Turkish soldiers pay high price for Erdoğan's imperial pretensions

The killing of eight Turkish military personnel in Syria on Monday highlights the price of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s foray into the neighbouring civil war.

Regardless of the veracity of his claim that Turkey exacted a five-fold payback on Syrian forces, these deaths of Turkish troops on foreign soil will sharpen the questions about what national interests are at stake in Idlib, the last rebel-held province in Syria.

Most importantly for Turkey, Erdoğan must now plead with Russian President Vladimir Putin to restrain Syrian President Bashar Assad. The alternative, sending more Turkish troops into Idlib, would only increase the likelihood of more soldiers returning in flag draped coffins to Turkey and their grieving families. 

In functioning democracies, and Turkey remains a functioning albeit deeply flawed democracy, political leaders must retain the electoral support of their citizens. We have seen that voters can be convinced to maintain their overall support for a leader even if they do not like some policies. But the death of loved ones in foreign lands is the exception that proves this rule - parents will reject any leader if he or she cannot articulate the necessity of sacrificing a child. 

Elected leaders must convince the electorate that the foreign operations are worth the sacrifices made by military personnel, especially if those military personnel give their lives in service to the nation.

Inside Turkey, countering the armed insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) enjoys widespread support because most Turks are convinced that the sacrifice of blood and treasure is vital to the nation’s national security. 

Staunching the flow of Syrian refugees or protecting Syrian Arabs from Assad’s retribution do not enjoy such levels of support, and what support they have will be undermined if Turkish soldiers, rather than Turkish affiliated Arab fighters, die in significant numbers with no measurable improvement in Turkey’s national security. 

Erdoğan certainly knows this, but he has painted himself into a tight corner. Assad wishes to assert sovereign control over all of Syria, and the Russians continue to back him to ultimately attain that goal. Those efforts will likely continue regardless of the presence of Turkish soldiers stationed in rebel-held Idlib.

Russian support for Assad’s efforts to rid Idlib of rebels will not diminish, in effect, giving Assad a carte blanche for attacking any anti-Assad forces. Putin is not going to abandon Assad now after having invested so much there. But note, in terms of Russian blood, he has not paid a high price. Also, Putin need have far fewer concerns about the mood of the electorate than Erdoğan.

Thus, Erdoğan must persuade Putin to restrain Assad from attacking where Turkish forces are deployed. Whether Putin chooses to do so solely depends on what Putin determines to be in his best interests. Erdoğan has little to no leverage with Putin. Turkey’s economy increasingly depends on Russian hydrocarbons. Likewise its tourist industry, as Putin has demonstrated in the past.

The European Union will restrain itself from pointing out that Erdoğan got himself into this situation, but that does not mean it will help. Few EU leaders will be interested in engaging diplomatically with Putin on behalf of a man who has threatened Europe with a massive influx of Syrian refugees, called Europeans racists and Islamophobes, cosied up to Russia, threatened EU member Cyprus over hydrocarbon exploration, and shown disdain for most EU leaders. 

But Putin might help out his good friend Erdoğan, for a price. What increased dependency might result from such help and at what cost is hard to gauge, but Putin might be willing to restrain Assad’s forces, temporarily, in exchange for further enhancements to Russian influence in Turkey.   

Turkish acquiescence to formal Russian land-grabs in Georgia or Ukraine, as occurred with the illegal annexation of Crimea, might be the model, or perhaps the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Libya. The most important point is that Putin will decide the nature and timing of any positive response to Erdoğan’s requests to restrain Assad from attacks that could impact Turkish forces.

Of course, Putin and Assad may decide that the message has been sent and come out with a claim that the death of Turkish troops was totally inadvertent and undesired, but who would believe them? Erdoğan would, at least publicly, as the price of maintaining good relations with Putin. Afterwards he could announce that based on assurances from Putin, it was now possible for Turkish troops to leave Idlib and re-deploy to northeast Syria to confront what he calls Kurdish terrorists. Nonetheless, whether a predictable or unforeseeable response, it is Putin not Erdoğan that directs the response. 

Erdoğan’s “conflict at home, conflict in the world” foreign policy, with its multiple deployments of troops in harm’s way abroad looks more each day like a costly exercise in adventurism with no demonstrable improvement in Turkish national security or benefits for its citizens. He will likely politically survive this attack as sadly Turkish personnel did not. But if more attacks against Turkish soldiers occur and many more die, Turkish citizens may begin to question having to pay with their blood for Erdoğan’s imperial pretensions. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.