Turkey will clash with either Assad or jihadists at some point - Blaise Misztal

In a podcast discussion with Ahval editor David Lepeska, Blaise Misztal of the Hudson Institute explained that Ankara will have to neutralise jihadists in Idlib one way or another, why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would never seriously consider partnering with the United States against Iran, and that Turkey’s delay in activating its Russian-made S-400 missile defence system is not a ploy. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

DL: We are speaking on May 8, almost 60 days since Turkey announced its first coronavirus case. Many observers have expressed fears of a disastrous outbreak in Syria’s neighbouring Idlib province, where some 3 million displaced Syrians are squeezed between Turkish forces and the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran. Do you foresee this Idlib ceasefire continuing to hold and possibly leading to a resolution, or do you expect Assad’s forces to resume their offensive in the weeks ahead?

BM: Let’s be clear, the ceasefire has not been violated but it has not been implemented fully either. One of the main provisions of the ceasefire was that there was going to be a new security zone established along the M4 highway that would be jointly patrolled by Turkish and Russian forces. There have been I believe, to date, five or six attempts to hold those joint patrols, and none of those attempts have succeeded thus far. In part because most recently protesters representing Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the jihadist group that is in control of much of Idlib, blocked the highway and blocked the ability of Turkish forces to patrol there, leading to a confrontation and hostilities.

So I think it would be a bridge too far to say the ceasefire is actually being implemented, there are significant problems with it, but that’s not to say it’s been violated. I think more than anything right now you’re seeing a bit of a strategic reset. Obviously Turkey’s reaction to the killing of its troops in February and the launching of Operation Spring Shield I think was unexpected for Russian, Syrian and Iranian forces; it created a bit of a setback and a new strategic environment that they are now having to grapple with. There are obviously reassessments and delays happening because of the COVID-19 pandemic that are affecting troops and forces and calculations on all sides.

So I think there are a lot of factors that have contributed to this ceasefire not being violated yet, but that is very different than seeing this ceasefire actually take hold and lead to a political settlement. I would expect that for the near future there are going to be distractions that will keep a new flare up from occurring.

But I would expect that, just as we have seen with each of the previous ceasefires, sooner or later the Assad regime and its partners will figure out a strategy, come up with a plan, or decide the time is right to push their luck a little bit further, and then when they’ve gone far enough they’ll retreat behind the safety of a new ceasefire. And I think we’re going to see that play out again probably before the end of this year.

DL: U.S. envoy to Syria James Jeffrey said the humanitarian situation in Idlib is already beyond imagination and COVID-19 will make it even worse. He also said the United States strongly supports Turkish military action in Idlib. Should the United States support Turkish military action in Syria and Idlib, and is Turkey actually keeping HTS under control?

Absolutely, and I think it’s very important in Idlib, as in the broader Syrian conflict which has now sort of collapsed mostly onto Idlib, to not think of it as just one conflict or one grouping of partners and allies against another grouping of partners and allies. There are multiple overlapping conflicts. There are sort of frenemy-like partnerships of convenience. There are quarrels within alliances. It’s a very complicated situation, and not least of those is the Turkey-HTS relationship.

I think on the one hand the United States, much like Russia and Iran and Assad, would prefer to see Turkey in control of Idlib and in control of HTS, which evolved from an al-Qaeda-linked organisation, but has since severed ties with al-Qaeda but certainly still subscribes to extremist-jihadist ideology. We definitely would not like to see them in control of Idlib imposing their rule. We would not want them to sort of be unilaterally and unfettered in control of Idlib, let alone able to operate in Idlib like the Islamic State (ISIS) operated from the territories that it held.

So having some sort of Turkish control over HTS is definitely not a bad outcome - whether that is actually what is happening is certainly another question. I think it has been an uneasy [relationship], I wouldn’t even say a partnership - it’s been a temporary alignment of interests in which both Turkey and HTS have shared the goal of not wanting to see Assad regain control of Idlib, so they’ve been willing to work together towards that end.

In fact, when Turkish forces first entered Idlib as part of the Astana process, they were actually escorted into the territory guarded with an HTS convoy. But HTS does not want to be ruled by Turkey; they have their own goal of establishing an Islamic emirate, much like ISIS did in the east. They might see working with Turkey as a way to survive right now but they do not see themselves as a Turkish partner or proxy.

I think what we’re seeing right now, in terms of these protests that have sprung up sporadically against Turkey within HTS territories, is a way for HTS to try to have it both ways. On the one hand it’s trying to outwardly cooperate with Turkey because Turkey is protecting it from Assad. On the other hand, it does not want its followers to believe it has moderated or made a deal with Turkey or sold out in any way, so it’s going to provide them with opportunities to push back against Turkey to show it still has that hard edge.

