Sunday’s assault by Russian-backed Syrian pro-regime forces against the opposition-held province of Idlib, leaving eight Turkish servicemen dead, has severely tested Ankara’s alliance with Moscow. As Turkey’s Islamist government learns the risks of cozying up to the Kremlin, Washington should be ready to bring its wayward ally back into the fold, while remaining wary of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s double-dealing.
While Turkish troops have previously exchanged fire with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Sunday’s attack and the Turkish retaliation the next day brought the conflict to a boiling point. The fighting also strained relations between Ankara and Moscow: While the two regimes have enjoyed expanding partnerships in defense and energy, they remain on opposing sides in the nine-year Syrian civil war.
A surprise meeting between the Syrian and Turkish intelligence chiefs in Moscow last month prompted speculation of a Russian-brokered rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus. However, the latest escalation has shown that Putin will not defer to Erdogan in northwest Syria.
Ankara’s extended presence in Syria, and specifically its establishment of observation posts in northwest Syria, meant that Turkish forces stood in the way of Assad eliminating the last rebel stronghold west of the Euphrates. This week’s dangerous exchange took place as pro-regime forces backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah continued their push against rebels in Idlib province.
Moscow swiftly suggested that Ankara was to blame for the confrontation, as Turkey neglected to disclose the location of its troops to Russian-backed forces. Pro-Kremlin media also published a series of reports denouncing Turkey for “turning Idlib into an oasis for terrorists,” echoing Moscow’s earlier criticism in the aftermath of Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter in 2015.
The Turkish president emphasized his fury at Moscow’s unreliability as an ally during his trip to Ukraine this past week. Before departing, Erdogan rebuked Russia, accusing it of violating its commitment to create a demilitarized zone under the 2018 Sochi deal. While in Ukraine, Erdogan not only reiterated his condemnation of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, but also pledged military and defense support to the Ukrainian army.
The setback in Turkish-Russian relations represents an opportunity for the United States to improve strained ties with Turkey. Hence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to condemn the Syrian regime’s “continued, unjustifiable, and ruthless assaults on the people of Idlib,” and declared Washington’s support for Turkey’s “justified self-defense actions in response.”
Although the national interests of Turkey and Russia are not aligned in Syria, Erdogan has much to lose by breaking with Putin. The Turkish strongman not only has provided Moscow with great leverage over Turkey through close cooperation in defense, diplomacy, energy, and trade, but also has staked his political survival on pivoting to the authoritarian regimes in Russia, China, and Iran. A re-orientation toward the West and its democratic standards could prove risky for Erdogan’s one-man rule.
If Ankara decides to pivot back to the transatlantic alliance and its values, Washington should welcome its wayward NATO ally back into the fold. But U.S. officials would fare better by remaining cautious about any meaningful Turkish reorientation so long as Erdogan stays at the helm. The Turkish president, for his part, can start by curbing his inflammatory anti-Western rhetoric and ending the funding he has provided to radical Islamists.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Brenna Knippen is a research associate. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Aykan, Brenna, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan and Brenna on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @brenna_knippen. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.