Syria pays the price of its contract with Turkey
The Syrian opposition has its back to the wall because of the policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The coming battle of Idlib is but the realisation of its expected end.
The difference between the results reaped by the Syrian regime and the fate of the opposition lies in Ankara’s priorities. All through the Syrian crisis, the regime benefited from centralised management and disciplined militias and fighters from a variety of geographical, ethnic and national backgrounds but still committed to the strategies laid down by Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.
In the opposite camp it was a different story.
From the beginning, backers of the Syrian opposition engaged in a fierce competition of who could attract the services of the most extreme factions. The situation became a ridiculous auction. Turkey came out the winner of the auction.
The ideological background of the Islamic regime in Turkey combined with Erdogan’s convictions blurred the limits between what was possible and what was impossible regarding strengthening the armed Syrian opposition. For example, Erdogan apparently believed that the “soft” fighting ideology, which was prevailing among the fighters of the Free Syrian Army, was not powerful enough to bring about a decisive result so it had to be “fired up.”
The simplest way of “firing up” any conflict is to infuse it ideologically. When the main backers had specific ideological goals, it was necessary to have the rank and file subscribe to those goals. After all, they are the ones who would be fed into the war machine.
What Erdogan did to this end was simple: He opened Turkey’s borders to jihadists and allowed them to join the Islamic State. The immediate objective of the strategy was not to bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad or inflict severe damage on the regime; it was to make sure that post-war Syria is wrapped in the “right ideology” regardless of the outcome of the war. Erdogan knows the dust in Syria will settle one day and it was crucial to plan, not for when the war would end but for how it should end.
Erdogan needed a wide support base in Syria. The tiny Turkmen minority squeezed in a small area in northern Syria may have provided support based on ethnic affiliation but that was not enough for Erdogan’s objectives. What was needed was the support of the Sunni Muslim majority after imbuing it with the “right” ideology.
If the plan worked, Turkey would become the most influential country in post-war Syria, even in the eventuality of having Assad stay in power.
When Turkey welcomed millions of Sunni Syrian refugees, it was a necessary and temporary strategic step in the plan. They would make the first circle of Turkish influence in Syrian society. The refugees would eventually return to Syria having acquired a Turkish mindset and with enough gratitude to become faithful to Erdogan and his policies, the final phase of the most radical plan for influence in the region.
After 2013, Erdogan no longer considered the possibility of bringing down the Assad regime or the consequences of keeping it in place. Realistically, the Turkish strategy shifted towards the conviction that the fall of the Syrian regime was probably not in the best interest of Turkey. The Kurdish issue was dominating Turkey’s policies in Syria.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria transformed the conflict. It created a feeling of insecurity in Turkey. Turkey was mired in the Syrian conflict but was losing the monopoly of managing it. During this phase, Ankara realised that it did not have the means to achieve its objectives in Syria and that it could not afford to withdraw from Syria because that would create instability.
Turkey stayed in Syria because of the Kurdish issue, of course, but also because it wanted to fill a vacuum. Turkey didn’t have a precise strategy for managing the vacuum, especially in northern Syria. Its presence there simply reflected its fear that competing forces might take its place should it withdraw. This is characteristic of policies motivated by feelings of insecurity.
With these considerations in mind, Turkey had no choice but to enter a “necessary alliance” with Russia. It wasn’t a real alliance but it represented a definitive step in Turkey’s disengagement from backing the Syrian opposition.
The step taken wasn’t the only result of Ankara’s decision to lower the ceiling of its objectives in Syria, even though it controlled the Syrian town of al-Bab and would make a military incursion in Afrin.
Turkey followed a policy based on planned reactions to the United States’ changing moods in Syria. Towards the end of the Barack Obama era, Washington abandoned the strategy of trying to remove the Syrian regime. At about the same time, Turkey also abandoned that objective. That was no coincidence.
Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia was a reaction to the United States siding with the Kurds in northern Syria.
Turkey’s policy decisions — opening borders to jihadists, focusing Turkish strategy on constricting the Kurds, striking an alliance with the Russians and adopting a dubious but pragmatic policy in dealing with Syrian refugees — produced a confusion in Turkey’s objectives and forced it to settle for less than what it had considered as the minimum requirement. The coming battle of Idlib would represent the last link in the chain of Turkish concessions.
Negotiations among the Russians, Turks and Iranians, with the ubiquitous Americans always in the background, are not about whether the battle will take place but rather about the path of that battle and its outcome.
Regardless of whether there is a re-enactment of the scenarios that unfolded in Eastern Ghouta, Homs and Daraa, the battle of Idlib will mark the end of the Syrian war and of Turkey’s ambitions in Syria.