Sooner or later you’re going to get to that point where, as the terms of the ceasefire require, Russia and Iran are going to demand of Turkey that it demobilise HTS and Turkey’s going to have the choice of either failing to do that and risking conflict with the Assad regime or going to war with HTS. Thus far, Turkey’s preferred middle road strategy of finding ways to politically moderate HTS or sort of talk it down from its extreme agenda have not succeeded and I don’t expect them to succeed anytime soon.

DL: Considering Turkey’s role in the early years of the war, and its more recent incursions, what do you think of last week’s assertion from President Erdoğan’s spokesperson İbrahim Kalın, who said: “The Syrian people have suffered more than any other nation in recent memory. We really have to put aside our petty differences, short-term interests and small geopolitical gains and prioritise the Syrian people”?

It is certainly true that Turkey has done more to help the Syrian people in terms of hospitality than any other country. There are close to 4 million Syrian refugees inside Turkey that Turkey has been supporting for the better part of a decade. While I think that Turkish claims of how much they’re spending to do that are overstated, it certainly is an unparalleled act of generosity that Turkey deserves a lot of credit for and goes above and beyond what anyone else has been able to do for the Syrian people.

That being said, there’s little evidence that what Turkey is doing inside of Syria is for the benefit of anyone other than Turkey itself. It is pursuing its own geopolitical agenda there, and its actions have contributed to the suffering, displacement and continuation of conflict that has afflicted Syrian civilians, not least of which is restarting conflicts in areas that had been pacified, such as Syria’s northeast, where the US partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to push out ISIS and begin to stabilise that territory.

Then last October Turkey launched an invasion, starting a new round of conflict that has displaced yet more people who had just been resettled and started to enjoy the fruits of peace. We should recognise Turkey’s accomplishments in helping Syrian civilians, but we should also be very cognizant of the harm they’ve done themselves.

DL: Last week Kalın also called for greater U.S.-Turkey cooperation, a suggestion that dovetails nicely with an article you wrote for War on the Rocks this week examining one possible U.S. response to increasing Iranian aggression in the region - partnering with Turkey to jointly push back against Iran and its proxies. Please talk a bit about that and give us the outlines of how advocates of such a U.S.-Turkey partnership might see it working.

The cornerstone of this sort of worldview is that the fundamental problem that the United States faces in the Middle East is an aggressive and expansionist Iran. Certainly now that the Islamic State has been beaten back and radical Sunni groups that still exist are on the back foot, the major remaining challenge is that of Iran.

What can the United States do to push back on Iran and contain its regional influence? We see in Iraq, in Syria, it’s deeply embedded in Lebanon, and has made great progress into Yemen during the civil war there in recent years. The goal of countering Iran is widely shared in the administration, certainly [United States] President Trump speaks very toughly against Iran.

But it’s also an administration that is suspicious of and not desirous of further military engagements in the Middle East. President Trump ran on the promise of ending endless wars, so the Trump administration is stuck between this tension of wanting to counter Iran but not wanting to put boots on the ground to do it, which leaves it seeking a partner to take on this role.

There is a school of thought within the administration, and outside of it as well, that that partner can be Turkey, for a variety of reasons, most of which go back to this idea of Turkey that is now outdated under Erdoğan: Turkey as a western-looking, modern nation state, NATO ally that has a historical record of enmity with Iran and is not interested in Iranian expansion along its southern border.

That viewpoint in some ways is borne out by what we saw in Idlib in February-March, where suddenly you saw this conflagration between Turkish and Iranian-backed forces. Turkey acted quite quickly and quite effectively, taking out several members of Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias. I think this re-sparked this idea and raised the possibility that Turkey might be on the same page as the United States in terms of going after Iran.

This has also in some ways been abetted by the U.S. withdrawal or repositioning in northeast Syria where the U.S. partnership with Syrian Kurds was the main obstacle to better US-Turkish ties. With that seemingly now removed and Turkey in a newly aggressive stance against Iran I think there is a sense that maybe now a U.S.-Turkish partnership against Iran might be possible and might be a way to square this circle, this tension within the Trump administration, of wanting to push back against Iran but not wanting to use its own troops to do it.

DL: You write that under Erdoğan, Turkey’s grudging coexistence with Iran evolved into willing cooperation, most recently with the Astana process on Syria with Tehran and Moscow. But this all changed with the late February airstrike in Idlib that killed more than 30 Turkish soldiers. Despite most analysts believing Russia was behind the strike, you write that this episode revealed Erdoğan’s willingness to take on Iran. Please tell us a bit about that, and why do you think that was not a sign that Turkey would be more willing to attack Iran and Iranian proxies in the future?

