Recently, Ankara has crossed the line by transforming its supposed anti-terrorist operation in Syria into a full-fledged invasion. Essentially, it wouldn’t stop in spite of Moscow’s repeated attempts to talk some sense into its partner and the repeated warnings voiced by Damascus. In fact, Ankara has been answering attempts at pursuing deescalation in Syria by making provocative statements. Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan described the events unraveling in Idlib as “a war”, while his Defense Minister Hulusi Akar demanded Russia to “step aside” and allow Turkish Armed forces to deal with Bashar al-Assad’s troops.
Regarding the situation in Idlib, it should be noted that Turkey failed to fulfill the obligations it has taken upon itself through signing the Sochi memorandum on the creation of a demilitarized zone in Syria. In accordance with this document, Ankara was supposed to ensure the separation of radical militants, including those from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorist organization from “moderate forces” represented by the so-called “National Liberation Front” (NLF) backed by Turkish authorities. However, instead of following these guidelines, Ankara chose to allow NLF forces and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorists to form a united front against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Then, Ankara took a step too far by providing direct fire support to the anti-government forces in Idlib, which led to a serious aggravation of the armed conflict in northwestern Syria and could have resulted in completely unforeseen consequences.
At the same time, Erdogan noted that Ankara’s continuous military build-up in the north-west of Syria was just a “matter of time”. Speaking with the leading figures of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan mentioned he was planning to make Idlib a “safe zone” in spite of the “high price” Turkey could pay for it and regardless of what Russia could offer him at a negotiation table. It’s clear that the Turkish military brass is planning to amass an impressive strike force west of Aleppo and south of Idlib by the end of the month. In fact, it has been redeploying its troops since mid-February, when trucks carrying Turkish armored vehicles and military personnel started arriving to the north-west of the Syrian Arab Republic.
This build-up allowed the Turkish Armed Forces and the radical militants that it supports to launch a counteroffensive. According to latest reports, the advancing “armed opposition” units are supported by the Turkish regular units in the south-eastern regions of the Idlib Governorate. Attacks by this strange alliance are expected in such town as Atareb and Taftanaz, where those opposing the Syrian government have now a massive ground presence covered by the Turkish Air Force. And this build-up is being carried on in spite of the fact that the entire airspace of northwestern Syria is controlled by Russian air defense units stationed at the Khmeimim airbase.
Under these conditions, Moscow was forced to bring Turkish military expansion in Syria to a halt, giving Damascus permission to use S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems at its discretion against any potential threat. Therefore, representatives of the high command of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), citing of the overt Turkish aggression that has already resulted in the deaths of more than a hundred Syrian soldiers over the past month, announced that any unauthorized intrusion into the Syrian airspace would be interpreted as an act of military aggression, which means that the intruding aircraft will be downed without any delays or further proceedings. The SAA air force and air defense units have already received official orders demanding them to shoot down all aircraft violating Syria’s exclusive sovereignty over its airspace.
The growing tensions between Turkey and Russia in recent years due to the escalation of the situation in Syria’s Idlib is closely monitored both in Washington and Haren. Both plan to take advantage of this situation by sowing even more seeds of disagreement between Ankara and Moscow, thus undermining the deployment of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems in Turkey that Ankara has already purchased.
The United States has been seeking ways to force its NATO ally into abandoning this idea altogether. However, so far all of Washington’s efforts to prevent Ankara from getting Russian-produced missile systems deployed have fallen short.
In new attempts to demonstrate Ankara who’s calling the shots, a representative of the North Atlantic alliance announced mid-February that NATO countries will not support the invocation of Article 5 due to the deaths of Turkish servicemen in Idlib, as NATO will not consider the option of providing military assistance to Ankara to support its operation in Syria.
It is also noteworthy that the United States has recently suspended a secret CIA intelligence program in Syria and Iraq that allowed information gathering through the use of UAV, as Turkey was a part of it. According to unnamed US officials, who provided this information to Reuters on condition of anonymity, this decision was taken last October after Ankara’s invasion of northeast Syria with the launching of a ground operation against an American ally stationed in that area – the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
However, Turkish authorities are yet to respond to those steps taken by Washington, as they’re heeding the rapidly worsening relations with Moscow and the omnipresent threat of US sanctions being introduced against Ankara over its decision to purchase the S-400. It’s obvious that since 2015, Turkey has been trying to escape NATO to become a part of the emerging Eurasian bloc of countries. This process has pretty much become irreversible at this point, in spite of the bumpy road ahead and various ups and downs.
Ankara is fully aware that as soon as it turns back to the United States, Turkey will be running the risk of losing its territorial integrity and facing bankruptcy. At this historical crossroads, Erdogan chose Eurasia as a new way forward. This, in particular, is evidenced by official numbers, as Russia is now the leading trading partner of Turkey, followed by China and Germany, as Turkey’s energy security depends on its immediate neighbours. Therefore, it is nearly impossible for Turkey to pull an one-eighty turn at this point, even if it wanted to.
That is why Erdogan is forced to balance his expansionist ambitions with against current geopolitical realities, including Russia’s position on Syria. In addition, the Turkish leader has already started losing support at home, which is confirmed by the Turkish Pulse 2020 study conducted by the Turkish polling company MetroPOLL. Among the main reasons of this phenomenon are Erdogan’s ill-conceived actions in Syria and Libya, together with the intensification of the humanitarian crisis in Turkey itself, where living standards keep dropping.
Erdogan is well aware that among his immediate entourage the opinion prevails that the current domestic political situation in the country and the decline in the popularity of the Turkish leader is the direct result of an operation launched by the United States, which cannot allow Turkey to be led by a strong independent-minded leader. To achieve this end, the US is taking advantage of Washington-controlled politicians and individual NATO generals that push the notion about the need of Turkey’s intervention in Syria and Libya among the local elites, with Turkey being the ultimate loser in both of these.
Valery Kulikov, political analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.