Recep Tayyip Erdogan, neo-Ottoman extraordinaire, is not exactly inclined to commit seppuku, the Japanese act of ritual suicide.
But if not through the perspective of neo-Ottomanism, how to explain the fact he is de facto supporting al-Qaeda remnants in Syria while facing two unsavory options – a humiliating retreat from or total war against the Syrian Arab Army?
Everything about the slowly evolving, messy chessboard in Idlib hinges on highways: the imperative for the government in Damascus to control both the M5 highway between Damascus and Aleppo and the M4 highway between Latakia and Aleppo. Fully reclaiming these two crucial axes will finally turbo-charge the ailing Syrian economy.
Very few players nowadays remember the all-important Sochi memorandum of understanding signed between Russia and Turkey in September 2018.
The Western spin was always about whether Damascus would comply. Nonsense. In the memorandum, Ankara guaranteed protection of civilian traffic on both highways. It’s Ankara that is not complying, not only in terms of ensuring that “radical terrorist groups” are out of the demilitarized zone, but especially on point number 8: “In the interests of ensuring free movement of local residents and goods, as well as restoring trade and economic ties, transit traffic along the routes M4 (Aleppo-Latakia) and M5 (Aleppo-Hama) will be restored before the end of 2018.”
Vast stretches of Idlib are in fact under the yoke of Hayat Tahrir al Shams (HTS), shorthand for al-Qaeda in Syria. Or “moderate rebels,” as they are known inside the Beltway – even though the United States government itself brands it as a terror organization.
For all practical purposes, the Erdogan system is supporting and weaponizing HTS in Idlib. When the SAA reacts against HTS’s attacks, Erdogan goes ballistic and threatens war.
The West uncritically buys Ankara propaganda. How dare the “Assad regime” take back the M5, which “had been under rebel control since 2012”? Erdogan is lauded for warning “Iran and Russia to end the support for the Assad regime.” NATO invariably condemns “attacks on Turkish troops.”
The official Ankara explanation for the Turkish presence in Idlib hinges on bringing reinforcements to “observation posts.” Nonsense. These posts are not meant to go away. On top of it, Ankara demands that the SAA should retreat to the positions it held months ago – away from Idlib.
There’s no way Damascus will “comply” because these Turkish troops are a de facto occupation body-protecting “moderate rebels” fighting for “democracy” who were decisively excluded by Moscow – and even Ankara – from the Sochi memorandum. One can’t make this stuff up.
Got airpower, will travel
Now let’s look at the facts on the ground – and in the skies. Moscow and Damascus control the airspace over Idlib. Su-34 jets patrol all of northwest Syrian territory. Moscow has warships – crammed with cruise missiles – deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The whole SAA offensive for these past few months to liberate national territory has been a graphic demonstration of top Russian intel – planning, execution, logistics.
What’s being set up is a classic cauldron – a Southwest Asia replica of the cauldron in Donbass in 2014 that destroyed Kiev’s army. The SAA is encircling the Turks from the north, east and south. There will be only one way out for the Turks: the border crossing at Bab al-Hawa. Back to Turkey.
Facing certified disaster, no wonder Erdogan had to talk “de-escalation” with Putin on Tuesday. The red lines, from Moscow’s side, are immutable: the highways will be liberated (according to the Sochi agreement). The neo-Ottoman sultan can’t afford a war with Russia. So, yes: he’s bluffing.
But why is he bluffing? There are three main possibilities. 1) Washington is forcing him to, pledging full support to “our NATO ally.” 2) The Turkish Armed Forces cannot afford to lose face. 3) The “moderate rebels” don’t give a damn about Ankara.
Option 1 seems the most plausible – even as Erdogan is being actually forced to directly confront a Moscow with which he has signed extremely important economic/energy contracts. Erdogan may not be a General Zhukov, but he knows that a bunch of jihadis and only 6,000 demoralized Turkish soldiers stand no chance against the SAA and Russian airpower.
It’s enlightening to compare the current Turkish predicament with the Turk/Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxy gang alliance when they were fighting the Kurds in Afrin.
Ankara then had control of the skies and enormous artillery advantage – from their side of the border. Now Syria/Russia rules the skies and Turkish artillery simply cannot get into Idlib. Not to mention that supply lines are dreadful.
So what is Erdogan up to? What’s happening is Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood network is now managing Idlib on the ground – a fascinating repositioning gambit able to ensure that Erdogan remains a strongman with whom Bashar al-Assad will have to talk business when the right time comes.
Erdogan’s partial endgame will be to “sell” to Assad that ultimately he was responsible for getting rid of the HTS/FSA jihadi nebulae. Meanwhile, circus prevails – or, rather, a lousy opera, with Erdogan once again relishing playing the bad guy. He knows Damascus has all but won a vicious nine-year proxy war – and is reclaiming all of its sovereign territory. There’s no turning back.
And that brings us to the complex dynamics of the Turkish-Iranian puzzle. One should always remember that both are members of the Astana peace process, alongside Russia. On Syria, Tehran supported Damascus from the start while Ankara bet on – and weaponized – the “democratic freedom fighter” jihadi nebulae.
From the 16th century to the 19th, Shi’ite Iran and the Sunni Ottoman empire were engaged in non-stop mutual containment. And under the banner of Islam, Turkey de facto ruled over the Arab world.
Jump cut, in the 21st century, to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who codified neo-Ottomanism. Davutoglu came up with the idea that eastern Anatolia did not end with the borders with Armenia and Iran but extended to the western coast of the Caspian Sea. And he also came up with the idea that eastern Anatolia did not end at the borders with Iraq and Syria – but extended all the way to Mosul.
Essentially, Davutoglu argued that the Middle East had to be Turkey’s backyard. And Syria would be the golden gate through which Turkey would “recover” the Middle East.
All these elaborate plans now lie in dust. The Big Picture, of course, remains: the US determined by all means necessary to prevent Eurasian unity, and the Russia-China strategic partnership from having access to maritime routes, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean through Syria via Iran.
The micro-picture is way more prosaic. It comes down to Erdogan making sure his occupying troops do not get routed by Assad’s army. How the mighty (neo-Ottoman) have fallen.