Erdoğan’s gamble set the stage for the tragic chapter in Syria

Given the depth of the Syrian quagmire, it was obvious from the outset how high Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had set the stakes for his political and military acrobatics and inherent risks involved.

The killing of at least 33 Turkish troops in Idlib in seemingly well-calculated Syrian air strikes — which amount to a massacre — is the result of Erdoğan’s gamble, which opens a new phase in the tragic story.

The mass killing of the troops is one of the darkest episodes in modern Turkish history, perhaps only comparable to the Turkish losses suffered in the Korean War. Yet, it is hard to measure the magnitude of the trauma or the horror caused in the theatre of Idlib. There are two reasons for that:

The first has to do with the paralysed Turkish media, which systematically blacks out news from the battlefield and the massive blockage imposed on the internet the day after the massacre.

Second, the domestic mood in Turkey is drabbled with the frenzy of nationalism, cutting across the ideological segments. This sensation is Erdoğan’s own making. He has ruthlessly whipped up the frenzy to secure the consolidation of absolutist power and to bash the already weak opposition.

After the mass killing of Turkish troops, one point stands out as further confirmation of how doomed Erdogan’s regional policies and anti-diplomatic stances are. The only question remaining is when — not if — the approach will collapse.

Part of Erdoğan’s limitless gamble is to survive on one sustainable crisis after the other and, whenever necessary, expand and extend his legitimacy upon the dire circumstances. The world may still not have grasped it, so it is worth repeating: Erdoğan’s mind works at its best within the chaos. It even thrives on it.

The West, especially the European Union, remains aloof or, at best, gullible, but the Russians may have realised how “slippery” Erdoğan is. To Moscow, he has remained a useful wedge to weaken NATO and the European Union but Russian President Vladimir Putin is no US President Donald Trump or German Chancellor Angela Merkel when it comes to blinking.

Determined to help the Assad regime regain its territorial control and annihilate the jihadist militia in Syria, Putin waited patiently to see whether Erdoğan would fulfil his promise to cleanse the jihadist terror groups and, when he realised that he was being played — deceit is Erdoğan’s landmark recurring behavioural pattern — Putin issued warnings against any war with Syrian troops and the situation ended in bloodshed.

Russia’s pattern in the 9-year Syrian conflict leaves no doubt. No matter what, nothing will be left to stand between the legitimacy of Damascus and its strategic ally, Moscow. Also, Syria will be the cemetery for armed Islamist jihadism.

There is no sign that Russia will offer any concession to Turkey that may damage its Syria strategy.

Russia is the wall that Erdoğan, pushing down the gas pedal, has finally hit.

The Turkish president will remain as the world has known him. He has the sense that there is a countdown that will terminate his time in power, he knows he is cornered and facing no way out but he will — must — continue to drive his eternal cause to assist jihadists across the region and beyond; this is his raison d’etre.

This is the reason Erdoğan — and his earlier adviser Ahmet Davutoglu — went for regime change in Syria and why Turkey sent thousands of Turkish troops onto Syrian soil.

As some of his foes pointed out, as long as Erdoğan stays in power, the world will not have eliminated this element of monopolist political Islam, which is threatening normalisation in the Muslim world.

What’s next for Turkey’s squeezed president, after the massacre of the troops? He launches the obvious, as the United States cynically encourages him to combat Syrian and Russian forces: Calling NATO for active help in an attempt to widen the (personal) war he is engaged in and, to further frighten the European Union, threatening to let loose the flow of refugees across Turkey’s western border.

Playing the NATO card will most likely not end in the way he hopes. It is a fact that Turkish troops are at war on the territory they invaded and there is no apparent rationale for NATO to join Erdoğan’s adventure. Experts are clear that Article 5 of the NATO Treaty does not apply in the case of Idlib. At best, for Erdoğan, some missile deployments in adjacent Hatay province may be an option.

The European Union should not blink, either. If Erdoğan decides to use the poor refugees as pawns in a cynical power game with it, the response should be a massive fortifying of the Greek and Bulgarian borders and intense sea patrols.

Meanwhile, the viable option for both NATO and the European Union should be to call on Erdoğan to immediately pull his forces out of Syria and, when done, begin a process that aims to tackle the refugee crisis in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan in a coherent manner.

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