Idlib Test for Erdogan-Putin Relationship

As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expanded Turkey’s military engagements since the beginning of the year into the raging civil war in Syria, as well as in Libya, he has run into serious opposition from Russian president Vladimir Putin. Tensions have escalated, especially in Idlib, Syria, where 33 Turkish soldiers were killed on February 27 in a single attack by the Syrian army, thus bringing Turkish losses there this month to over 50. It remains to be seen if Erdogan will now choose to risk a confrontation with Russia, which has been actively supporting the Bashar Assad regime’s military campaign, in the pursuit of objectives that are difficult to attain or preserve the close personal relationship he has developed with Putin during the past three years, at considerable cost to Turkey’s links with the United States and NATO.

Erdogan refrained from any public criticism of Russia, while his defense minister, Hulusi Akar charged that the attack had taken place despite the fact that “the location of Turkish troops had been coordinated with Russian officials in the field,” and his communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said Moscow had the responsibility to prevent such assaults by the Assad regime in accordance with the Astana and Sochi accords between the two countries. Akar’s claim was specifically rejected by the Russian Defense Ministry while Russian foreign minister Lavrov responded by saying, “Russia cannot prohibit the Syrian army from executing the demands written in United Nations resolutions, which call for an uncompromising fight against terrorism in all its forms.”

Erdogan’s willingness to call Putin on February 28 suggests he has decided to continue utilizing the diplomatic track with Russia for the time being. However, having reportedly informed his Russian counterpart that all Syrian government elements and positions were “legitimate targets” in the aftermath of the attack—Akar has been claiming that over 2,000 Syrian troops had been killed since February 10—Erdogan has set the stage for a possible escalation of the proxy war between them in Idlib with all of its unpredictable consequences for the future of their relationship.

Although he has shown no indication of adjusting his Syria policy to accommodate Turkish interests in Idlib, Putin is clearly happy to continue the dialogue. The Kremlin readout said that the two men had “emphasized the importance of improving the effectiveness of coordination between the Russian and Turkish defense ministries [and] the implementation of the Russian-Turkish agreements reached in 2018 and 2019.” It also said that the two leaders had “stressed that the priority task was to fight international terrorist groups . . . and to examine the possibility of soon holding a meeting at the highest level.”

The policy of growing assertiveness within which Erdogan’s military moves are being made is in accordance with what he has been consistently characterizing as his forward defense strategy against external enemies unhappy with Turkey’s growing role in its region and beyond. It is also an essential component of his effort to try to shore up flagging domestic support during economic difficulties. On February 22, Erdogan provided a comprehensive and typically vigorous defense of his policy. Denying that the deployments in the two battle zones were “either for adventure or amusement,” Erdogan said, “Sometimes, the interests of our country and other powers conflict . . . Thank God, Turkey’s power and capabilities are sufficient to pursue and implement an independent policy.”

Defiantly declaring that Turkey was “doing whatever is necessary to change the course of events at the negotiating table and on the ground,” Erdogan warned, “If we are unable to protect our country’s rightful place in the changing regional power dynamics, they will transform our life here into a prison.” For emphasis he added, “Every struggle we avoid today in Syria, Libya, the Mediterranean, and our region will return to us with a heavier toll tomorrow. That is why we characterize it as a new war of independence for our country and nation.”

Erdogan confirmed in his speech on February 22 that he had “conveyed Turkey’s determination” relating to his ultimatum to the Assad regime to withdraw its troops by the end of February from areas it had recently captured to Putin in an hour-long phone call the previous day. Having stated prior to the conversation that it would “determine Turkey’s stance in Idlib,” Erdogan must have had hopes of persuading Putin, in what must surely have been one of their most difficult conversations, to agree to a ceasefire that would stop Assad’s rapid advance against opposition strongholds in eastern Idlib while halting the estimated 1 million refugees fleeing north and west toward the Turkish border. However, there was no such agreement and the Turkish readout after the call merely stated that Erdogan had once again “emphasized that the regime must be restrained in Idlib and the humanitarian crisis must be stopped.” The Russian readout, in stark contrast, noted that Putin “expressed serious concern about the ongoing aggressive actions of extremist groups,” which the Syrian government was confronting.

Putin’s rebuff must have come as a bitter blow for Erdogan as he faced the very real prospect of the final collapse of the opposition he has been backing against Assad since 2011, coupled with a massive humanitarian threat posed by the huge volume of refugees pushed to the edge of his border by the fighting. After all, he had made a major investment in forging a personal relationship with the Russian leader and intensified cooperation with him across the board, including on Syria in the context of the Astana Process, which also includes Iran, despite being on opposite sides of that conflict. It is worth noting that prior to their rapprochement, Turkey had shot down a Russian fighter jet on a bombing run in Idlib just beyond Turkish territory in 2015.

