Is the end of the road approaching for Turkey in Idlib?

Seven Turkish soldiers and a civilian contractor were killed by the Syrian army when they and their team were digging the ground to set up new observation posts in Seraqib, in the northern Syrian province of Idlib. 

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first reacted angrily to the incident. He said last week: “Russia tells us they fight against terrorism. Who are terrorists? The people fighting to defend their own lands? Unfortunately, Russia hasn't abided by either the Astana or the Sochi agreements.” 

Erdoğan meant that members of the armed Syrian opposition supported by Turkey who still expect to overthrow the Syrian government are not terrorists, but “people who defend their own lands”. It is perhaps time to reassess whether considering them defenders of their land is realistic. Or is Turkey pushing them into new adventures?   

Erdoğan later toned down this narrative. On his way back from Ukraine, he said that, at this stage, there was no need for a confrontation with Russia, because Turkey had several strategic initiatives with Moscow. 

“One of them is nuclear energy,” he continued. “More than 300 Turkish engineers are being trained in Russia. Secondly, we have the TurkStream Project. It will continue to Europe. Thirdly, we buy a big quantity of gas from Russia. This is also a strategic investment. Finally, tourism is going very well. Russia is number one among countries who send tourists to Turkey. We cannot ignore all these. We will sit and discuss all these issues, but not furiously. We will do it in a cool atmosphere”. 

Turkey’s version of what exactly happened in Seraqib differs substantively from the Russian version. Moscow says that, contrary to Turkey’s claims, the Russian Defence Ministry had not been informed about the troop movements. Syrian forces were trying to hit militants linked with al Qaeda and the Turkish forces were struck because they were in the area. 

Russia also says that Turkey has not followed through on promises to separate militants from civilians in Idlib. 

The promise that Russia is referring to is the commitment that Turkey undertook to persuade the extremists in Idlib to lay down their arms. Despite its genuine efforts, Turkey could not achieve this goal. Ankara must have assumed too ambitious a task by attempting to disarm dedicated fighters, part of whom fought in the ranks of al Qaeda and al Nusra.  

Iran has also supported the Syrian government by saying that the Syrian army is entitled to carry out military operations to preserve its country’s territorial integrity. 

Observers who closely follow the situation in Idlib would admit that what happened last week and this week in Seraqib is very much in line with what Syrian President Bashar Assad has been saying, namely that fighting would not end until his forces retook all Syrian territories.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the ongoing Syrian government offensive, calling it unjustifiable.  “We call for an immediate ceasefire and full access to the affected areas by humanitarian organisations,” Pompeo said in a statement. 

Turkey must be happy to see that there is at least one country that supports what it is doing in Idlib. However, Turkey may sink deeper into the Idlib swamp if it relies only on U.S. support.   

The main reason for the incident seems to be connected with different definitions of terrorism by Turkey on the one hand and by Russia, Syria and Iran on the other. Russia adopts the definition contained in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. The Syrian government goes one step further and includes in the definition everyone who fires a weapon against it. Turkey excludes from this definition the armed Syrian opposition that it supports.

On the other hand, Turkish army may have gone beyond the observation mission that was entrusted to it in Sochi and assumed the role of a peace enforcement force. 

Each time Erdoğan and Putin met, they used to reconfirm their support for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The best way to show respect for sovereignty would be to admit that every state is entitled to restore order in its own territory. Turkey should perhaps do more to help the Syrian government expand its sovereignty to every part of its territory, including Idlib. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.