Erdoğan’s next steps in Syria?

The recent killing of 36 Turkish soldiers and the wounding of a similar number brings home the high cost of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to play a commanding role in the Syrian crisis, a cost being borne by Turkey’s soldiers and their grieving families. These deaths at the hands of Syrian regime forces (who are supported by Russian military) have brought forth calls for NATO/U.S. to support Turkey. Many words of support have been forthcoming, to include expressions of condolence and sympathy from President Trump to his Turkish counterpart. Likewise, NATO’s Secretary General, Jan Stoltenberg, has condemned the actions of Syria and Russia and called on them to end their indiscriminate attacks in Idlib.

None of this is sufficient for President Erdoğan, for words will not dissuade Assad from continuing his drive to take back every square foot of Syrian land. And words will not prevent Russia from continuing to support Bashar Assad in his efforts and to turn a deaf ear to calls for restraint.

It would be disastrous for Turkey to launch attacks on Russian assets in Syria, but it is those assets that empower the Assad regime in its murderous drive to re-take all Syrian territory. Erdoğan does not enjoy the same level of support and commitment from NATO/U.S. that Russia continues to extend to Assad and his regime. The sort of blank check for military support and guarantees that Erdoğan would need to exert pressure on Russia/Syria has not been forthcoming for eight years – there is no reason to think it might come now.

As noted in previous articles, Erdoğan’s anti-Western rhetoric over the last decade has soured many in the United States on the idea of helping him out of his present dilemmas. Recent comments by Senator Lindsay Graham about the need for the United States to support its NATO ally Turkey do not signal a change in the general feeling in the U.S. Congress towards Erdoğan and Turkey, but only serve to remind us that Erdoğan’s choices regarding the deployment of Russian S400s dramatically reduced the number of U.S. Congressmen willing to speak publicly in favour of Turkey – the silence of most others sends a loud and clear message.

His turning away from NATO towards Russia certainly did not gain him any friends (Hungary’s President excepted) among European leaders. The rising anti-immigrant feelings in Europe (with a tinge of anti-Muslim bias) make any efforts by European leaders on behalf of the refugees threatening to flood Turkey effectively impossible.

If Turkey continues to block the entry of Syrian refugees, it has no credibility to press the Europeans to accept those who transit Turkey. If Turkey seizes the moral high-ground and allows the Syrian refugees entry, it cannot rely on the Europeans to allow more than a symbolic number to enter Europe. Thus, even if the current crop of European leaders were inclined to help Erdoğan find a solution to at least the refugee crisis, the political realities in Europe now are that only a tiny fraction of the millions of desperate Syrians would ever be accommodated in Europe.

Also, the certainty that there are terrorists hiding among the Idlib refugees and Syrian opposition fighters, as Russia constantly emphasizes, reinforces the Europeans reluctance to allow in large numbers of refugees from Idlib. And, now we have the Coronavirus issue. As hysteria and panic are likely to attend the spread of the virus, the willingness of Europeans to allow refugees to enter will further decline. Likewise for Turkey’s domestic population, many of whom are already upset with the large number of Syrians in the country – the spread of the virus will likely increase their demands to close the southern border to the Syrians regardless of the heart-rending depictions of their suffering.

What can Erdoğan do? How can he salvage some dignity for Turkey, his Presidency, and the lives of the Syrians refugees in the face of the Russo-Syrian military actions and no more than rhetoric from the West? He has little leverage to use with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has made his preference for his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad clear. He cannot count on NATO/U.S. for much more than words unless Assad or Putin is so foolish to attack Turkey proper. (Turkish forces in Syria do not enjoy NATO treaty protection.) Assad might be that reckless, but Putin is not. More likely, Turkey needs to brace itself for asymmetric attacks by Syrian proxies unless it can persuade Putin to deter Assad from that method of exacting revenge on Erdoğan’s nation.

Breaking now with Russia would gain Erdoğan nothing – the West is in no mood to send military support for Turkey in Syria. He needs to craft a compromise with Russia that protects the Idlib civilians not part of any terrorist groups, ensures Turkish forces in Syria are not in the path of the Syrian regime’s drive to re-take all of its territories, and allows for the Syrian refugees to be safe from attack in a small, internationally protected border zone. Can he do it? Turkey must hope so. Otherwise, it must prepare itself for many more flag draped coffins returning to Turkey with the remains of brave young soldiers.


© Ahval English

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