The worst scenario is happening in Idlib
A Syrian attack against the Turkish army came as the Russian and Turkish delegations were in another futile talk on Idlib. Thirty-three troops were killed on the day Russian presidential spokesman Dimitry Peskov refuted President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin would come to Istanbul on March 5 to discuss the situation in Idlib.
Let’s recall what happened in the last two months: Putin paid a visit to Damascus on Jan. 7 and agreed on a road map with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. On the one hand, he pretended that he was taking care of Turkey’s sensitivities in the field through continued dialogue with the Turkish government, but on the other hand he instructed his army in Syria to actively support the Syrian army’s offensive.
Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met twice in-person in Istanbul and Berlin in January and held phone conversations in February again on Idlib. Meanwhile, the Syrian army, backed heavily by the Russian air forces, has intensified its offensive towards the north and gained the control of the M5 highway as well as some strategic towns. In return, Turkey has reinforced its 12 observation posts in the province while establishing temporary deployments around the M4 and M5 highways to deter the Syrian advance.
Turkey-backed moderate groups have tried to give a response to the Syrian army, but it was not very successful. In some instances, the Russian army also actively hit the moderate groups and there were reports that they also targeted the Turkish troops.
Erdoğan toughened his rhetoric by giving the end of February as the deadline for the withdrawal of the Syrian army to the outside of the demilitarized zone set by the Sochi Agreement with Russia in September 2018.
His statements only provoked more attacks by the Russian-Syrian duo which killed 18 troops in multiple attacks. With the latest attack that claimed the lives of 33 soldiers, the number of martyred troops is now 51, only in a one-month period.
Turkey’s response is threefold: As stated by a presidential spokesman after a six-hour security summit in Ankara, all the known Syrian military positions have been seriously hit with air and ground fire support elements. But it’s not certain whether it will be followed by a full-fledged ground operation to wipe out the Syrian troops from Idlib.
Secondly, Ankara engaged in a new round of diplomacy to consolidate the support of NATO and prominent allies. NATO convened in an extraordinary meeting following a request by Turkey to hold consultations under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty on the situation in Syria.
Erdoğan is also expected to hold a phone conversation with United States President Donald Trump in the coming days to secure Washington’s concrete support in this difficult period. Many European countries have stood with Turkey in the aftermath of the latest attack, but time will show whether this support will turn into something more meaningful for the Turkish government.
The third action was about opening the gates of Turkey for Syrian refugees willing to go to Europe. This very controversial decision obviously aims to urge the Europeans about the consequences of their inaction on Syria-related issues, particularly in the context of the Idlib impasse. Turkey has already said it can no longer handle the refugee situation as more than one million Syrians have flocked to its borders from Idlib.
Unfortunately, the worst scenario concerning Idlib is happening. Fifty-one Turkish soldiers were killed in less than a month in the wrist wrestling between Ankara and Moscow. The policymakers in Ankara were obviously in a miscalculation over the Russian stance as they were hoping that Turkey’s massive military deployment and reinforcements would deter the Russian-Syrian alliance. It simply didn’t. It’s time to return to realistic diplomacy and relocate the Turkish military presence in Idlib in line with the new realities in the field. There is nothing more important than the lives of our troops.