The war of words between Russia and Turkey has long started in Syria. Ankara alone is responsible for the escalation of violence in the Idlib province, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said recently. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more or less openly threatened his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin with war: “Either Russia will stop bombing Idlib or we will do what is necessary.”
The question that people in the region are now asking is whether Turkish and Russian troops will soon be facing each other in Idlib. Putin and Erdogan have actually cultivated a special friendship between men in recent years:
Since the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, the two have spoken to each other 70 times.
Erdogan has no closer contact with any other head of state.
Ankara bought the Russian S-400 missile defense system despite protests from the United States.
Russia is building a nuclear power plant in Turkey.
But as much as Erdogan and Putin flaunt their supposed closeness, they are miles apart when it comes to essential foreign policy issues. The two autocrats have different views of Libya, Cyprus, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But the most dangerous is their rivalry in Syria.
“We have been patient for far too long”
Before, in 2015, Russia and Turkey were on the brink of war when Turkish soldiers shot down a Russian jet over Syria. Only a letter of apology from Erdogan to Putin defused the conflict. Since then, the two countries have coordinated their Syria policies. Turkey has reduced its support for anti-Assad rebels. Putin gave Erdogan a free hand when he invaded northeastern Syria.
But now the argument escalates again. The advance of the Assad regime and Russia on Idlib is putting Turkey under pressure. According to the UN, more than half a million Syrian refugees are persistent on the border with Turkey, Erdogan himself speaks of a million people. Turkey, which has already taken in around 3.5 million Syrians, fears another refugee crisis. “The situation in Idlib is unacceptable,” says Erdogan. “We have been patient for far too long.”
Erdogan has given Assad an ultimatum
Attacks by Syrian regime troops on the Turkish military in Idlib have killed more than two dozen Turkish soldiers in the past few days. Ankara responded with counterattacks in which, according to the Turkish government, more than 100 Syrian soldiers died. Since then the situation has worsened.
The Turkish military has deployed more troops to the war zone. The Syrian Human Rights Observatory reports that Turkey has brought more than 600 military vehicles across the border. The Syrian regime has besieged several Turkish military observation posts in Idlib.
Erdogan has given Assad an ultimatum. Ankara would act if the Syrian military did not withdraw from Turkish observation posts by the end of the month. His government coalition partner, right-wing extremist Devlet Bahceli, is already calling for a plan to invade Damascus to “wipe out the tyrant”.
“Will NATO support Turkey?”
It still seems as if Erdogan wants to build a threatening backdrop in order to achieve a better negotiation result. Burhanettin Duran, director of the government-related Turkish think tank Seta, suggested in a contribution to the Daily Sabah newspaper that Turkey wanted to establish a “buffer zone” in Idlib, similar to what it did in northeast Syria.
Russia controls the airspace over Idlib. Erdogan should be very well aware that he can only act to a limited extent in Syria without Putin’s consent. Nevertheless, there is a risk that the situation could quickly get completely out of control due to the high military presence and the militant rhetoric.
In such a case, the Turkish government also seems to hope for assistance from the West. The United States government’s Syrian commissioner, James Jeffrey, was in Ankara this week. “Our ally, Turkey, is in danger. And this danger comes from Russia and the Assad regime,” he said. “What if the conflict between Turkey and Russia continues to escalate?” Asked a Turkish journalist recently. “Will NATO support Turkey?” This question should be answered soon.