As Turkey’s Ministry of Defence admitted the killing of two of its soldiers in the first direct clash with the Syrian army during the attack launched by pro-Ankara proxy militias on the strategically important town of al Nayrab in Idlib this week, the Kremlin has said that a Turkish military operation in Syria’s Idlib would be worst-case scenario. Rebels under direct fire cover provided by Turkish artillery and with the direct participation of Turkish tanks, armored vehicles and special forces, launched a massive attack trying to retake the recently liberated town. The town was captured recently by Syrian forces along with a number of cities as well as over 150 other rebel towns and villages comprising some 1,300 kilometers.
The Turkish attack was utterly quashed by the Syrian army and its allies with huge losses in the ranks of attackers and their mainly Turkish-supplied armory. Syrians rejoiced at the resounding victory over Erdogan’s forces, and pictures of burning Turkish tanks and charred armored personnel carriers in provincial Idlib during the deadly confrontation must have shocked many in Ankara and elsewhere. Despite the heated rhetoric and threats by Erdogan to push the Syrian army back by force — and unilaterally if needed — he seems to have abysmally failed the first such military test in Idlib.
Is Erdogan Snookered in Syria After His Counterproductive Threats?
The morale of Erdogan’s men and proxy fighters appeared dejected and defeatist in their comments after the battle in al Nayrab. Russian and Syrian jets destroyed at least six Turkish tanks and 14 armored personnel carriers as well as dozens of four-wheel vehicles and pickup trucks with mounted heavy machine guns. Bodies of killed insurgents littered the area and the message from both Damascus and Moscow was all too clear to Erdogan; the SAA operations in Idlib shall continue regardless of Sochi and any other agreements now that Ankara has again failed to disarm terror groups in the last Syrian city that is still out of government control.
Following the collapse of recent Turkish-Russian security and military meetings first in Ankara and later in Moscow where a newly devised safe zone in Idlib limited to a narrow strand along the border with Turkey was presented and utterly rejected by Turkish officials, the Kremlin said on Wednesday that a Turkish military operation against Syrian government forces in the Idlib region would be a worst-case scenario. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Moscow was strongly opposed to such an operation, but that Russia and Ankara were staying in contact to try to prevent tensions in Idlib from escalating further.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier on Wednesday that “a military operation in Idlib was a matter of time” after talks with Russia on Idlib had failed to meet Turkey’s demands. The Turkish leader later called upon NATO to back his operation there, an unlikely development as most member nations in the Alliance have little — if any — interest in joining Erdogan’s reckless adventures and risk a direct clash with Putin’s Russia who has the upper hand in Syria and wider region.
Patriot Missiles versus the S 400, Erdogan Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Realizing his difficult position, Erdogan has found — or rather put — himself in, the Turkish president has pleaded to his NATO big gun, the United States, to provide him with Patriot missile batteries: advanced ground to air missile systems that Washington has so far declined to provide Ankara with. The American reluctance to supply Erdogan’s army with these systems has pushed Erdogan towards Moscow in hot pursuit of its sophisticated and claimed the world’s best anti-aircraft and anti-missile system. Much to the outrage of Washington, Erdogan struck a deal with Putin regarding the S 400. Components of the system were delivered to Turkey in the second half of 2019, and the batteries are expected to be fully operational in a couple of months.
Utterly baffled and disgruntled by the sheer size and force of Putin’s military as well as political backing of Syrian president Bashar al Assad, Erdogan is in an unenviable situation in Syria both with his enemies as well as with his supposedly staunch allies. He can never do without the United States for obvious reasons and well-known considerations; yet, the Turkish leader can not risk antagonizing the Russian leader, again for strategic, geopolitical and economic reasons.
As fighting over Syria’s last rebel-held stronghold in Idlib intensifies, and a Syrian leadership determined to liberate “every single inch of occupied land” as Assad put it — and the possibility of a Turkish-Russian clash there — there is a growing chorus for the U.S. to do something about the dire humanitarian crisis in Idlib. However no one wants a fight with the Russian Bear. With all this in mind, Erdogan might well find himself isolated and left in the Syrian open: a Turkish version of Don Quixote fighting alone against Syria’s unforgiving wind mills.