Putin-Erdogan summit: Prelude to Russo-Turkish clash or last best hope for Syrian peace?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan attend a working lunch in Istanbul, Turkey, January 8, 2020. Reuters / Sputnik / Kremlin / Alexei Druzhinin Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan attend a working lunch in Istanbul, Turkey, January 8, 2020.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives in Russia to discuss the situation in Syria with President Vladimir Putin. Damascus and Ankara are on the brink of open conflict over the fate of militant-controlled Idlib province.

The summit takes place as Turkey has sent thousands of troops, tanks and drones into Idlib, the last remaining province of Syria held by militants who once sought to overthrow the government in Damascus. Events seemed to be headed towards a direct confrontation after 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in a Syrian airstrike last week.

Of particular concern is the fact that Turkey is a NATO member with the second-largest military in the alliance, so a conflict between Ankara and Damascus could easily engulf its ally Moscow, as well as Europe and the US. Yet on the eve of the summit, it appears Putin holds a much stronger hand than Erdogan.

Managing expectations

After Erdogan declared the start of “Operation Spring Shield,” there were murmurs in Ankara of outright annexing Idlib, while talking heads on Turkish TV spoke passionately of Russian-Turkish wars of the past and weaponizing Russia’s millions of Muslims if need be. By Monday, however, Erdogan’s publicly stated expectation was only to achieve a “ceasefire” in Idlib.

By contrast, the Kremlin expects the two sides to “reach a common understanding on the crisis, the cause of the crisis, the harmful effects of the crisis and arrive at a set of necessary joint measures,” in the words of Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

While the Turkish military claims to have killed hundreds of Syrian soldiers, the situation on the ground suggests that Ankara’s forces and the militants they back are still losing ground to Syrian troops along the strategic M4 and M5 highways.

Russia is not halting its expeditionary force’s activities in Syria, either. Quite the contrary, the flow of reinforcements and supplies by air and sea has drastically increased for the first time since October 2019, when Moscow halted the Turkish incursion into Kurdish-held territory.

Furthermore, early on Wednesday the Russian Ministry of Defense bluntly accused Ankara of shielding terrorists affiliated with Al-Qaeda and failing to honor its commitments made at the 2018 Sochi summit to separate terrorists from the so-called “moderate rebels” in Idlib, clearly implying that if Ankara can’t or won’t do it, Moscow can and will.

US tries to butt in

Washington has sought to fill the gap between Ankara and Moscow by cosying up to the Turks, after years of repeatedly threatening Erdogan over his rapprochement with Putin. On Wednesday, US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft went to Ankara and met with Erdogan.

Earlier in the week, Craft joined US special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey in visiting Idlib. On that occasion, Jeffrey apparently promised US ammunition and supplies to the Turkish Army – only for State Department officials to quickly walk back those comments and explain they were referring to “ongoing US support” to Ankara.

While the US media and lawmakers talk tough about Idlib, President Donald Trump has remained quiet on the matter, apparently letting things unfold on their own.

Erdogan extorts the EU

The Turkish president has also attempted to bully the European Union into backing his military adventure, by opening the Turkish-EU border to millions of migrants – ostensibly Syrian refugees, but in reality people from anywhere between Morocco and Afghanistan – and unleashing them on the continent.

Unlike a similar gambit in 2015, however, the EU seems to be responding by closing its borders and turning the migrants back, with even German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling it “unacceptable” for Erdogan to exploit the refugees in this way.

Cracks in the foundation

While picking a fight has traditionally served to unite the Turks around their military and bolster the popularity of the country’s leader, it appears that Erdogan’s third attempt to openly interfere in Syria – after both the 2019 and 2016 incursions fell far short of stated objectives – may have already begun to backfire.

Opinion polls show growing opposition to the war as more flag-covered coffins come in from Idlib. An opposition member of the Turkish parliament got into a fistfight with a colleague from Erdogan’s party after he accused the president of betraying the troops by sending them into Syria without adequate support.

In this climate, it will be interesting to see how many Turks are swayed by the words of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who in a recent interview called the Turkish people “brothers” and said there was absolutely no need for them to continue dying in an attempt to stop the Syrian government from liberating its country from terrorists.

What comes next

This is not the first time Turkey has been on the brink of potential conflict with Syria's ally Russia. In November 2015, shortly after Moscow deployed an expeditionary force into Syria, Turkish jets shot down a Russian Su-24 over Idlib, and the Turkish-backed “rebels” killed one of its pilots and a rescue team member. Yet the eventual outcome of that incident, and a failed military coup attempt in 2016, was Erdogan’s turn towards Moscow and away from the US policy on Syria.

That is not to say that the same thing will happen again, only that such an outcome wouldn’t be nearly as strange as many other twists and turns the Syrian conflict has taken since its beginning in 2011.