It has been a tough month for Turkey’s strong man president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s military incursion into Idlib, the last Syrian province still under opposition control, has gone horribly wrong. Air strikes by the Syrian army have killed 34 Turkish servicemen in an attack that obviously had Russia’s backing. Vladimir Putin’s message to Erdogan could not have been clearer: stop supporting the jihadist resistance to the Assad regime and get ready to get out of Syria.
Humiliated, Ankara could not even blame Russia publicly. Instead, Erdogan had to content himself with turning his fury on the Syrian regime. Turkish artillery forces began pounding Assad’s forces in Idlib and the pro-government Turkish media reported Syrian military casualties in the hundreds.
On the night that Turkish forces came under attack in Idlib, Erdogan also opened his country’s border with Greece. This was also a clear message to the European Union: this is the price you pay for not sharing the burden of taking in millions of Syrian refugees. The main reason for Turkey getting involved in Idlib was, after all, to prevent another influx of refugees from Syria joining the almost four million who are already in Turkey.
As the bodies of those young Turkish soldiers were brought home, it was clear that what happened in Idlib had provoked a radical change. To many, this meant the end of the “bromance” between Erdogan and Putin. The Turkish-Russian marriage of convenience was surely headed toward a nasty divorce.
Many also speculated that this gave Washington a chance to repair relations with its NATO ally. Ironically, it was Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile-defense system instead of the NATO-compatible Patriot that had strained the relationship in the first place.
With equal irony – some might say audacity – after coming under attack from Russian Su-24 strikers in Syria, Turkey had no qualms about asking Washington to deploy those same rejected Patriot missiles near its border with Syria. That must have been a moment to savor for Erdogan’s foes in the US. Not surprisingly, the Trump administration did not rush to help the Turkish president.
Afraid to point the finger of blame at Russia and unable to secure support from the Americans, the only way for a thoroughly humiliated Erdogan to show his nationalist base that he had both the will and capability to avenge the soldiers’ deaths was to hit back doubly hard against the Syrian regime in Idlib.
To the astonishment of many, Putin made no attempt to stop Erdogan. Instead, he gave him carte blanche to carry on. As Turkey launched a major military operation in Syria just days before Erdogan’s scheduled visit to Moscow, the Kremlin turned a blind eye. Putin allowed Turkish drones to fly over Idlib airspace while heavy artillery and air raids by Turkish fighter jets pounded Assad’s forces. On March 2, Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar declared that Turkish forces had destroyed two Syrian Su-24 fighter jets, two drones, 135 tanks, five air-defense systems and “neutralized” more than 2,500 fighters loyal to the Syrian government.
Why did Putin allow Erdogan to launch this military campaign against his ally Bashar Al Assad? Three reasons come to mind.
One: Putin realized Erdogan needed to save face over Idlib, at least temporarily, and that he needed to appease those at home thirsting for revenge.
The second and perhaps most important reason: Putin has invested too much in driving a wedge between Turkey and the United States. A rapprochement between NATO and Turkey is simply not in Russia’s national interest.
Third: if Turkey needed to blow off steam, it would be on Russia’s terms. There would be no attack on Russian targets and the whole military operation would last only a couple of days and not alter the fundamental dynamics on the ground. The fact that after retreating for a few days, Syrian regime forces and Russian military police have restored their hold over strategic points in Idlib proves that point.
But Putin will eventually have the upper hand. At the end of the day, Erdogan knows that the death of Turkish servicemen in Idlib cannot be laid at Russia’s door – not after he failed to secure support from the Americans and Europeans for Turkey’s adventurism in Syria.
His consolation was that brief show of military might that allowed him to claim some tactical gains in Idlib. But the strategic victory in Syria once again clearly belongs to Moscow.
Omer Taspinar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.