Putin’s hard line on Idlib should not have come as a surprise to Erdogan as the two sides had disagreed from the beginning in their interpretations of the Sochi ceasefire agreement they had signed in September 2018. For its part, Ankara had chosen to interpret the document as a binding Russian commitment to prevent the Assad regime from attacking its opponents in their last remaining redoubt in Syria and to preserve the status quo in the province supervised by observation posts Turkey was allowed to establish along the line separating the two sides. Moscow had focused instead on what it saw as a contractual Turkish obligation to help combat terrorism by curbing ‘radicals’ in Idlib and to ensure transit access for the regime on the M4 and M5 highways long-controlled by the opposition. On February 23, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov once again pointedly reminded the Turkish side that they had “not fulfilled” their obligations.

The upper hand the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham had gained in the province at the beginning of last year against more moderate elements allied to Turkey had given the Russians the ideal excuse to continue to carry out deadly bombing runs against opposition targets in 2019. It is now clear that while Damascus was focused last year on consolidating its control in other areas it had gradually wrested from the opposition while pushing surviving fighters and civilians into Idlib, Putin was content to look beyond his differences there with Erdogan and to focus on cooperation in other areas.

The divergence inevitably came to the surface as Putin provided decisive backing for Assad’s current drive in Idlib. The phone conversations between Erdogan and Putin on February 4 and 12, as well as on February 21, and the three meetings involving their senior civilian and military aides in Ankara on February 7 and 10 and Moscow on February 17 and 18, all failed to resolve the issues dividing the two sides. In the meanwhile, Assad’s forces rapidly captured additional territory, especially in the eastern part of the province near the strategically important M4 and M5 highways, pushing additional refugees towards the northwestern border with Turkey as well as into Turkish-controlled areas further north.

Having been obliged to host close to 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey as a consequence of the failure of the opposition campaign he backed against Assad and to bear the related massive financial burden of over $40 billion according to his own estimates, Erdogan’s main priority in the current crisis is to prevent a further influx of refugees. Although those escaping the current conflagration are not being allowed into Turkey, their growing numbers along the closed border nonetheless lead to additional financial costs while constituting a visible manifestation of the scale of the strategic miscalculation in the Syrian civil war.

Erdogan’s decision to supply additional military equipment to opposition groups and encourage them to mount counterattacks parallel to inserting thousands of Turkish soldiers into Idlib was surely not a belated effort to try to reverse the course of the civil war but an ad hoc policy adjustment aiming at preventing the refugee problem from getting worse. However, his announcement on February 12 that he was “determined to push the regime back to the Sochi agreement lines, meaning behind our observation posts, by the end of February” was designed to signal that his patience was coming to an end.

Although Erdogan’s warning was predictably dismissed by Assad five days later as “empty words,” he was not the intended recipient. It was instead directed at his main backer in the Kremlin, and Erdogan amplified it afterward with a series of unprecedented criticisms of Russian policy in Idlib. However, there was little indication that these were being heeded, and, much to his chagrin, Erdogan witnessed further advances by Assad’s forces on the ground backed by continuing deadly assaults by the Russian Air Force even on the day of his call to Putin.

A few hours before the costly Syrian attack on his forces, Erdogan claimed that “the tide was turning in Idlib as well as in Libya” in an obvious but implicit reference to the gains by Turkish-backed opposition forces, which included the recapture of Seraqib at the junction of the M4-M5 highways. Declaring that the “struggle would continue,” Erdogan said that Assad “who had murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people . . . would not survive without the support of Russia and Iran.” However, he also confirmed that “the talks with the Russians were continuing.” Erdogan was clearly referring to the meeting in Ankara with a high-level Russian delegation comprising diplomats and military officers to discuss Idlib, which continued into its second day even as clashes were intensifying in the province. It is significant that they resumed the day after the attack.

The Putin-Erdogan call on February 21 had followed the latter’s conversation a few hours earlier with German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron in a joint call in which the two European leaders had conveyed their impressions of their conversation the previous day with Putin in which they had proposed a ceasefire in Idlib as well as a summit involving all four leaders on this issue in Istanbul on March 5. The Franco-German intervention offered Erdogan an opportunity to climb back from the brink which he appeared willing to accept.

The Russian side, for its part, was reluctant to agree to participate in the proposed meeting in Istanbul as Erdogan acknowledged on February 24. He said, “It is safe to say that the four-way summit is ‘not final’ because when Mr. Putin suggested that it would be ‘more appropriate to do this bilaterally,’ I said, ‘It could be . . . Regarding the date, we are almost in agreement, on March 5, the location will probably be Istanbul.” However, the following day Peskov said, “There is no talk about any bilateral contacts now, but the possibility of a multilateral meeting is being considered.” Peskov was referring to the regular trilateral Astana meeting in Tehran scheduled for March 6, which would be more favorable from Moscow’s point of view as it would force Erdogan to discuss Idlib in a format involving the two countries backing Assad. Peskov confirmed this on February 27 by categorically ruling out the proposed meeting involving Merkel and Macron and saying that Putin had “other working plans for March 5.”

