Soon after the insurgency in Syria got underway, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed his sensitivity about Aleppo for the first time. Around midnight on March 29, 2011, we were on board his aircraft flying back to Turkey from his visit to Iraq. Erdogan had made history as the first Turkish prime minister to pay an official visit to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
We were flying from Erbil back to Ankara, following a dinner given in his honor in the residence of once-and-future KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, in the presence of his uncle and father-in-law, KRG President Massoud Barzani. There were three of us journalists listening to Erdogan; one is now an adviser to Erdogan, who became president in 2014, and the other is at large as a wanted Gulenist following the failed July 15 coup attempt.
In 2011, the so-called Arab Spring had just knocked on Syria's door with March 15 disturbances in the southern town of Daraa and with some minor demonstrations in Damascus. It was too early to call it an uprising. But what if the disturbances in Syria turned into a revolutionary situation such as those in Tunisia and Egypt, I wondered. At that point, Erdogan was a close friend of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, and Syria's Sunni majority had pinned its hopes on Erdogan as a pious Sunni leader of its strong neighbor, Turkey. Would not the evolution of events in Syria be an embarrassment for Erdogan? How would he tackle it in such a case? Erdogan expressed the geopolitical importance of Syria, especially Aleppo, to Turkey.
In 2012, large parts of Aleppo fell under the control of opposition or rebel groups supported with differing intensities by the United States, but fully by Turkey.
Now, Aleppo, the jewel of the Syrian crown in terms of Turkey’s Syria policy, is about to be recaptured by Assad’s forces. At the beginning of the week, one-third of the area within Aleppo that had been under rebel control was recaptured by the government. Eastern Aleppo neighborhoods came under government control. They were the first areas that had fallen into the hands of the rebels in 2012 when insurgents seized more than half of the city.
If the Syrian regime succeeds in taking back all of Aleppo from rebel forces — and this week, it looks likely — such a development would be a very heavy blow to Erdogan's policy on Syria.
When the rebellion broke out in Syria in 2011, Erdogan became a staunch opponent of his former friend, saying Assad had to be ousted. But Erdogan backed off that stance after Bashar-backing Russia entered the picture in 2015. As Erdogan has explained it, Turkey entered militarily into Syrian territory in August 2016 primarily to fight the Kurdish forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People's Protection Units (YPG), along with their allies in the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), who were fighting against the Islamic State (IS) in cooperation with the United States and, in certain areas, with Russia's tacit support.
Earlier this week, however, Erdogan reverted — at least for a day or two.
As fellow Al-Monitor columnist Amberin Zaman noted in her column this week, Erdogan told the Inter-Parliamentary Jerusalem Platform Symposium on Nov. 29, "We entered [Syria] to end the rule of tyrant [Bashar] al-Assad. [We didn’t enter] for any other reason.” After Russia demanded an explanation from Erdogan, he quickly flipped his rhetoric again, saying publicly that Turkey is targeting "not a particular country or individual" but "solely terrorist organizations."
But the fall of Aleppo to Assad's regime appears to mean that Erdogan’s long-held anti-Assad policy has been defeated on the battleground.
Erdogan, in an Oct. 28 statement, had indicated that Turkey's forces and its Free Syrian Army allies would capture al-Bab, which is considered the eastern gate of Aleppo, then turn east and march on Manbij, and after removing the PYD/YPG from there, would move farther east and ultimately take Raqqa from IS.
Yet with the impending fall of Aleppo, taking al-Bab seems more difficult than ever. Moreover, the Turkish military around al-Bab suffered casualties from an air attack, for the first time ever, presumably by the Syrian air force. Some claim that it might have come from Iranian drones. But many observers noted the attack coincided with the first anniversary of Turkey's downing a Russian jet, therefore giving way to speculation that the Russians are behind the Turkish casualties around al-Bab.
Whatever the truth, Turkish military activity seems to be restricted in the area stretching from the eastern approaches of Aleppo to al-Bab, and from there farther east to Manbij and Raqqa.
A keen observer of the developments on the northern battlefields, Fabrice Balanche, had said in October, “It seems unlikely that Putin would be pleased with a Turkish presence inside al-Bab and so close to Aleppo, which Russian forces are heavily committed to retaking. Al-Bab is also Moscow's best leverage on Turkey and the SDF.”
The fall of Aleppo would be further alarming for Turkey because it could spell the end of hopes for Turkey-supported rebels — that is, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate), Ahrar al-Sham (the Salafi group that had been Turkey’s main proxy in Syria) and the Nureddin Zengi Brigade. These groups — and with them, Erdogan — could be prevented from playing a role in the future of Syria.
The fate of Aleppo is likely to change the trajectory of the war in Syria. Idlib, as the only remaining provincial capital in the hands of Turkish-supported rebels, may follow Aleppo’s fate. Squeezed from Latakia to its west and from Aleppo to its east, Idlib may not hold for long.
Consequently, the fate of Aleppo has the potential to seal the fate of Erdogan's regime in Turkey. Too many of Erdogan's eggs are placed in the basket of northern Syrian geopolitics, and most of them are likely to crack.
When it comes to Syria, Erdogan might be more at the mercy of Russia than ever. Turkey's ambitious objectives to deprive Syrian Kurds of autonomy could equally depend on how Putin recalibrates his new relations with Erdogan, and on the Americans.
Assad's recapture of Aleppo would leave no doubt that a new, fateful page will be written for Erdogan in Turkey.
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