Is whatever newfound willingness Turkey has to attack Iran the same as a Turkish willingness to work with the United States to contain Iran in the region? I think it’s very clear that those two don’t overlap significantly outside Idlib. We haven’t seen any desire for Turkey to engage with Iranian forces anywhere else in the region or necessarily even an ability to do that. In other places where the U.S. might have a desire to push back against Iran, like in Iraq, we’ve actually seen Turkey and Iran be much more on the same page, particularly when it came to pushing back against Iraqi Kurds.

The strikes against Iran in Idlib that Turkey carried out were carried out both in a retaliatory way and a face-saving way. Turkey needed to push back to show it wasn’t going to take the killing of 34 of its own troops lying down. But it couldn’t push back against the actual perpetrator of those attacks, which was Russia, which it’s much more of a partner with than an antagonist to, so it had to direct its fire somewhere else. So even though we saw an attack against Iran, it wasn’t an attack against Iran per se. It was not the launch of a new Turkish campaign against Iranian regional influence, and certainly not anywhere outside of Idlib. Whatever alignment there might be between the US and Turkey on Iran right now, it’s extremely limited and probably temporarily as well.

DL: Would you say that the main impediment to a longer, broader U.S.-Turkey partnership on Iran would be Russia? Because in your piece you write that Russia is “unlikely to give a greenlight to an open-ended Turkish offensive against the very troops that are keeping Moscow’s client in power in Damascus”.

The major impediment is the lack of Turkish desire to be a U.S. partner whatsoever, at least under the current government. I do not see President Erdoğan believing Turkey’s future lies with the United States or with the West. I don’t necessarily think he thinks it lies with Moscow either. I think he’s pursuing a strategy of trying to grow Turkey’s stature in the world. I think he’s signed up to an ideology similar to what the non-aligned movement stood for during the Cold War.

As he puts it, “The world is bigger than five” - referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - meaning that if there’s a new world that we inhabit, it requires new powers to arise. I think he’s looking for a way to grow Turkish power, to break Turkey away from the West and establish itself as an independent player in the Middle East, in southern Europe, in the Caucasus, and the partnership with Russia right now is a convenient way to do that, but it’s merely a means to that end, not an end in itself. As long as Erdoğan is pursuing those goals he’s never going to seriously consider a partnership with the United States.

The problems in the U.S.-Turkish relationship have nothing to do with the U.S.-SDF partnership or perceptions of U.S. support for the Gülen movement or anything else - those are easy excuses for Turkey to make, but the real obstacles are much deeper ideological issues when it comes to Erdoğan’s world view.

DL: In late April, Turkey announced its decision to postpone the activation of its S-400 air defences, which it purchased from Russia despite repeated U.S. and NATO protestations. Why is Turkey delaying the activation of the S400s, and how do you expect this to play out?

There’s any number of reasons that Turkey might be doing so to seek some sort of a strategic advantage that has nothing to do with a desire to actually shelve the S400 and give in to U.S. demands. Those reasons stem from a desire to deal with the rather dire economic situation Turkey finds itself in - it’s currently negotiating to get a swap line from the U.S. Federal Reserve to allow it to access more financial resources, so it’s opportune for it to at least seem to be taking U.S. concerns under advisement while it’s seeking that financial assistance.

It might [also] be trying to find a negotiated solution to CAATSA sanctions that might lock the United States into not sanctioning Turkey while it can then go forward with the S-400s. It might also be seeking some leverage against Russia. The situation that Turkey found itself in with regard to Idlib following the February attack on its troops was one in which it was largely depending on Russia to help restore some sort of calm. We saw Erdoğan fly quickly to meet with Putin and I imagine that Erdoğan does not like the feeling of being beholden to Putin or being at his mercy when it comes to the future of Idlib or the safety of Turkish forces there, so this might be a negotiating chip for him to hold over the Russians.

This could also just be tied to issues related to COVID-19 and this not being an opportune time to bring in Russian technicians to help the Turks set up the S400s. So I think there’s any number of reasons, or maybe all of the above, for which Turkey is enacting this delay that is not indicative in any way of a change of heart on the Turkish desire.

DL: So when Turkish officials, even since the announcement of the delay in April, when they vow to activate the S-400, you don’t doubt their sincerity, you don’t think that’s some sort of ploy?

Not at all. I think Turkey’s always looking for a better deal, so if there’s one offered to them they would be willing to consider it. But I do not see any deal available and acceptable to the United States that would get Turkey to change its mind.