Turkey’s Erdogan Gambles On Idlib

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After almost a decade of internal strife and proxy wars, the Syrian crisis is transitioning to a higher threshold of inter-state conflict: Turkey and Syria are on the verge of conventional warfare. The epicenter of this confrontation is Idlib, where the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is pushing ahead to reassert its territorial control over the northwest of the country.

Its indiscriminate bombing of the civilian population, designed to de-populate this zone, is creating a large wave of internally-displaced people moving towards the Turkish border in fear of their lives. The United Nations puts the number at near 700,000, more than half of them children.

Turkey is already host to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, arguably at the limit of its absorption capacity. The ruling AK Party views the popular backlash against Syrian refugees as a key reason for its election losses in several major metropolitan areas last year. Ankara wants to pre-empt another humanitarian catastrophe that would result in a new influx.

The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has amassed troops at the border with Syria, and scaled up its assistance of proxies in Idlib in their effort to resist the regime’s advance. Erdogan has issued Assad with an ultimatum, demanding that regime forces relinquish their recent territorial gains by moving east of the strategically important M5 highway before the end of February. Failure to comply could trigger a direct military confrontation between Turkey and Syria, with disastrous consequences for the region and beyond.

So far, Damascus has not signaled any intention to budge. On the contrary, the Assad regime continues to advance, emboldened by Russian backing, both military and diplomatic. The Russian air force is striking opposition-held targets to pave the way for regime forces. In response to Turkey’s complaints, Russia says Assad is merely responding to Ankara’s failure to fulfil obligations under the 2018 Sochi Agreement.

In that deal, Turkey undertook to demilitarize some of the Islamist groups operating in Idlib, and remove them from the neighborhood of the M5 highway. But since then, the areas has come under even greater the domination of the Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al Sham. Now, Moscow says, the Assad regime has taken over the responsibility of cleansing Idlib, with the help of the Iranian backed Shiite militias.

Faced with such an escalation, Erdogan seems to be counting on two things: first, that the show of force displayed by the movement of the Turkish army units will scare Assad off; and second, that ultimately Russian President Vladimir Putin will not risk jeopardizing Russia’s deepening relations with Turkey by unconditionally backing the Syrian advance in Idlib.

The rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow, which has accelerated since the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan, has been one of the surprising regional dynamics of the past few years, leading some in the West to speculate about a Turkish strategic re-orientation towards Russia and away from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. These concerns have grown with every cordial meeting between Erdogan and Putin, and by Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, despite the admonitions of its NATO partners.

But the true limits of a convergence of Turkish and Russian interests may have been reached in Idlib. Direct Turkish-Syrian conflict could inflict lasting damage to the burgeoning Erdogan-Putin bromance. Or, at least, that seems to be the presumption behind the Turkish president’s bellicose rhetoric.

Missing from this drama are Turkey’s NATO partners. Through Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the U.S. has expressed sympathy for Turkey’s position on Idlib—but at the same time, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien has made it clear there will be no American military role in any potential conflict. The European Union has been entirely absent from the conversation, despite the fact that more carnage in Idlib easily send more refugees towards Europe. For NATO, Syria is outside the scope of Article 5 and its commitment to mutual defense.

So in many ways, Turkey stands alone in the face of humanitarian and military crises at its southern border. That is somewhat of a paradox for a country that remains a key ally for the security of the West. It is also an indication of the cost exacted by Turkey’s anchorless diplomacy of the past few years, carried out under the rubric of an independent foreign policy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sinan Ulgen is the executive chairman of Istanbul-based think tank EDAM and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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