Yavuz Baydar
Aug 12 2018

Ankara is in a diplomatic cul-de-sac, squeezed by Russia, US

Has Ankara reached an impasse regarding its foreign policy? Once, it had a zero-problems-with-the-neighbours’ policy. That has all but collapsed, leaving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government with zero options. The overall picture is of a regional power that’s being squeezed by the United States, its NATO ally, and Russia.

The rift in US-Turkish relations over the American Evangelist pastor Andrew Brunson triggered a financial crisis. Now, another crisis looms and this time it involves Russia regarding the Syrian enclave of Idlib. The city, close to the Turkish border, is held by jihadist groups and is targeted by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and Russia.

It was only a matter of time for Idlib to be on Moscow’s radar and that of its de facto protectorate, Syria. The Islamic State (ISIS) has been defeated; there have been decisive Syrian advances in Daraa and Eastern Ghouta and a rapprochement is under way between Syrian Kurds and the Assad regime. Assad declared in July that the takeover of Idlib was his next objective.

Idlib, with a population of 2.5 million, has become an urgent issue due to two developments. It is the last bastion of armed jihadist groups, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Jabhat al-Nusra. Many jihadists and their families are in Idlib and some of the foreign jihadists are from Russia. This makes Idlib a priority for Moscow as what it sees as the restoration of Syria speeds up. A joint offensive is likely to be under way before winter.

Idlib is important because any operation there is likely to trigger a massive refugee exodus. Both Russia and Syria — and Iran and the United States, too — see Turkey as the refugees’ inevitable destination. All of them seem to agree that this is largely the result of the Erdogan government’s erratic policies, which paved the way for a jihadist presence in Syria in the first place. If the refugees start to stream out of Idlib, they will add to the nearly 3.5 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey.

Therefore, the Syrian refugee issue is back on the international agenda. Jan Egeland, adviser to the United Nations’ special envoy for Syria, warned Turkey to keep its borders open in the event of another humanitarian crisis. He expressed the hope that Russia, Iran and Turkey would do “their utmost” to avoid a battle in Idlib. So far, no clear signals from Ankara confirm Egeland’s statement.

Moscow is keen on upping the ante against Erdogan. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visits Ankara on August 13-14, he may remind his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, of the need for Turkey to be part of the Idlib offensive. Indeed, some Arab sources say that Russia has given Turkey a deadline — September — for the disarmament and surrender of HTS in Idlib.

Damascus, on the other hand, is reported to have made clear that it will ask the People’s Protection Units Kurdish militia to help if Ankara doesn’t cooperate militarily on Idlib. This is a cunning diplomatic move.

How will Ankara respond to the pressures from Russia and Syria as the clock ticks down to a denouement? Cavusoglu may try to gain time. He could tell Lavrov that HTS is ripe to be transformed into a more moderate force. There are plans to rebrand the group as the National Liberation Front, to be used in fights against ISIS.

However, the suggestion may not be very convincing and the most that Turkey can expect is to keep its 12 observation posts in Idlib.

Ankara is in a diplomatic cul-de-sac. It is at odds with the United States in the region and now faces a moment of reckoning vis-a-vis Russia. Meanwhile, the Kurds remain a reality near and within Turkey’s borders; a deepening economic crisis makes it increasingly vulnerable and its erratic regional policy makes it difficult to pursue any dialogue that requires trust and steadfastness.