Will Idlib be the tipping point for Erdogan whose troops are certainly taking a beating from Russia? If it is, Russia will finalise the process of bringing Assad in from the cold, in line with Gulf Arabs’ plans. But it will be the end of the affair for Putin and Erdogan.
It’s the last frontier or battleground in Syria which Assad has vowed to take back. And yet Idlib’s inevitable fall into the Syrian leader’s hands comes with sugar-coating for Assad. Idlib may well be the downfall of the Turkish President as this headstrong leader, known for not taking advice and clashing with everyone on the world stage, soldiers on towards the abyss in a war which his troops cannot possibly win.
For Assad, the inevitable victory in Idlib has a deeper, more significant meaning, given Erdogan’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which organised the coup d’etat in Syria in 2011 and which was largely backed by the West and Gulf Arab states. It also places the Turkish leader where many in the region would like him to be: at odds with Putin.
And therein lies the heart of the matter. Can Idlib finally divide these two allies, which, against all the odds, have stayed on good terms and worked together in the region? Isolated, Erdogan has no one to turn to now, as his arrogance and delusional ideas backed him into a corner in Northern Syria, where even Qatar is keeping a distance.
Upsetting the Trump administration and Congress by buying Russian air defence missiles contributed to it, as well as waging war against the Kurds. Mocking NATO and threatening the EU with refugees is also part of where Erdogan is today as just recently our TV screens were dominated by Syrian refugees being tear-gassed on the Turkish-Greek border. Erdogan has really taken the term ‘isolated’ to a whole new level and Idlib is now becoming a rod for his back, as opposition antagonism is growing in his own country. Many Turks will question this quagmire that has placed Turkish soldiers in danger with a reported 55 dead, due to what experts claim were as a direct result of Russian airstrikes. It seems that Erdogan’s feral determination to mark a victory against the west, in particular the US, is equally matched by Putin’s fervour in teaching Erdogan a lesson, both on the battlefield (Turkish soldiers were hit as their anti-aircraft fire on Russian jets didn’t go down well with the Kremlin) and off it. Even across the diplomatic teak tables, Putin is signalling now to Erdogan that he can’t have his cake and eat it.
The special relationship which he courted with Russia until now is over as how can this pretence be kept up when Russian jets are coming under fire from Turkish ground forces?
The meeting with Putin in Moscow was hoped to be a deal breaker for whether this special relationship in the entire region can sustain itself. But after a massive three hours, both Putin and Erdogan managed to say a lot, but actually say nothing. Even the Turkish non-official state media mouthpiece, Daily Sabah, was unable to write one positive iota of the mammoth talks.
The problem is that Turkey and Russia don’t have a good track record at keeping their side of the bargain, when it comes to striking so-called peace deals in Syria. Furthermore, even if one were to be struck which would appease Turkey, few if any analysts in the region peg any hopes of the Assad regime sticking to it, which would pull Russia into any new campaigns which would inevitably restart. The result of these mishaps is that more and more we are seeing geopolitical movements from the regional players not based on pro-west, or pro-Iran sides, but more along the lines of being with Turkey or against it.
Just this week, the Assad government lent support to General Haftar in Libya as a counter measure against Turkey there, where Russia is allied with the West against a Tripoli-based Muslim Brotherhood apparatus, fronted by a President supported by Turkey and Qatar.
It’s difficult to see how Erdogan will re-boot relations with Russia after Idlib. And even harder to see who he will turn to if he sits it out, all in the name of supporting his unworkable ‘safe zones’ plan and holding a buffer zone against the Kurds. Putin seems to be hinting to him in the televised clips released by mainstream media that Erdogan needs to withdraw now and keep good relations with Moscow, or stay and all bets will be off. Can Erdogan afford to be an enemy of the Kremlin, though?
The only single possible ally he could have had on his side – Israel – he previously ruined relations with, which might have proved useful in the Syrian game of chequers. Interestingly, Israel indicated to him that they were ready to thaw relations, at least for the sake of Syria, when Turkish soldiers were killed. Israel sent condolences via the media to the families of the dead, which must have got noticed both by Assad and Putin. Probably this was a message to them both, but more so Erdogan: Maybe we have clashed on domestic issues in one another’s countries, but on Syria, we are both on the same page and would be a formidable team.
Indeed, it’s often overlooked by western hacks that many of the “pro-Turkish fighters” are from the Al Qaeda umbrella group, formerly Nusra, which was initially backed by Israel.
But any more defeat in Idlib, whether on the battlefield or by retreating will have to be offset by victories scored elsewhere. Erdogan, from a purely military point of view may well be regretting the total collapse of relations with Israel, which regards the Turkey-Libya pipeline plan as “illegal” and continues to be irked by Hamas leaders seeking refuge in Turkey.
No one in the entire region has more complicated and contradictory relations than Erdogan. He is supposed to be close to Iran, but yet Iran is allied to Assad (whom he hates more and more) and Hezbollah which is a direct enemy in Syria – although Turkey is also an enemy of Hezbollah’s greatest foe, Israel; he is supposed to be close to Putin, and yet his own troops are fighting a war against Russian soldiers in both Syria and Libya. He is anti-west, and yet Turkey still retains its seat in NATO. Years of geopolitical wrestling have left him against the ropes now as Idlib is showing leaders of the region what happens when you punch above your weight and overstretch yourself. The policy of isolation comes with a very high price and we may well be witnessing the beginning of the end of Recep Erdogan. Putin has offered him one last chance in Moscow and it is unlikely that Erdogan will grasp the nettle and cut his losses. Gulf Arabs will watch in glee as their ultimate nemesis appears about to fall on his own sword.