Optimism for Erdoğan-Putin talks on Idlib

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is set to discuss the increasingly volatile situation in the Syrian rebel-held province of Idlib with his Russian counterpart on Thursday in Moscow, where some observers have high hopes the two leaders will reach a deal that offers a path to end the nine-year Syrian war.  

Some 34 Turkish soldiers were killed by an airstrike in Syria’s last rebel-held province last week, prompting Turkey to launch a major offensive against the Russia-backed forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad and encourage refugees within Turkey to head toward its European borders as a way to pressure the European Union to come to its aid in Idlib.  

Thousands of would-be migrants have clashed with Greek authorities on land and at sea, leading to the drowning of a six-year-old boy on Monday. On Wednesday, Greek border guards opened fire on refugees with rubber bullets and live rounds, killing one and injuring five others, according to the Edirne governor’s office.  

Henri Barkey, international relations professor at Lehigh University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that behind the scenes, Germany, Britain and other European countries had been looking for ways to help Turkey deal with the up to 3 million displaced Syrians caught between Assad’s advancing forces and the Turkish border, and that Turkey’s response was unhelpful.  

“You’re weaponising refugees,” Barkey told Ahval in a podcast. “If you’re trying to get the Europeans to really sympathise with you, this is not the way to do it; it creates more ill will. Once this Idlib crisis is over, Europeans will not forget this.”

On Tuesday, European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Greece’s border with Turkey and expressed support for Greek actions, describing Greece as Europe’s shield, while an opinion piece in The Independent saw Turkey’s approach as a gift to Europe’s far-right. 

Barkey thought Turkey was right to get involved and raise the Idlib issue internationally, but doubted that sending thousands of soldiers into Syria and launching a massive offensive would improve the situation. The main problem with Turkey’s policy in Idlib, he said, is that it had failed to mobilise foreign support because it has been unwilling to listen to other perspectives. 

“The way Turkey approaches these kinds of issues is, ‘I know the solution. You do it my way’,” Barkey said. “The approach the Turks have taken, especially recently, has been one in which they decide what has to happen and unfortunately they don’t do it with an endgame in sight.” 

In Turkey’s defence, Barkey has not heard a viable plan for what the West might do to stop Assad’s forces from advancing and head off a humanitarian catastrophe, which is why so much is riding on Erdoğan’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday. 

“This is between Russia and Turkey. The Turks went in, and they bit more than they could chew,” said Barkey, adding that it was a Russian strike that killed dozens of Turkish soldiers last week. “They were angry at Turkey firing missiles at Russian airplanes ... This was a provocation for the Russians and the Russians decided to hit back.” 

To help Erdoğan save face in advance of their summit, according to Barkey, Russia opened up the airspace over Idlib this week and allowed Turkish drones and aircraft to pound Syrian positions. Now Erdoğan must go to Moscow for talks, a significant symbolic move that suggests he is paying respect to the more powerful leader. 

Barkey expected Assad and Putin to remain unwavering on their commitment to retaking Idlib. Key issues to be discussed include whether Russia will allow some Turkish troops to stay in Idlib to protect its border, and whether Turkey will commit to refrain from direct confrontation with Assad’s forces. 

But an often neglected concern of Putin’s is the cost of Russian involvement. 

“He wants it to be over as soon as possible,” said Barkey. “The Russians are spending huge amounts of resources maintaining troops, doing bombing runs. The Syrians don’t have any money left, there is no economy left in Syria, so this is all being done gratis by the Russians and Russia is not economically strong.”

This will drive Putin toward a deal, while Turkey’s fast-growing number of casualties, decreasing domestic support and increasing ill will among its allies will push Erdoğan to meet him halfway. 

“Neither of them want this to get out of hand,” said Barkey. “They will work out some sort of solution. I think probably more concessions will come from the Turkish side.”