Syrian Chessboard: Can Turkey Take On Russia?

A Turkish soldier walks next to a Turkish military vehicle during a patrol, near Tel Abyad, Syria September 8, 2019. File Photo

Manish Rai

Syria and Turkey are locked in one of the worst military engagements in Syria’s North-West province of Idlib since last month. Land and air forces of both the countries have confronted each other. But Damascus is not all alone and its biggest ally Russia is supporting it for this campaign.

Turkey has already lost about 57 soldiers and Syria also suffered major loss of men and material. Moscow has not yet shown any desire to make concessions to Turkey this time. It initially tried to smoothen over the situation by stating that the Turkish military failed to warn its Russian counterparts in time about any possible troop movements which resulted in Turkish casualties. But now Russia says that Syrians have all right to defend country’s sovereignty and reclaim all their territory.

Idlib is the last stronghold of West backed rebels who have been trying to overthrow Syrian government since 2011. Russia knows very well that a successful offensive in Idlib would bring huge political and substantial economic dividends to its Syrian allies. In case of victory, the Syrian Arab army will completely control the important roads M4 and M5, which are the basis of the entire transport system of the country. For Turkey, Idlib is also extremely important.  As Ankara considers this region to be its zone of influence where it can host its proxy groups and Syrian refugees.

Hence Russia and Turkey are bound to entangle in worst confrontation unless they try to de-escalate. But in this tense situation onus lies on Turkey to calm things down. As Turkey didn’t fulfill any of its obligations under Sochi ceasefire agreement of 2018 agreed between Russia and Turkey. Almost all the other rebel forces in Idlib were subjugated by the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham organization, which is just al-Qaeda in a different guise. And Turkey made no effort to check rebel take over. Under Sochi agreement it was Turkey’s responsibility to clear Idlib of insurgents. Turkey also didn’t keep its promise to free up the M5 freeway, which runs between Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s two biggest cities. Turkey has to understand that big brother of Syrian political landscape is Russia and it will be a futile effort to challenge Moscow in Syria. Turkey is just trying to punch above its weight.

Turkey has not won a war against Russia since the 1600s, although there has been at least half a dozen of them. The Ottoman and Tsarist empires were staunch enemies of each other the same is valid up to some extend for modern day Turkey and Russia Federation. But although Russia has extensive knowledge of the Turkic world, the same does not apply to Turkey, where neither its academia nor the diplomats possesses adequate institutional understanding about the Russian world. At present Russia decides rules of game in Syria that Turks needs to understand very well.

One thing is very much clear now that Turkey’s recent attempts to go alone in military adventure in Syria have been an unmitigated disaster. In this conflict, Turkey is supporting a losing side. However, Ankara’s priority in Syria is not necessarily to back a winner. Its aim is just to carve a stake for itself in its near neighbourhood and to ensure that other powers operating in Syrian landscape acknowledge Turkish interests. However, the developments over the last couple of weeks indicate that, even in this respect Turkey is looking like a looser.

Russia has very extensive military presence in Syrian arena. Russia has Khmeimim Air base with most modern jets Like- SU-35 and SU-57, naval presence at the warm water port of Latakia and Tartus and on ground most capable special forces i.e. Spetsnaz. It won’t be an overstatement to say that Syria is the strongest military outpost of Russians outside the mainland.

Hence for Erdogan most suitable course of action would be to strike a ceasefire deal with President Putin but for that Turkey has to back out from repeated threats of a major offensive against Syria. But Turks can save face with a decent role in deciding Syria’s future political transition and showcase themselves as saviour of Syrian refugees as well. Turks are aspiring to re-impose the map agreed in 2018 Sochi agreement that called for a demilitarization zone around the Idlib region, but that won’t be possible as of now because Syrian regime forces have gained considerable ground. Turkey should settle for a smaller zone of influence which can accommodate the displaced Syrian refugees. Ankara should only focus on finding diplomatic solutions to the current crisis as pursuing military means will be very costly affair. Moreover, any conflict with Russians in Syria will also have worst effects at other theatres where Turks are facing Russians. Like-Libya, Caucasus and Armenia where Russian military base in Gyumri and border guard contingent are facing Turkey directly.

  • Author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround can be reached at [email protected])



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