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Turkey in Syria: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

On September 17 Russia and Turkey reached an agreement to create buffer zones between government forces and those of the opposition confronting each other in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib – in a bid to stave off an imminent regime offensive on the opposition-controlled enclave. This may have postponed the military showdown for the moment but is unlikely to lead to a permanent solution as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad supported by Russia and Iran is intent on subjugating the last rebel redoubt. Although it appears that Moscow and Ankara have been negotiating on an equal footing, Turkish options in Syria are limited as the Russians and the Iranians move to consolidate their presence in the country.

The Turks have been working on several strategies in Syria’s Idlib province. Ankara’s decision to reinforce its military presence at observation posts in Idlib is meant to deter Russia from bombing the enclave. Turkey is also trying to weed out Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an offshoot of al Qaeda and formerly known as the Nusrah Front, which controls some 60 percent of the province. Turkish forces are mobilizing Islamist and nationalist opposition factions in Idlib that resent HTS’s strength there. In this way, Ankara is signaling Moscow that it is serious about destroying the extreme jihadists, which threaten the Bashar al Assad regime and are anathema to the Russians. The Turks are hoping against hope that this will persuade the Russians to halt their bombing campaign and stop the Syrian regime from attacking Idlib.

Yet, because of its strained relations with Washington and burgeoning arms and energy relationships with Moscow, Ankara is in no position to confront the Russians directly. Moreover, the Sept. 7 tripartite conference in Tehran among Russia, Turkey, and Iran on Idlib failed to arrive at a consensus, indicating that a full-scale assault on Idlib is likely a matter of time. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a cease-fire on all sides, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that this would be pointless, as it would not include HTS and other groups that Russia considers terrorists. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani insisted that the Syrian government must regain control over all its territory and that this was non-negotiable.

Turkey’s Dilemma

The prospect of a full-fledged Syrian regime assault supported by Russian air power and Iranian ground support on the rebels ensconced in Idlib leaves the Turks with two options. The first is to fight the regime forces in support of the rebels while attempting to counter Russian air support. This would leave Turkish-Russian relations in tatters at a time when Turkey’s ties to the United States are deeply strained as well. It would also be a massive undertaking while Turkey’s military capacity remains constrained because of major purges among senior officers after the attempted coup in July 2016. Also, a military adventure of this nature likely would erode Erdogan’s popularity once body bags begin arriving back home in Turkey.

Turkey’s alternative is to try and mend fences with the Assad regime as a way to extricate itself from the Syrian quagmire. This would mean leaving the Turkish-backed Syrian rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions to their fate and ignoring the human suffering in Idlib following a full-scale invasion. It would not solve the refugee crisis, but Turkey could insist that refugees be sheltered in “safe areas” close to Turkish borders. This would mean accepting Russia and Iran’s dominant influence in Syria. This move could salvage Turkey’s relationship with Russia, which the standoff over Idlib is threatening. In return, Russia and Iran could guarantee that they will not allow the Syrian Kurdish separatist militia the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to gain more influence or for the Kurdish enclave in Syria to spread.  

Recent columns published in the pro-government press indicate that Ankara is seriously considering this option. Well-known columnist Mehmet Barlas, a staunch Erdogan supporter, wrote: “We have to contribute to the Assad regime’s efforts to reform the constitution and hold elections. … Turkey must avoid a face-off with Russia over Idlib. The way to do this is to pursue a line that supports Syria’s unity and the legitimacy of its administration.”

Washington’s Role

The United States should not stop Turkey from cutting such a deal with Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime, because Washington is not in a position to help Turkey substantially in a military confrontation in Syria without getting involved in another major Middle Eastern conflagration. Washington already seems to be moving toward conceding legitimacy to the Assad regime. Its early unequivocal rhetoric insisting on Assad’s removal as a precondition for any settlement in Syria has given way to a grudging acceptance of Assad. As early as March 2017, Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, stated categorically, “With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.” Around the same time, former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated, “I think the … longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” Despite the Trump administration’s more belligerent rhetoric regarding the Assad regime, there is little evidence that Washington wants to remove Assad by force or to prevent the regime’s occupation of Idlib. Washington reportedly sent a message to FSA leaders in June that stated, “You should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us.”

In this context, a withdrawal from Syria by way of an arrangement with Russia and Iran that includes some face-saving elements seems like the better of Ankara’s options. It could look like a defeat for Erdogan, but it may be the best outcome for Turkey given the current configuration of forces in and around Syria. Turkey’s withdrawal, if it happens, would also mark the end of its neo-Ottoman ambitions, which this author had warned against as far back as 2012. It would mean a return to a saner, conventional Kemalist policy of minimalist involvement in the quicksand that is the Arab world. This might not be such a bad thing.

A Turkish withdrawal as described above is likely to have minimal effects on Ankara’s relationship with Washington. The United States itself is neither willing nor able to intervene militarily in Syria in any major way. It cannot, therefore, expect Turkey to do the dirty work since the negative implications of a military adventure in Syria could be severe for Turkey. Moreover, there are more important issues bedeviling U.S.-Turkish relations, such as U.S. support for the YPG and Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems. A Turkish withdrawal from Idlib is not likely to change the course of this already rocky relationship.

Dr. Mohammed Ayoob is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Global Policy. Ayoob is a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Michigan State University. He has written extensively on Middle Eastern politics and regularly publishes in the National Interest, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and other prominent publications.