M K Bhadrakumar l
Russia has taken with a pinch of salt Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s statement on Wednesday that a Turkish incursion into the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib is imminent.
Objectively speaking, Erdogan should be out of his mind to order a military offensive against the Syrian and Russian forces in Idlib. A Russian military delegation, which visited Ankara last week, had advised the Turks to back down, but Erdogan instead beefed up the deployments in Idlib.
Again, the Russian side proposed to the Turkish delegation, which visited Moscow this week for further talks, that a new ceasefire is the best option, necessitated by the ground reality that Damascus will not vacate the strategic areas flanking the M4 and M5 highways.
But the Turkish delegation not only but disputed the Russian demarche that terrorist attacks from Idlib continue still against the Hmeimim airbase.
Erdogan’s statement today goes a step further. Clearly, Moscow cannot take chances. The Kremlin spokesmen Dmitry Peskov calmly shrugged off Erdogan’s threat by saying, “Let us not expect the worst scenario to become a reality.”
He added, “We are determined to continue to use our working contacts with our Turkish counterparts to prevent the situation in Idlib from escalating further.” Peskov stressed that “contacts with Turkey would continue at various levels.”
But the Russian intention is to forewarn Erdogan against making any rash moves. The point is, the Idlib situation evolved over a period of time since last summer when Russian and Syrian reached an estimation that Turkey had no intentions of fulfilling its commitments to evict the al-Qaeda affiliates.
Turkey was instead utilising its 12 “observation posts” in Idlib to keep an eye on the Syrian and Russian forces beyond the ceasefire line.
When the Russian-Syrian offensive finally got under way, Turks could do nothing to stop it and very soon, these observation posts got surrounded by the Syrian army. Erdogan lost face. And he ordered a deployment of 5000 troops to Idlib with heavy armour, tanks and artillery.
But the Syrian forces took on the challenge and13 Turkish soldiers were killed. Erdogan had probably thought that the Syrian forces would hesitate to take on a NATO power. Again, he lost face. And this time around, he threatened to attack the Syrian and Russian forces.
But the offensive rolled on and more towns and territories came under control of the Syrian government. As a commentary featured today in the Kremlin-funded RT puts it, “Erdogan’s bluff had been effectively called. The Turks now find themselves in an impossible situation.”
Erdogan has pulled back the rebel groups that are Turkey’s proxies and left the al-Qaeda groups to fend for themselves where they are being systematically decimated by the Syrian and Russian forces. The RT commentary concludes:
“For the Turkish troops still deployed inside Idlib, their situation has become increasingly perilous. Their numbers and dispositions preclude any chance of a meaningful defense of Idlib, even if the decision was made to engage the Russian Air Force and Syrian Army. The best that Turks can hope for at this juncture is a new ceasefire that allows its military forces in Idlib to be withdrawn safely with their honour intact… Turkey has made its position in Idlib unsustainable both militarily and politically.”
However, Russia won’t take chances. In a display of military superiority, two Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bombers performed a scheduled flight over the Black Sea today, covering a distance of about 4,500 km and staying in the air for more than five hours, while fighter jets of Russia’s Southern Military District escorted the bombers.
Again, today, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeated Moscow’s full backing for the Syrian operations in Idlib. He said in a clear rebuff to Turkey, “It is only natural that the Syrian armed forces, reaffirming their commitment to the original agreements on Idlib, including an agreement on a ceasefire, respond to such inadmissible provocations. We support them in this.”
“The Syrian army’s actions are a response to a flagrant violation of the agreements on Idlib… Syrian troops are not pushing militants and terrorists back on a foreign territory but on their own soil, thereby reestablishing the legitimate Syrian government’s control over its territories.”
Although US President Trump keeps cheering Erdogan to buck up his spirits, the NATO as such is not getting involved in the Turkish adventure in Idlib. Tass quoted a NATO diplomatic source in Brussels that NATO countries will neither support the invocation of Article 5 over the death of Turkish troops in Idlib nor provide Turkey with military assistance in the event of a military operation in the region.
Moscow has been far too lenient toward Erdogan who has “significant challenges at home, where the Turkish economy is slowing down, and overseas, where Turkey’s military is over-stretched, from Syria to Libya,” as a scholar at the Washington Institute noted.
In a clear message warning Erdogan from punching so far above his weight, Haftar’s forces had fired shells at a Turkish ship at Tripoli harbour last week, which was carrying arms and supplies. Interestingly, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu met today with the Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, who is Erdogan’s bête noire.
The astonishing part is that amidst all this cacophony, on Tuesday, Turkish military quietly resumed the joint patrols with Russian forces in northeastern Syria where both countries are common interest in preventing a US comeback to the Turkish-Syrian border regions with their Kurdish allies. Certainly, as Peskov signalled today, the Kremlin has reason to hope that the better sense will prevail in Ankara.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline.