Erdoğan faces hard choices in Idlib - FT

The looming end-of-February deadline set by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for Syrian regime forces to withdraw from parts of Syria’s Idlib province threatens to drag Turkey deeper into the conflict and poses dilemmas for the Turkish leader, reported the Financial Times on Thursday. 

The need to balance multiple, often competing demands and aims is putting Erdoğan in a tight spot with few good options, as he weighs the risks of an escalating conflict with Russian-backed Syria against his immediate priority to prevent a new wave of refugees from crossing the border into Turkey as they flee the Syrian army advance to regain the rebel controlled enclave. 

On the domestic front, Turkish opposition parties have criticised Erdogan’s Syria policy, as more than a dozen Turkish soldiers have been killed in recent weeks while supporting Syrian rebels in Idlib province. Like much of the population, opposition parties are also opposed to Turkey taking in more refugees.

“Getting out [of Idlib] altogether, allowing the refugees to come into Turkey and letting Assad take that space is not an idea that’s going to resonate with Turkish society,” Nigar Göksel, the Turkey director of the International Crisis Group told the Financial Times. 

“But I’m not sure that there’s so much buy-in to trying to push the regime back and doing that at the cost of Turkish soldiers’ lives. There are no good solutions.” 

While Turkey is keen to avoid a significant escalation with Russia—which could also have ramifications in Libya, where Turkey and Russia also support opposing sides in a civil war— Erdoğan is also under pressure from the ultranationalist Devlet Bahçeli, his de facto coalition partner, who has urged the Turkish president to take a strong stance against Moscow and Damascus, reported the Financial Times.

Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Financial Times that he expects Erdoğan will eventually have to back down without robust U.S. support. “I think we’ll see an outcome where Assad takes a lot of territory and Turkey ends up with a lot of refugees in what becomes the north-west Syrian version of the Gaza strip,” he said.

Erdoğan is hoping to hold a summit with Syria’s sponsors Russia and Iran next week.

“If everything else fails, I think that Turkey will target the [Syrian] regime,” said Galip Dalay, a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Doha Center. “How the spiral of violence will turn out then is anyone’s guess.”