GAZIANTEP, Turkey—Over the last several days Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has pulled out all the stops in his attempts to deal with the Syrian crisis, even shooting down fighter jets from the Assad regime air force.
It's a very high-risk strategy in a complicated conflict that's less a chess match than a game of deadly tic-tac-toe, with every option blocked until nobody wins.
Erdoğan's campaign is an attempt to exert maximum pressure on his two purported allies, the adversaries Russia and the United States, using the Americans to influence NATO and the European Union (EU).
On Sunday afternoon, Turkish air defense systems shot down two Syrian regime Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jets that had been bombing Turkish and Free Syrian Army (FSA) positions in Idlib province—Syria’s last rebel stronghold, which straddles the country’s northwest border with Turkey.
This follows an intense Turkish bombing campaign carried out Saturday—the day after Russian airstrikes killed 33 Turkish soldiera. Ankara's drones launched devastating strikes against Russian-backed Syrian regime forces at the sprawling Abu Dhuhur and Kweiris military bases, in addition to a chemical weapons production site south of Aleppo city, all deep in Assad controlled territory.
By Sunday evening, Turkish backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel forces had recaptured 30 villages lost the previous week to a Russian-backed Assad regime advance in the southern Idlib countryside.
To try to protect themselves from the prospect of further Turkish strikes, Syrian regime soldiers on the ground began burning tires Sunday to hide their location from the ever present Turkish drones circling the skies.
This string of Turkish gains began on Thursday morning, when Turkish and FSA forces in the east Idlib countryside recaptured the strategic town of Saraqib. Located along the M5 highway linking Syria’s capital Damascus to the country’s commercial hub of Aleppo, the town had fallen to pro-Assad forces just three weeks earlier.
The recapture of Saraqib represented the first significant victory for Turkey and it’s FSA proxies since August 2019 when Russian-backed pro-Assad forces launched a campaign that has since succeeded in taking control of more than one third of former rebel held territory in Idlib province.
The temporary momentum created by the liberation of Saraqib and other towns in Idlib gave Turkey and it’s proxies some breathing room as the former continues to solicit aid from abroad for its campaign to hold off Russian-backed aggression. But such aid may not be forthcoming, and, following an initial lull in pro-Assad attacks amid a renewed wave of talks, the Russian-led advance will likely resume soon. By Saturday evening after the killing of the Turkish soldiers Russia had moved two warships equipped with cruise missiles toward the Syrian coast as part of the ongoing escalation.
Part of the Americans' unwillingness to aid the Turkish campaign militarily may be related to rumors that the United States has made its support contingent on guarantees that Ankara cancel it’s 2019 purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile defense system and take instean for an American variant, the Patriot air sefense System. From Washington's perspective, such a move would serve as an indication of Turkey’s willingness to end its much-touted rapprochement with Russia in favor of a closer relationship with the United States.
Turkish media reported that as recently as Feb. 21, U.S. officials had confirmed Turkey's request Patriots be deployed to its border with Syria in order to guard against Russian air strikes in Idlib. But in an indication of Russia’s leverage, despite the ongoing conflict in Idlib and Turkey’s recent request to the United States, Ankara repeatedly has rejected American demands to annul its purchase of the Russian S-400 system.
Doing so would anger Moscow and potentially jeopardize Turkey’s economic ties to Russia, in particular in the energy sector, where last January Putin and Erdoğan met in Istanbul to celebrate the inauguration of the TurkStream pipeline. Capable of transporting 31.5bn cubic meters of Russian gas to eastern Europe via Turkey annually, completion of the pipeline took 5 years and represents both a major boon to Turkey’s economy and an indication of closer ties between Ankara and Moscow. Ankara and Washington, meanwhile, remain at an impasse.
Perhaps for this reason, as Turkish drones combed the skies in Idlib and Aleppo on Saturday, back in Istanbul President Erdoğan resorted to more sordid means of generating leverage among western countries.
On Friday, Turkish officials announced the temporary opening of Turkey’s border with Bulgaria and Greece for as many as 25,000 Syrian refugees in a last ditch attempt to force the EU, NATO and the U.S. to contribute more tangible military support for it’s campaign in Idlib.
On Saturday, Erdoğan called the decision a logical Turkish response to the EU’s failure to live up to its promises to help Turkey bear the financial burden of hosting refugees both within its borders and in Idlib.
“I want to say something a little strange here”, Erdoğan said, “I told [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel recently: take a good look at these refugees…you’ve promised us billions [of dollars] over the years to help us build a safe zone in Syria, but at the end of the day you’ve given us nothing…So I told her, if you don’t give us the money, we’ll send the refugees your way.” The line met with widespread applause from those in the audience. “So what did we do yesterday?” he concluded. “We opened the gates.”
The prospect of a new wave of refugees arriving at the EU’s frontiers has already jolted right-wing sentiment in Europe, with new hashtags such as #Nexit and #Italexist emerging in recent days calling for the renewed withdrawal of the Netherlands and Italy from the European Union. Combined with fears over the unchecked spread of novel coronavirus across the Schengen zone, millions more refugees could be the spark needed to smash what remains of the EU. Coincidentally this also happens to be a Russian objective.
Turkey’s campaign of maximum pressure also comes as Erdoğan faces immense domestic strain to successfully balance competing, often contradictory priorities. These include both stemming the flow of Syrian refugees into the country amidst a widespread xenophobic backlash and guarding against the threat of cross-border attacks from Syrian Kurdish militants all the while reducing Turkey’s military footprint inside Syria itself.
