As Assad advances in Idlib – Turkey finds itself in a tough spot between Trump and Putin

Ahmed Aboudouh
Internally displaced Syrians from western Aleppo countryside, ride on a vehicle with belongings in Hazano near Idlib, Syria, February 11, 2020: Reuters

Turkey’s back is to the wall over the Idlib crisis and it's options are swiftly running out. According to the UN, the Russian-backed rapid advance of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s forces has displaced 900,000 civilians since December – and many will be banging on Turkey’s door for refuge.

For officials in Ankara, the country's difficulties are easy to understand, but hard to manage. That is mainly because they aim to have their cake and eat it. It is walking a thin line between trying to slow Assad’s advance and maintain its new strategic balance with Russia.

Delegations have scrambled back and forth between Moscow and Ankara in the past two weeks to rescue the 2018 Sochi agreement - a de-escalation deal brokered by Russia. The deal had been welcomed by civilians in Idlib seeking a different fate to Aleppo, Homs and other cities razed to the ground by conflict. According to the agreement, Turkey would work to disarm and remove the extremist Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group - led by the former Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda - from designated demilitarized zones in Idlib. The two sides also agreed to reopen the strategic M4 and M5 highways, which connect the capital Damascus with the major cities of Latakia and Aleppo, for trade and movement.

In the past few days, Turkey has threatened Assad with all-out war if he failed to withdraw from recently captured parts of Idlib, after a Syrian strike killed 13 Turkish soldiers. But Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows very well that using force in Syria will bring consequences. In 2015, after downing a Russia bomber on the borders with Syria, Turkey was left by the US and its Western allies to bear the brunt in dealing with Vladimir Putin’s displeasure. Erdogan later had to travel to Moscow to apologise to Putin in person after economic and trade pressure from Moscow.

Last week, many in the region bought into US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s pledge “to stand by our Nato ally Turkey” in Idlib too much.

But Turkey is mindful of the fractured opinions in the administration over its relations with Ankara after the recent Northeastern Syria incursion. Some senior officials, like James Jeffrey, the US special envoy for Syria engagement see the crisis in Idlib as a rare chance to drive a wedge between Ankara and Moscow and pull Turkey back to the West. He visited Ankara in the last week and spoke about the possibility of increased support for the country. Jeffery’s attempt to push Turkey towards a bigger confrontation with Russia and Assad and apparent call for Ankara to go “all in” on Idlib risks a military crisis.

But Turkey’s main predicament in Idlib is not Russia or Assad, but rather the other side - those inside the White House who stand by the "America First" policy of Donald Trump and who seem relatively unconcerned about the diplomatic crisis. One day after Pompeo’s statement, national security adviser Robert O’Brien when asked about Idlib and the mass displacement at an Atlantic Council event, said: “What are we supposed to do to stop that? We're supposed to parachute in as a global policeman and hold up a stop sign and say stop this, Turkey? Stop this, Russia? Stop this, Iran? Stop this, Syria?”

This smacks of muddled thinking in Washington. It was always going to be complicated to convince Turkey of the merits of pivoting away from Russia - even if it is not an explicit partnership. Meanwhile Ankara has never been comfortable with US ties with the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have helped the US in the fight against Isis. With Washington looking at withdrawal from theatres of conflict, it is little wonder that Turkey is looking to find an equilibrium with Russia.

And as Turkey runs low on options, it seems ready more than ever to take calculated risks. For example, the shooting down of two Syrian military helicopters last week – in a region where Turkish troops and Syrian government forces have engaged in multiple clashes – suggests that the Syrian opposition groups have received new air defence weapons. A Turkish-backed rebel group claimed the attack and Ankara blamed the rebels, but Brigadier General Ibrahim Jabawi, who is also a member in the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee, told me that Turkey would know what was going on in the region. “Turkey appears to have full control over the kind of these weapons, their deployment, and the targets they are being used against,” he said.

The only help the Turks might need at this stage from the US is as leverage in their talks with their Russian counterparts. Turkey may also want Washington’s support to trading control of the M4, which Assad is said to be close to taking in the next few days, with another strategic location in northeastern Syria. This price could be the symbolic city of Kobani or the strategic town of Manbij, which Erdogan, on several occasions, has threatened to take. For Ankara that would be able keeping the appearance of any Kurdish autonomous state on its borders a remote one.

Sadly for the civilians on its borders, this is the real heart of Turkey’s policies in Syria. The fleeing civilians are merely an immigration emergency that needs to be addressed. Pragmatism has been Ankara's friend so far in the conflict and it tends to maintain such a position. The current posturing with Russia is a game of concessions of which how much each party is ready to give away.

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