For Turkey, this is a nightmare. It already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees and has another 1 million or so amassed right outside its border. The tensions arising in Idlib would likely upset the fragile cease-fire in northern Syria between Turkey and the Kurdish forces. It would also inflame nationalism and anti-refugee sentiment inside Turkey, which are on the rise both in border regions and the rest of society.
Of course, Turkish leaders have no one to blame but themselves. Yes, the Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad is the aggressor, with Russia as its enabler, and Ankara deserves credit for pushing back against a cruel regime. But the Turkish government was also too trusting of Russia when it came to Syria.
Frustrated with the United States’ inaction on Syria and its support for the Syrian Kurds, Ankara struck a deal with Russia and Iran in 2017, called the Astana process, to stabilize the war-torn country. At each step along the way, Moscow has used the mechanism to advance Assad’s territorial hold. It pressured Turkey to curb support for the opposition and establish military outposts in Idlib in 2018, ostensibly to monitor a cease-fire agreement between the regime and the rebels. But it was clear the Russians always intended the end result to be the Syrian army takeover of the enclave.
Was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan naive to rely on President Vladimir Putin? Or has Turkey turned a blind eye to Russia’s true intentions for the sake of gaining time, or for getting Moscow’s support to push back against Syrian Kurds in other parts of Syria? The answer is all of the above.
The real problem lies in the asymmetry of the Turkish-Russian relationship. Turkey is losing its leverage against Moscow because the Erdogan government has alienated allies in the West. Once a staunch NATO partner, Turkey has pivoted toward Russia in order to operate in Syria. Along the way, it helped expand the Russian footprint in Syria and purchased the Russian-made S-400 missile system, despite protests from NATO allies. At the core of this alliance is the personal relationship between Putin and Erdogan — and a shared sense of frustration from two resurgent powers about the trappings of a Western order.
But what should have been a balancing act between Russia and the West is now looking like a prison for Turkey. Whatever the original motivation was, Erdogan and his allies have made Turkey too vulnerable — and isolated — to stand up to Russia over Idlib. Erdogan calls this alliance “strategic” and is aware that Ankara cannot afford a rupture with Moscow. Thus, his only course to prevent a massive refugee influx is to convince and cajole Putin to stop the offensive.
Ankara’s first order of business should be regaining a sense of balance in foreign policy — by enlisting Western support on Idlib. Desperate to prevent a repeat of 2015, when hundreds of thousands of Syrians flocked into Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders seem willing to set aside their differences with Erdogan and support Turkey on Idlib. In the process, Europeans also need to be prepared to provide reconstruction aid in northern Idlib despite the presence of militant groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Turkey has been arguing that it can contain Islamist extremists; this theory will have to be tested now.
It is difficult to internationalize a crisis that Russians consider their own business. But Erdogan should enlist President Trump’s support and present Russia with a more realistic map to divvy up the province. It is unrealistic to expect the Syrian regime to pull back from the territory it has already captured. Russia and Syria want to secure the highway that cuts across the region. That should become the new partition line. North of the highway could be secured by Turkish military and serve as a safe haven for refugees, with the flow of European reconstruction funds. The south would go to the regime, even though it has not yet provided safe return for dissidents.
None of this is ideal, but it is better than the chaos toward which we are heading. This is more than a humanitarian tragedy. If the Assad forces continue their advance and Idlib implodes, the resulting mass exodus would destabilize both Turkey and parts of Europe, and would push Islamist militants well beyond Syria’s borders.
There are no good options. But the price of inaction is too costly for everyone. Idlib has to be contained — though the price will be high.