Backed into a corner and terrified of the prospect of returning to government held territory in the event of a Russian-Assad takeover, as many as 4 million Syrian rebels and the civilians they live among in Idlib would have nowhere to flee except to Turkey. But Turkey’s overstretched bureaucracy is incapable of welcoming any new waves of displaced people, while Erdoğan himself lacks the political capital to do so. Erdoğan noted that “3.4 million Syrians live within our borders, and we can’t handle another wave,” but added, "we also can’t leave these people at the mercy of the Syrian regime.”
It’s fair to say that until recently, Erdoğan pursued a balancing act between Russia and the western powers: growing closer to Moscow via expanded cooperation in the energy and defense sectors while adhering to the terms of a 2016 agreement with the EU to host those 3.4 million Syrian refugees who would otherwise flood western Europe. However Russia’s campaign in Idlib appears to have successfully begun to tip that balance by significantly raising the cost to Turkey of stemming the flow of refugees into Europe.
The United States’ and NATO’s failure to share some of the burden in stemming Russian aggression against Turkish assets in Idlib may be remembered as the final straw that forced Turkey to begrudgingly surrender to Moscow’s advance and effectively ditch its alliance with the west. By threatening to empty out its refugee population, Erdoğan seeks both to appease his domestic critics and exploit Europe and the west’s deepest fears of instability and destabilization in a counterintuitive attempt to salvage it’s relationship with countries of the NATO alliance.
Erdoğan’s failure to thread the needle on these issues may mean the eventual unseating of the President’s long ruling AK Party, which has dominated Turkish politics in one form or another since 2002.
Turkey’s opposition, in particular the Kemalist CHP, which dealt a stunning defeat to Erdoğan’s AK Party via it’s victory in Istanbul’s June 2019 local elections, has been extremely critical of Turkey’s current strategy of backing the FSA in Idlib, which they claim has come at too high of a cost. Opposition parties in general have portrayed Syria’s refugee crisis largely as the result of Erdoğan’s adventurism abroad, wielding the presence of Syrians in Turkey as a club against the President, claiming the former are to blame for the country’s recent economic downturn. Many in Erdoğan’s own AK Party, otherwise supportive on other issues, have also begun to agree, calling for refugees to be deported back to Syria.
Turkish opposition parties have unsurprisingly also been amongst the most vocal to condemn the 28 February 2020 killing of 33 Turkish soldiers, attributing blame to Erdoğan and his policy of intervention. They have instead largely called for Ankara to abandon its support for the anti-Assad FSA rebels, withdraw Turkish troops from the country and normalize relations with the regime in Damascus, the latter of which in theory could secure the border against future outpouring of migrants. However ceding to the opposition’s demands and pursuing rapprochement with Assad flies in the face of Erdoğan’s Islamist AK Party base, which remains supportive of Syria’s fledgling rebel movement.
Furthermore, entrusting the Assad regime with border security carries with it additional risks: both Russia and the regime in Damascus are largely understood to be silent partners if not open allies of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, an offshoot of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist militia in Turkey that has been recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States and UN. Any partnership with Assad that indirectly strengthened the YPG-PKK and led to an uptick in attacks inside Turkey would spell political ruin for Erdoğan or any other Turkish official. And so, Turkey’s military remains in Syria, propping up the FSA along its border as the best defense against both armed Kurdish groups and a new waves of refugees.
On Feb. 3, several days after the regime’s capture of Ma’arat al-Nu’aman, another strategic town located along the M5 highway, President Erdoğan announced that Turkey would grant Russian and pro-Assad forces until the end of February to withdraw to their positions before the launch of the most recent round of hostilities in August. Many derided the announcement as wishful thinking, and as of now any hope that either Russian or pro-Assad forces will comply with the demand remains far off. However as the Daily Beast went to press Turkish military forces continued to expand their bombing campaign of Syrian regime infrastructure, extending their scope to include bases located in the immediate suburbs of Aleppo city itself.
Nevertheless, increasingly weak at home, it’s unclear the extent to which Turkey will be able to maintain its pressure on Russia and Assad in the event Ankara fails to secure tangible western military assistance for it’s campaign. If such aid remains unforthcoming, Turkey’s President will find himself in a particular bind. Unable to engage Russian and pro-Assad forces long term due to domestic opposition, Turkey will also be unable to absorb the new wave of refugees that would almost certainly pour across its border were Russia and Assad to continue their advance.
The only third option for Turkey would be to both surrender before the Russian advance while allowing those Syrians that do arrive to move freely to Turkey’s border with the EU and attempt to cross into Europe, a reasonable prospect from the Turkish perspective considering the US and Europe’s failure to help prevent their displacement to begin with.
It was this prospect in particular that Turkey sought to give Europeans a taste of 28 February 2020, when hundreds of Syrian refugees were filmed by state media being transported for free from Istanbul’s Fatih neighborhood to the Turkish border town of Edirne, in a highly publicized media stunt that many viewed as a direct message to EU nations. A regional Arabic broadcast journalist reporting from Edirne, when asked about the role of Turkish police or border security in dealing with the situation, would describe the following, “the Syrians here are being transferred across the border illegally by smugglers, however it’s all under the watchful eye of Turkish security services”.
Though loathe to be coaxed into propping up Turkey’s pro-Russian government under duress, many western nations may not have a choice. Should Turkey on it’s own be unable to hold off Russia’s assault going forward, a pipeline of people heading towards Greece and Bulgaria will likely begin to emerge in the coming months. Attempting to contain or prevent their arrival and create a backlog at the border will likely require draconian measures and violence. Whether the EU can stomach that, is anyone’s guess.