News on Syria has turned humdrum, with a few exceptions, at least for the Western media. Other, more important, news is claiming the attention of Fox and CNN. But let me cite one piece of news in recent weeks that should be getting more mainstream attention—the very reason it is not.
After months of hitting its head against the wall, the Syrian Arabs Army’s Idlib offensive has finally started yielding tangible results. A classic military advance, a pincer movement from both the left and right, has taken the major rebel stronghold of Khan Shaykhun.
This serves as both a strategic and a propaganda victory, as this town was the site of the infamous so-called poison gas attack back in 2017. It also serves to question the legitimacy and efficacy of NATO and one of its key members.
The capture of the town resulted in all rebels south of the town being squeezed into a pocket. Many escaped at the last moment, but one group, manning the Turkish observation post at Murak, steadfastly refused to leave or surrender to Syrian forces. This was expected, as the Turkish government has said many times that even if the worst came to the worst, its troops would never leave their posts.
Nevertheless, Syrian government forces took control of Khan Shaykhun from opposition fighters just two week ago, and have held it since. In fact, Syrian army soldiers celebrated this by mocking recent comments from the Turkish foreign minister, who claimed that the base was not under seize, by taking selfies next to it and blasting the Syrian national anthem loud and clear for all to hear.
The recapture of Khan Shaykhun is being described in the Turkish and Western Media as the work of Bashar al-Assad’s (Syrian) regime, naturally laying the defeat on “Iranian-backed” foreign terrorist groups and with the support of Russian special forces. No mention is being made of who has been supporting the terrorists they removed up till now, and who broke international law by setting up a base in a country where Turkey had no legal right to do so.
This is your life
Why would Turkey construct and occupy a military base in the middle of foreign country without its permission? Well, this isn’t the only such base Turkey has, in fact it is the 9th base out of 12 spread across the rebel controlled Idlib region.
Even now, the Turkish army is sending a convoy to build a 13th base only a few kilometres from the current frontline. These bases were built in 2018, with the ostensible aim of bringing “peace and stability” to Idlib province, but actually to safeguard Turkey’s terrorist allies from the Syrian government and its army.
Now it is obvious how bad a miscalculation the Turks have made. Not only have their terrorist allies been defeated in the field, but due to their own stubbornness and incompetence, one of the very bases built to stop such assaults is now history.
There were three options on the table for Turkey: a negotiated retreat from the base, a continuation of the status quo, or a breakout attempt and counterattack. The first option is what the Syrian government is had hoped it will take, as a direct assault on the base would have been costly.
However the Turkish government seems much keener on keeping the base a thorn in the side of the Syrian army, as supplies are still reaching it by air. The counterattack option is the least likely, as not only is the nearest rebel-controlled town over 10km away, it is not known whether there are enough troops in the base to successfully break out when surrounded by thousands of Syrian Arab army troops. However, this option cannot be entirely ruled out, if Turkey can neither withdraw nor deliver supplies over the coming weeks.
Charge of the Lightheaded Brigade
In fact, Turkey may eventually be obliged to try and go out in a futile blaze of glory – much like it did at Gallipoli. Its overt support for terrorists does not come without a cost. If those terrorists win, no one cares whether a respectable government supports them or not. If they lose, every respectable government wants to wash its hands of the whole situation- and this will harm Turkey’s reputation, its standing in the region it wishes to dominate and its credibility as a member of NATO, which is largely what Turkish statehood is built on now.
It cannot be certain whether Turkey will save face one way or another. Just as the US and France did not know what they were getting themselves into in Vietnam, Turkey may find its Syrian adventure comes to play a similar part in its domestic public’s imagination.
NATO as a whole, I imagine, will find its feet—with or without Turkey. Perhaps it will reimagine itself once again, as it did in the ’90s and in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. But its relationship with Turkey will be revised in this process, and more conditions will be placed on Turkey’s involvement with the organisation. NATO no longer needs it as much, with friendly countries surrounding that part of the Eastern Mediterranean, who can provide a more trustworthy spearhead into Asia.
In consequence Georgia and Ukraine may gain a new importance in NATO planning, and more problems, and finally be allowed to join the organisation together, despite the situations in Donbas and (Abkhazia and South Ossetia)—two breakaway Georgia regions. This is turn will place further strain on Turkey’s curious state concept of aggressively secular Islam – neither secularists nor Islamists will be satisfied by a weakening of the Turkey-NATO relationship, for contrary reasons.
