The incident with the Syrian Army strike in Greater Idlib, which killed and injured several Turkish service members, once again demonstrated that Turkey was pursuing solely its own interests regardless its formal status of one of the the ‘key Russian partners’ in the region.
On February 3, the Turkish Defense Ministry reported that 6 Turkish personnel were killed and 7 others were injured in a Syrian Army attack. Ankara said that Turksih forces were deployed there to de-escalate the situation, while in fact they were used as human shields to protect radical miltiant groups from the Syrian Army offensive. The incident happend near Saraqib, controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda).
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that in response Turkish F-16 warplanes and T-155 Fırtına self-propelled howitzers carried out multiple strikes on Syrian Army positions killing between 30 and 35 soldiers.
Earlier, top Turkish officials repeatedly accused Russia of violating the Astana agreement reached by Ankara, Tehran and Moscow. Turkey strongly opposes any successes of the Damascus government because the defeat of Idlib radicals will undermine its positions in this part of Syria. On the other hand, Ankara is not able or do not want to fulfill its obligations under the Astana deal and separate the ‘moderate opposition’ from ‘terrorists’.
In these conditions, it’s interesting to note that the Russian Defense Ministry said Turkish aircraft didn’t breach the Syrian border, adding that it didn’t register any strikes on Syrian government forces’ positions. Therefore, it becomes apparent that one of the provided versions of the events is untrue. Turkey cannot leave the February 3 incident unanswered, while Russia cannot publicly confirm that it allows Turkey to attack Russian allies under the Russian nose. Taking into account the lack of Russia’s reaction to regular Israeli strikes on Syria and other Russian goodwill gestures towards Israel, this will have an apparent negative impact for the Russian public image in the Middle East. In the worst case scenario, this could undermine its negotiating positions with regional states that seek to ‘diversify’ its foreign course.
The Turkish leadership does not pass up an opportunity to pressure Russia on various fronts in order to get additional economic and diplomatic profits. Ankara fully understands that Moscow turned it into a key transit hub of energy resources from Russia to Europe and exploits this position.
In 2019, Turkey used the instability in northeastern Syria and the Russian involvement in the settlement of the so-called Kurdish question for its own interests.
Ankara and Moscow also support the rival sides in the conflict in Libya. The joint Russian-Turkish diplomatic efforts demonstrate that the sides found a kind of understanding and possibly agreed on the division of spheres of influence. However, if the conflict escalates even further, it may become a one more point of contradictions in the Russian-Turkish relations.
Another point of pressure is the Turkish stance towards the conflict in Ukraine. On February 3, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his Turkish counterpart discussed ways to “enhance strategic partnership and cooperation in all areas of interaction.” In his comments, the Turkish president once again condemned Russia’s ‘annexation’ of Crimea, particularly speaking up for the rights of the Crimean Tatars in the region. The mainstream propaganda argues that Russia is somehow ‘opressing’ the Crimean Tatars, that are an ethnic minotry in Crimea. As to Turkey, it exploits destructive elements of ths ethnic group to expand own influence.
President Erdogan participates in chanting the slogan of Ukrainian modern neo-Nazis and WW2 Nazi collaborators “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” during his visit to Kiev:
Right now, the Erdogan government is working to exploit its strategic position to play Russia over the Idlib question. Turkey seeks to influence the Russian position towards the combating of the terrorism in Greater Idlib and thus prevent further Syrian Army operations in the area. The mid-tern plan is to consolidate the militant-held part of Greater Idlib as it did in northern Aleppo. So, in the case of the lack of political settlement of the conflict, Turkey will be able to use these areas as levers of pressure to shape the future of Syria. If no political solution is found, the areas could be turned into semi-indepent self-proclaimed states or even fully annexed by Turkey.