Turkey faces losses in Syria east, west of the Euphrates River

Ankara’s attempts to play Russia and the United States off against each other may be gaining it very little and could leave it losing more than it expected.

al-monitor Turkish military vehicles drive at Manbij countryside, Syria, Dec. 29, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.

Aug 23, 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reliance on Russia to secure Ankara’s demands in Syria has hit a stone wall in Idlib. Turkish-Russian ties may be entering a new phase marked by latent tensions after the air attack on a Turkish military convoy Aug. 19 in the northwestern Syrian province. This would also end the honeymoon between the two countries, which got an added boost with Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems.

Turkey’s job with the United States is not any easier. Ankara is trying to overcome its differences with Washington over the presence of American-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters east of the Euphrates River.

Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist organization that poses a threat to its security.

Ankara and Washington concluded an agreement recently for a safe zone in northern Syria, which came after Turkey’s threats of unilateral military action against the YPG if the United States did not act against the group.

The details of the agreement are unclear, so the extent to which Turkey has gained from it continues to be debated by Turkish analysts. Many believe Turkey climbed down from its threats of military action but is unlikely to get what it wants in return.

They say this accord protects the YPG against Turkey rather than the other way around. The agreement has, nevertheless, prevented the threatened Turkish incursion into northern Syria.

Meanwhile, attention is turning to developments west of the Euphrates River. The strike on the Turkish convoy came as the Syrian army, with Russian support, was making military gains in the region. Most important was the capture of the strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun from Turkish-backed opposition forces, which also included a motley group of jihadist fighters.

The convoy of tanks and armored vehicles was hit en route to Morek where the Turkish army has a military observation post.

Turkey has 19 such posts spread out from north to south in Idlib. The post in Morek has been encircled by the Syrian army since it captured Khan Sheikhoun.

According to the agreement between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, in September 2018, these posts were to monitor the cease-fire between the Syrian army and opposition forces.

Developments on the ground made a sham of that mission, but what the agreement did was give Turkey a military foothold in the region. Russia agreed to this on condition that Turkey neutralizes the threat from the Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

In its statement condemning the attack on the Turkish convoy, the Ministry of Defense in Ankara said this was at odds with the cooperation and dialogue established between Ankara and Moscow.

The statement stressed that Moscow was given advance notice of the Turkish convoy’s movements. Reserving the right to self-defense, it added that it expects the necessary steps to be taken to prevent a repeat of such incidents.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also weighed in and warned Syria “not to play with fire.” He said Turkey would take any action necessary to protect its soldiers and would not leave the military post in Morek.

Diplomatic observers note that the strike on the Turkish convoy, which left three Syrians dead, could not have happened without Russia’s knowledge. Veteran foreign policy commentator Sedat Ergin pointed out that this attack came despite the advance notice given to Moscow about the convoy’s movements.

“It is noteworthy that the Defense Ministry statement should be worded in a manner that places the responsibility for this development on Russia,” Ergin wrote in his column in Hurriyet.

Moscow, however, rejects Ankara’s argument that the regime has been violating the Sochi agreement in Idlib. Addressing a press conference in Moscow on Aug. 20, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Turkey had been forewarned that militants from HTS in Idlib would be crushed.

“We have made it clear that if they carry out attacks from this zone, they will be severely suppressed. Throughout this year, these provocations have not stopped," Lavrov said.

He also stressed that HTS was not a party to the Sochi agreement and remains a legitimate target.

Using an alternative name for HTS, Damascus claimed that the Turkish convoy that was hit was rushing military support to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham fighters besieged in Khan Sheikhoun.

Recent reports in the Turkish and international media have highlighted Turkish military support for the Ankara-backed National Syrian Army, which is also said to incorporate jihadist elements.

The picture is increasingly one of a proxy war developing between Turkey and Russia in Idlib, despite efforts by the two countries to maintain the outward appearance of good ties.

Turkey’s reliance on Russia — especially after the S-400 deal — has, nevertheless, ensured that Ankara remains relatively mute over Moscow’s involvement in Idlib.

Ankara continues to blame Bashar al-Assad's regime for attacks in the province and is calling on Moscow to prevent these. However, the irony is not lost on the Turkish public, which is aware of Russia’s military involvement in the battle to take Idlib.

The possibility of a new flood of refugees from Idlib, where the United Nations says hundreds of thousands of people have already been displaced, is also of serious concern for Ankara. Turkey is already trying, and failing, to cope with nearly 4 million Syrian refugees, who are increasingly accused by nationalist Turks of causing social and economic unrest.

Many observers note that tensions with Russia over Idlib should have been expected since the sides were never on the same page after the Sochi agreement. Ankara has been complaining about Moscow’s refusal to prevent regime attacks in Idlib, while Moscow has been accusing Ankara of failing to carry out its obligations under the agreement to rein in the HTS.

Ergin believes that if the situation is not put under control and more cases like the attack on the Turkish convoy take place, this will overshadow efforts by Turkey and Russia to move closer to each other.

The Russian position on the safe zone agreement between Turkey and the United States and Turkey’s threats of a military operation in northern Syria are also disheartening for Ankara. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said last week that they would “not accept any attempts to isolate any regions [of Syria], no matter what the pretext is.”

She added that all counterterrorism efforts must be coordinated with Damascus, which was a clear reference to a possible Turkish incursion into northern Syria against the YPG.

Meanwhile, Russia continues to push for normalized ties between Ankara and the Assad regime. Many Turkish analysts also believe this would be the panacea for Ankara’s problems in Syria.

Erdogan, however, considers Assad a regional archenemy and has refused any suggestion of normalized ties with Damascus, although low-level contacts are held between Turkish and Syrian intelligence officials.

Retired Ambassador Yusuf Buluc said there was no surprise in Russia’s position in Syria, which has been consistent from the start. “Russia acts as a big state with unchanging policies,” Buluc told Al-Monitor. “It is also the dominant side in its ties with Turkey and determines the course of events.”

Buluc said Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 systems from Russia was more of a political than a military move, and he stressed that this did not provide any major concessions to Ankara in Syria.

“This purchase drove a wedge into Turkey’s ties with the United States, which is to Russia’s advantage,” Buluc said.

The summit on Syria in Turkey between Erdogan, Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — which is planned for Sept. 7 — has gained added significance in view of developments in Idlib.

The three countries — which are sponsors of the Astana process — are expected to try and overcome their own differences over Syria rather than taking new and groundbreaking steps aimed at ending the Syrian conflict.

It appears, in the final analysis, that Turkey’s attempt to play Russia and the United States off against each other in Syria has left it facing the prospect of gaining little, if anything, east or west of the Euphrates River and perhaps losing more than it expected to.

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