Turkey-Russia Clashes in Syria Spell Trouble for Erdogan's Political Future

The most serious loss of life since Turkish forces invaded Syria could spark a political firestorm in Turkey, while Erdogan attempts to keep alliance with Russia from crashing

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Erdogan speaks to his ruling party's lawmakers, in Istanbul, February 29, 2020.
Erdogan speaks to his ruling party's lawmakers, in Istanbul, February 29, 2020.Credit: ,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Fifty Turkish soldiers were killed in February in clashes with Syrian forces in Idlib. Of these, 36 were killed on Thursday in a Russian air force strike and Syrian government shelling. It seems that the Turkish-Russian alliance running the campaign in northern Syria is about to come crashing down.

Turkey has directly accused Russia of responsibility for the killing of its soldiers. Russia, for its part, made clear that the Turkish forces had no reason to be there and had not coordinated their presence. Turkey vehemently denied this, claiming the Russians knew they were there.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has previously threatened that if any more Turkish soldiers are hurt, Turkey "will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib’s borders.” Surely enough, on Sunday Syria said that

On Thursday he had to re-examine his policy toward Russia, out of an understanding that a direct clash with Russian forces is far more dangerous. The urgent phone call between the Turkish president and his Russian counterpart did lead to a joint statement that both sides would calm tensions and reduce military activity, but no meeting has yet been set between the two leaders, a meeting that Erdogan has sought since the clashes in Idlib began.

On Sunday, Erdogan asked Russia to step aside and allow Turkey to engage Syrian forces directly. Also Sunday, Turkey shot down two Syrian warplanes and struck Aleppo airport, as Syrian forces downed three Turkish drones, quickly escalating tensions.

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The diplomatic backing Erdogan is receiving from Washington is not enough for him. As a member of NATO, Turkey has demanded that the United States equip it with Patriot missiles. At the same time, Erdogan has demanded that Putin allow him to wage the campaign against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces without interference.

As for Europe, Erdogan is, as usual, threatening to open Turkey’s gates to millions of refugees in his country who want to continue westward to Europe.

According to reports in Turkey, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are gathering at crossings and seaports, waiting for word to cross into Greece. Official Turkish spokesmen say that Turkey will keep to the conditions of the agreements it signed with the European Union in 2016, and will not let the refugees out. However, Erdogan did confirm that he had ordered the country’s gates opened until the EU meets his demand to add some $3.5 billion in funding for the refugees’ stay in Turkey, in addition to the approximately $6 billion Turkey has already received.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting in Turkey to bring its soldiers home and stop its military involvement in Syria. Last week, some 140 intellectuals and artists signed a petition stating: “We the signatories see our country pulled into a deadlock, our kids dying in a battle they are being made to fight in another country, our reputation damaged in front of the global community and our nation used as an imperialist pawn and a sponsor of religious terrorism.”

Critical articles about how the war in Syria is concealing the serious economic crisis in Turkey continue to be published on opposition websites, but they are not likely to move Erdogan to change his policy. What’s more, to stop a possible protest, Turkey restricted access to social media on Thursday night. Domestically, what worries Erdogan most is the internal political disputes in the Justice and Development Party, which according to reports from the Turkish opposition, has recently lost tens of thousands of members to rival parties. In addition, two new parties have been established, headed by former senior officials of the Justice and Development Party.

Smoke billows following reported Russian air strikes in northwestern Syria on March 1, 2020. Credit: AFP

The opposition parties have accused Erdogan of bypassing parliament and waging the war in Syria for his party's benefit. A few opposition leaders are now demanding that Erdogan stop its military campaign and negotiate with Assad to reach an agreement that would allow the Turkish forces to withdraw.

The opposition claims that Erdogan has not kept his promise of protecting Syria’s unity or removing Syrian forces from major highways connecting Idlib to Turkey, and that the agreement he signed with Russia to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria has not been kept.

Ordinary citizens and Turkish lawmakers were especially furious that Turkey could not airlift its wounded soldiers in Syria because Russia declared a no-fly zone for Turkish aircrafts. As a result, they had to be evacuated by vehicle on the bumpy roads to Turkey.

While opposition parties and activists last week took a “patriotic” stand and expressed condolences to the families of the soldiers killed, it seems that the incident, the most serious since Turkish forces invaded Syria, could spark a political firestorm this week.

Erdogan knows how to overcome domestic political landmines. His base is strong and the next parliamentary elections will be held only in another three years. But Russia is not going anywhere and Erdogan can’t allow himself to clash head-on with the Kremlin, not only because of Syria, but also because of Turkey’s economic dependence on Moscow. The question is how to reconcile Erdogan’s military and political aspirations in Syria and the staunch Russian opposition to his policies. Erdogan has shown some impressive back-bending in the past. It seems that he will need to exhibit that flexibility again.

Migrants walk towards the Greek border in Pazarkule, in the Edirne district of Turkey, on March 1, 2020. Credit: AFP

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