposition. Erdoğan’s threats and this military reinforcement — Ankara’s attempt at deterrence — haven’t produced tangible results for Turkey, since Damascus believes it has the military momentum and is continuing its offensive. Turkey could choose to become more disruptive in its relations with Russia, beyond the Idlib issue.
  2. Negotiation. Turkey could seek a new arrangement with Russia on Idlib or an updated Astana deal. This is the most likely course for Syria, as it would also salvage Turkish-Russian relations. This would likely mean that Ankara and Moscow would cut a deal on a Turkey-controlled buffer zone on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border (probably coordinated with the Russians) for people fleeing the humanitarian crisis. In fact, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has already called for the creation of a “safe zone” for people leaving Idlib. In this case, Turkey would then likely engage with Europeans to fund, at least partially, the cost of this zone. This could, for a time at least, address concerns over a possible new wave of refugees. However, this buffer zone risks becoming a “no man’s land” down the road: Since Damascus is more interested in controlling the strategic locations in Idlib (rather than its people, whom it regards as the enemy anyway), it would be happy to see the people there become Turkey’s problem. To put it differently, such a deal would give Damascus most of the strategic locations that it covets, deliver the projected buffer zone for refugees fleeing from Idlib (to satisfy Turkey), and give a diplomatic victory to Russia.
  3. Outreach to the West. If Turkey chooses to play a more disruptive role vis-à-vis Russia, it could reach out to the U.S., which to a degree is already happening. In fact, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has shared several tweets in which he was strongly supportive of Turkey’s position on Idlib. He also said that he dispatched the U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey to coordinate steps, with Turkey, to respond to the Russian-Syrian attacks. How these statements will translate into action is yet to be seen. The U.S. could strike certain regime targets the east of the Euphrates, where Russia’s position is relatively vulnerable, or elsewhere; it could also provide more military support to the Syrian opposition or coordinate further sanctions on the Syrian regime. Essentially, the U.S. and Turkey can take steps to drive up the cost of the Idlib offensive for Russia and the Syrian regime. However, Turkish outreach to the U.S. would in turn require some tough decisions on its policy towards the Syrian Kurds or on the matter of the S-400 missile system. Turkey is unlikely to give on either of these matters. In this regard, U.S. support for Turkey will likely only be rhetorical at this stage.

Turkish-Russian relations will likely survive this latest round of tension over Idlib. Both sides have too much to lose, including loss of leverage during the political process on Syria, from breaking off their relationship.

However, this latest feud will still affect their relationship, and reveals real dilemmas in Turkish foreign policy. In the near term, Turkey needs to create a secure zone for the people fleeing the deepening humanitarian crisis in Idlib. At the same time, Ankara should reassess its hard-line, zero-sum approach to the Syrian Kurds. The contradiction is one that Ankara must address.

At the same time, Ankara needs to redress the imbalance in its relations with Russia and the West by re-strengthening its Western ties. Otherwise, as has been the case in recent years, Turkey’s constant fluctuation between Russia and the West will only deepen its woes in its foreign and security policy.

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