This will disrupt the balance of power within the state, as neither side will be so prepared to unite against traditional foes, such as the Kurds, who would otherwise be friends of one side or the other. Ultimately, threats to the established order in a state are more threatening to those who run it than the actions of an external enemy, as Czechoslovakia found in 1968, and Turkey itself has found during various coups and counter coups designed to protect the people from their elected politicians.
Neither will Turkey see another Erdogan. His talk about re-establishing the Ottoman Empire in a new form once appealed to both secularists and Islamists, but only works if this can be achieved by legitimate means. Prosperity and consequential diplomacy might have achieved this, and the Syrian adventure was a small and insignificant part of that general thrust, almost as if it had been forced upon an aspiring regional leader.
Backing terrorists and losing is not what a regional leader on merit does. All Turkey’s rivals and potential partners know this, and so do Turkish voters, who are going to feel increasingly betrayed by being served a Thugocracy rather than an Empire.
Truth doesn’t go away
The debacle has already been a heavy blow to Turkish influence in Syria. Its promises to never let Idlib region become an active war zone are now a distant memory, though not distant enough for some. The failure to resist the Syrian advance, which was presented as doomed as long as Turkey was on the morally right side of the argument, has shaken the confidence and PR machines of Turkey’s allies and NATO.
It is difficult to untangle the various alliances and arrangements in Syria: we have the government, some rebels, other rebels, Islamists, Russia, Turkey, the US, the Kurds. You can’t fight a war with so many sides. There must have been a lot of discussion behind the scenes which the general public does not know about – under the table support for supposed enemies, trade-offs of arms and equipment to keep several fronts going, promises of land redistribution and roles in future governments, that sort of thing.
But one thing I have learnt, frustrating though it may be, is that anything is possible. At the moment, it seems like this is the beginning of the end of NATO – or at least of Turkey in NATO. Turks themselves might appreciate the irony of the mutual excommunication which provoked the Great Schism in Christendom in 1054 going unnoticed by any chronicler of that time – only with hindsight did this one incident in Constantinople become the most important of many, just as Idlib was only one part of the much greater Syrian/Turkish/US7Russian problem.
The beginning of the end of Erdoğan’s time in power might perhaps be the greatest dividend for all concerned. It will lead to redefinitions of nationalism, Islamism, what it is to be Turkish and Turkey’s role in the world. The big question will be who makes those redefinitions. – the voters or the military.
The army keeps promising to stay out of politics, but that is until the civilian politicians alienate the public. If Erdogan does that, the military itself will be under direct threat, as the relationship with NATO is what has put its commanders where they are. Another military takeover in Turkey would be welcomed by NATO if it succeeds in cleansing the alliance of association with Erdogan and this disaster, but not if it then fails to deliver a more viable democracy within a few months.
But whatever happens to Erdogan, NATO will have to explain why Assad has won. For years it has got away with all kinds of crimes, Afghanistan and Libya, on the grounds that it is nevertheless a morally superior organisation, and that will ultimately secure its victory. The conflict in Syria was framed in exactly those terms. Now NATO has not simply lost to Assad because of guilt-by-association but to Russia, striking at the heart of that perception, and blaming Erdogan for everything won’t explain that away entirely.
Your fault then, our fault never
There are too many moving parts to this story to be entirely confident about what’s in store. But what we might see is something last seen in 1985 – when Syria was a friend of the West, as long as it continued to be contrary to Iran.
The regular Turkish troops in Syria, unlike the expendable terrorists, will eventually be transported home if they live that long. Given Turkey’s love of things martial, they might be invited to some sort of official ceremony praising their work, either a private reception or a public parade.
In 1985 such a parade was held in New York for US veterans of the Vietnam War. It was a traditional US event – “ticker tape” being thrown from above, bands playing, every honour and attention being given to these servicemen, many of whom were disabled in various ways from wounds received in action.
The significant thing was the date. The US had pulled out of Vietnam ten years earlier. When these veterans had come home in 1975, they had been booed and vilified by a US public which had turned against the war and the reasons for it. Tired of the lives and money wasted in a far-off land, they had come to agree with Muhammad Ali, who had said on refusing the draft that he had no argument with the Viet Cong because “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger”.
Eventually the veterans were given the parade they would otherwise have been due when they got home. But it took ten years before anyone could stop holding those brave people responsible for the decisions made by their government, who they may not even have voted for.
How long will it be before the Turkish and US governments forgive the soldiers at Khan Shaykhun for their own incursion into Syria? Governments may reform with the failed elements excised. But the people who never personally chose to get into bed with terrorists will be held responsible for others’ failures, before it is too late to deflect the blame to where it belongs.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.