President Erdogan is trapped in Syria

Turkey can do nothing against Bashar al-Assad and his Russian ally.

Turkish soldiers patrol near Idlib on February 10. – © Omar HAJ KADOUR / AFP

“President Erdogan is trapped in Syria”; INTERVIEW

CONFLICT: The death of around 30 Turkish soldiers in Idlib increases the tension between Damascus and Ankara. But for Agnès Levallois, specialist in the Arab world, Turkey can do nothing against Bashar al-Assad and his Russian ally.

February 29, 2020 (Le Temps, Switzerland) – Can the escalation between Syria and Turkey in the province of Idlib lead to an open confrontation between the two countries? On Thursday, after giving Syrian troops back to the end of the week, Ankara lost 33 soldiers in an air strike. For Agnès Levallois, researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in turn trapped by this nine-year-old conflict.

Is President Erdogan’s anger on the wall or is there a real risk of a military escalation?

Agnès Levallois: The Turkish reaction stems from the non-compliance by the Syrian regime and Russia of the Sochi Agreement [this agreement concluded in 2018 planned to make Idlib a demilitarized zone]. Bashar al-Assad and his Russian ally are determined to reconquer the province of Idlib. This poses two problems for Turkey. First, its 12 observation posts in the province are directly threatened. Above all, the civilian population may want to leave the enclave and cross the border. This would bring another million refugees, a prospect unimaginable for Erdogan because the question of Syrian refugees poses a problem on the Turkish domestic scene.

But what can Ankara do in Syria? Sooner or later there is a risk of confrontation with Moscow.

Yes, and it should be noted that Mr. Erdogan was caught in his own trap because he does not have the means for such a confrontation. In front of him, Vladimir Putin adopts a very hard attitude. He wants to reap the maximum benefits on the ground before telling a weak Erdogan that it is time to negotiate. In other words, that it is time to abandon the Idlib enclave.

What would happen to the various armed groups and civilians in this enclave?

That’s the whole question. The Russians accuse the Turks of not having disarmed the radical Islamist groups. They want to eliminate them without distinguishing between the different movements. This seems difficult to do without exterminating the 3 million people who live in the province. Moscow will therefore probably demand that the Turks settle their accounts with these armed groups.

As for civilians, Ankara wants at all costs to keep them in a buffer zone along the border. This would have the advantage of modifying the demographic balance of the region by weakening the Syrian Kurds. Let us not forget that Ankara’s great concern in the face of the recomposition of northern Syria is to see these Syrian Kurds serve as a rear base for their cousins living in Turkey.

Turkey has multiplied collaborations with Russia in defense or energy. Can the situation in Idlib change that?

Erdogan has approached Russia to monetize his position with Europeans and Americans. But Ankara and Moscow represent two opposing camps when it comes to the future of Syria, their alliance on these other themes was purely circumstantial and the outcome of the Syrian conflict could be a game-changer.

Ankara demands that the international community establish a no-fly zone in Idlib. Is it realistic?

No, and we have been talking about this possibility since the start of the conflict in Syria without ever making it happen. Let us remember that what makes Russia’s strength today on the ground is its air supremacy.

Migrants are said to be heading again to the Greek and Bulgarian borders. Is Turkey Blackmailing Europeans?

This is exactly what had happened in 2015 when Mr. Erdogan had minted this question for money. Now that he’s cornered, he only has this card to play because he knows that Europeans are afraid. Even Germany would not welcome a million refugees as it did five years ago. The Turkish president hopes that Europe will put pressure on Russia to stop the offensive at Idlib and support the Turkish position during possible negotiations.


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Former Turkish Foreign Minister: “Turkey wants to bring down Bashar al-Assad”

February 28, 2020 (Sputnik French News Service) – Turkey is carrying out military actions in both Syria and Libya. What purpose? Yasar Yakis, former Turkish foreign minister, unveils Ankara’s strategy at the microphone of Rachel Marsden. And he doesn’t mince words.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish President, has agreed with Donald Trump to defend American and NATO interests in the war in Syria so that American troops can withdraw from this country. Trump has since admitted that US troops still stationed in Syria were only there to secure the oil. Why else is Turkey still present in Syria?

Yasar Yakis, former Turkish foreign minister, explains how Turkey’s position has evolved since the start of the war in Syria: “At first, Turkey did not intend to fight on Syrian soil against Syrian soldiers, but Turkey has committed a little too much to Idlib to protect the Salafist fighting factions. Now Turkey does not want to drop them and continues to protect them.”

Why would Turkey support jihadists in Syria? Yakis explains: “I believe that it is to have leverage on the question of how the future of Syria will be designed and to be strong at the negotiating table around the democratization process of Syria.”

The former minister cites the ultimate goal of Turkey in Syria: “Turkey wants to bring down the regime of Bashar al-Assad.”

But to replace it with who? According to Yakis, Turkey “intends to put in power the combatants who are moderate, who are inclined to the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood”. What would be the exit strategy from the Syrian conflict at Ergodan? Yakis replies: “We don’t know exactly what the Turkish strategy for ending the crisis in Syria is, but at the moment it seems that they want to create an area that will be controlled by Turkey throughout the Turkish-Syrian border, to allow refugees to settle there, to build housing by the Turkish government on a strip 30 to 40 km wide.”

Is Ergodan’s foreign policy popular in his own country? According to Yakis, this is a problematic point: “Support for Syrian policy in Turkey has dropped below 50% for a long time. This support, I believe, is around 30% in Turkish public opinion.”

Erdogan also recently mentioned the idea of replacing Russian air cover in Syria with that of Turkish aviation. But why bring up such an idea? “It can be a bargaining, negotiation position. The parties, in principle, always start with maximalist positions. It may be the goal it wants to achieve on the Turkish side, but I don’t see how Russia could agree.”

And why Turkish forces alongside Syrian jihadists taken to this country by Turkey? Yakis explains: “Turkey may have wanted to kill two birds with one stone: first, to find a place to evacuate the combatants who were trapped in Idlib and to use its combatants in Libya for a cause which would serve the interest from Turkey.”

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