Erdogan’s desire to broaden the diplomatic equation by bringing the German and French leaders into the Idlib conversation testifies to his desire to gain additional leverage in his trial of strength with Putin. His recognition of the importance of their concern over refugees was confirmed by his decision within hours of the costly Syrian attack to open Turkey’s borders to refugees trying to cross into the European Union. Similarly, Erdogan’s outreach to President Donald Trump on February 15 in a phone call focusing on the situation in Idlib was also designed to enhance diplomatic support. Erdogan commented afterward that the two countries could “cooperate at any moment, in any form,” and Turkish hopes of U.S. backing were encouraged by the Trump’s comments on February 18 when he said, “we spoke about Idlib, and we’re working together on seeing what can be done.”

Following Special Representative for Syria Engagement Jim Jeffrey’s visit to Ankara on February 11 to discuss Idlib, Turkey formally requested Patriot missile systems for positioning near the Syrian border. However, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien made it clear on the same day that the administration was unwilling to intervene. He said, “President Erdogan and President Putin, who have an interesting relationship, sometimes they are the best of friends and sometimes they are not. It is really up to them to work that situation out. I do not think we are going to intervene militarily in Idlib to straighten out that bad situation.”

On February 26, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also signaled that the U.S. military establishment was not planning to get involved in the Idlib crisis by saying, “There has not been that discussion about reengaging in the civil war,” a view which he undoubtedly repeated to his counterpart Akar during their phone conversation the following day.

The lack of meaningful U.S. backing was confirmed by Erdogan himself on February 26 when he said, “There was a promise of support from the U.S. side when I talked to Trump, but there is none as of yet.” He also expressed pessimism about the possible delivery of Patriots by saying, “they don’t have any to give.” Although Erdogan called Trump again on February 28 after the attack, it seems highly unlikely that he received a promise of meaningful support, not only because the United States has been reluctant from the outset to get involved in the Syrian civil war but also because Trump does not wish to take sides in a dispute involving two leaders for whom he has special regard.

In view of the fact that the emergency consultations on Idlib at NATO and the UN Security Council on February 28 also failed to produce the kind of international support Erdogan would have liked, it seems likely that Erdogan will have to settle for an interim compromise with Putin. The most the Russians may be prepared to offer Turkey at this stage is a ‘safe zone’ in the western part of Idlib close to the Turkish border, where the refugees have fled. This was apparently suggested in a map that was given to the visiting Turkish delegation in Moscow, which Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu confirmed on February 20 that Turkey had not accepted.

The inability of the two leaders to halt the dangerous escalation in tensions to the current level in the higher interests of their overall relationship raises serious questions relating to their future interactions. The root causes of their disagreement stemming from their opposing positions relating to the Syrian civil war remain unresolved and will undoubtedly resurface parallel to the continuation of the conflict. Although Erdogan is loath to consider it, the massive refugee problem facing Turkey could theoretically be solved through an agreement with the Assad regime brokered by Moscow. The meeting in the Russian capital on January 14 of the Syrian and Turkish intelligence chiefs no doubt encouraged Putin to believe that an eventual Erdogan-Assad rapprochement was possible. However, Erdogan’s continuing denunciations of Assad confirm that he is very reluctant to make such a move.

It is also worth noting that Idlib is not the only test of Russian-Turkish relations, as the two countries are also on opposite sides in Libya. Turkey has sent more than 4,000 Syrian opposition fighters to Tripoli to strengthen the Government of National Accord (GNA) defenses against Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). Erdogan chose to send a message to Putin by meeting with GNA prime minister Fayez Sarraj on February 20, a day after the Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu had hosted Haftar in Moscow. On February 25, Erdogan denounced the Russian involvement in Libya by saying, “Russia has a mercenary group called Wagner there” and confirmed that this issue was also being discussed with the Russian side. Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov responded by complaining on the same day that Turkey was sending radical foreign fighters from Syria to Libya.

In sum, it is clear Turkish deterrence has failed in Idlib with serious implications for the country’s regional standing and prestige. Consequently, it remains to be seen whether Erdogan will seek to recover lost credibility by escalating from the current provision of mostly artillery support and drone strikes to direct major engagement by Turkish troops with Assad’s forces. Needless to say, this would be highly risky without the ability to use Turkish fighter jets because of Russia’s total control of Syrian airspace, something Erdogan singled out on February 26 as “the most important problem” even as he declared that he would “not retreat in Idlib and push the regime back” and reaffirmed his end of February deadline.

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program