Erdoğan abuts a Waterloo moment in Syria - opinion

Escalated tensions between Turkey and Russia over the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib appears to be the end of the road for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Turks would not tolerate a defeat, said Melik Kaylan in his commentary on Forbes on Friday.

“A nation with a long militaristic history like Turkey can endure battlefield martyrs, inflows of refugees, curbs on freedoms and strongman posturing in its leader, up to a point,” Kaylan said. “What it won't tolerate is defeat, especially defeat that a supine media can't hide from the populace.”

Russian-backed Syrian forces have killed 15 Turkish soldiers in Syria’s last major rebel-held enclave since the start of the month. Turkey accuses Russia of not honouring the terms of a 2018 deal the two countries made to establish a demilitarised zone in Idlib to prevent a potential assault of the Syrian government on the province that would spark a new refugee influx into Turkey.

Turkey and Russia have failed in reaching a compromise that would ease the tensions in Idlib despite intensive diplomatic efforts in the last two weeks. Turkey threatens to launch an operation in Idlib, asking Russia to ensure the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the demilitarised zone.

A defeat in Idlib will also mean the collapse of Syrian rebels backing Turkish operations in Syria since 2016, Kaylan said, adding that this would “free the Kurds to unite geographically along Turkey's southern border thereby furnish support to fellow Kurds inside Turkey.”

“So Erdoğan abuts a Waterloo moment,” Kaylan said, referring to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 that ended Napoleon's rule as Emperor of the French. "He is asking NATO desperately for Patriot air cover from Russian airstrikes against Turkish soldiers. Having spurned NATO and the West, having defiantly purchased Russian missile batteries, Erdoğan has run out of bluffing room on both sides.”

But U.S. President Donald Trump could decide to help Erdoğan, Kaylan said, adding that some Turkish journalists told him that Patriot batteries had already landed at NATO’s İncirlik base in southern Turkey. 

“If so, it might be an initial gesture that goes nowhere after dense negotiation,” Kaylan said. “American soldiers are unlikely to fire them in battle against Russians and the training of Turks will take time.”