By Matthew Mai
As Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s campaign to retake territory held by rebels in Idlib province enters its final act, nearly a million people remain trapped between a hard Turkish border and Syrian government forces. This has strained the relationship between Russian President Vladamir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan as the two leaders find themselves at odds over their respective interests. The former supports Syria as a client state and is intent on sowing chaos in the region, the latter feels threatened by a possible border war with Damascus and hundreds of thousands of more refugees flooding into his country.
More so than other recent conflicts, the Syrian civil war has been a tragic commentary on the human condition. Gas attacks on civilians, airstrikes on hospitals, and an overwhelming refugee crisis have all been features of an unsolvable humanitarian crisis. But while the international community pays lip service to the misery of Idlib’s refugees, the NATO alliance is at a crossroads. Specifically, the Europeans have to choose between asking Putin to halt the Syrian advance or supporting a difficult NATO ally. Their determination will reveal if the alliance is worth the paper it’s written on.
Erdogan’s Dangerous Game
Turkey has made clear that it prioritizes border security which most Western observers failed to understand was the reason for their offensive operation into northeastern Syria in October of last year. Ankara considers the existence of the YPG Kurds on their border to be a national security threat as the group has been responsible for thousands of deaths inside of Turkey.
Similarly, the Assad regime’s advance to capture Idlib from Turkish-backed rebels presents another challenge to Erdogan’s insistence for a buffer zone on the Syrian border. Assad’s reclamation of the province would leave Ankara with the uncomfortable situation of having to share a border with a government it tried to topple at the onset of the war by backing rebels like the ones currently dug in at Idlib. Additionally, the prospect of a refugee wave nearly a million strong would further exacerbate domestic discontent over the 3.6 million Syrians already living in Turkey. This is why Erdogan has been threatening to open Turkey’s borders into Europe as his country understandably feels that they have shouldered the burden of welcoming Syria’s displaced people.
The miscalculation Erdogan cannot afford to make is in measuring the willingness of Putin to support Assad over Turkey. The deaths of 33 Turkish soldiers at the hands of Syrian forces cast suspicion on whether Russia was upholding its efforts to avoid direct assaults on Turkish military elements since Moscow and Ankara have been sharing the locations of their forces in order to avoid such an incident. The Russian Defense Ministry wasn’t particularly apologetic about the attack, releasing a statement that said “Turkish soldiers who were in the battle formations of terrorist groups came under the fire of Syrian troops” with the foreign minister following up that the deaths “would have been prevented if Ankara had honored a deconflict agreement between the two militaries”.
Putin has backed Assad through nearly every phase of the conflict and capturing Idlib has been a long time coming for the regime. This is because his goal is not to sow harmony with Erdogan, it is to undermine NATO.
Ankara’s resistance to incursions on their southeast border will be met with Syrian retaliation backed by the Kremlin. If both sides continue to escalate the conflict, an invocation of Article Five may be in order. Syrian government forces have already inflicted serious damage on the Turks and any further action would force NATO’s second-largest military to immediately ramp up its offensive operations. Erdogan would then likely ask the alliance to provide a coalitional buffer force that would discourage further attacks on his troops but more importantly, counterbalance Russian power. If that call fell on deaf ears, western Turkey will become a launching point for refugees overnight.
The Moment Putin Has Been Waiting For
Aside from China and Iran, Russia does not have many friends in the global arena. Putin’s adventurism abroad appears revanchist and opportunistic. But constrained by a struggling economy and domestic distrust, his backing of a rogue general in Libya and a brutal regime in Syria reflect desperation rather than imperialist genius.
For Putin, it is in Russia’s national interest to weaken the NATO alliance and bring Europe’s leaders over to his side. There is evidence this is already happening. In the Libyan civil war, both France and Russia have provided aid to rebel general Khalifa Haftar in his fight the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). After calling NATO “braindead”, French President Emmanuel Macron voiced support for closer and more open relations with Russia. For her part, German chancellor Angela Merkel has fostered friendly relations with the Kremlin by striking energy deals and rebuking American sanctions on Russian companies.
There is a real opening for Putin here as both Macron and Merkel rhetorically acknowledge that the European project has failed and that they desire freedom from the American economic and security umbrella in order to have an “independent future”. However, given their inability to effectively wield power abroad, they still operate within the NATO framework of cooperation despite their public efforts to break away from it. Since Erdogan threatens to flood their borders with refugees, the Europeans cannot simply ignore the alliance no matter their aversion to collective defense. Just as it is in Russia’s interest to undermine NATO, it is in Turkey’s to uphold it.
Putin halting Assad’s advance and establishing a cease-fire would remove immediate questions regarding Article Five and Idlib’s displaced persons as well as convince the short-sighted Europeans of having engineered a solution to the crisis. This would further encourage Europe’s inclination to look to Putin for crisis mitigation and deeper economic ties. Putin would become the arbiter between Turkey and Europe as the Syrian crisis carries on, effectively killing NATO as a functional body.
What Europe Should Do
European trepidation and moral hubris have led to this day of reckoning. Their routine condemnations of Erdogan and apathy towards the Syrian civil war have made them hostages to Turkey’s unilateral behavior. If Europe’s leaders had acted decisively in containing the migrant crisis or more sympathetic to Ankara’s concerns regarding the Kurds, then it’s more likely Erdogan would not be threatening to send millions of refugees their way and their prospects for brokering a favorable ceasefire would be better than they are now.
The significance of the refugee issue cannot be understated as it has been a catalyst for the various anti-establishment movements that have swept the Continent. If 2015 were to repeat itself, one is hard-pressed to imagine how the EU could endure as a political body. If Assad’s advance is not halted, the number of refugees Erdogan is threatening to send would not only be politically catastrophic but have significant economic and social costs. The Eurozone grew just 0.1% in the last quarter of 2019 and with the coronavirus already affecting global supply chains, another rapid wave of mass migration could send the Continent’s economy into recession territory overnight.
European leaders must realize the significance of the Idlib moment and that deferring to Putin is not in their interest if they want to become independent powers. If they decide to support Turkey with a coalitional force it would restore a degree of confidence in the alliance, deter the Assad regime from further attacks against Turkish troops, and possibly secure a buffer zone.
Yet, if they abdicate themselves of this treaty-bound responsibility, Putin would be able to play the crisis to his advantage by manufacturing a temporary ceasefire that, like all the other ceasefires, inevitably fail and Turkey would continue to struggle to secure a buffer zone. For Europe to prevent another flood of refugees, they need to swallow their pride and take decisive action in favor of Turkey under the banner of NATO.
This Isn’t America’s Fight
America can no longer continue to be the only NATO country that deals with international crises. Our mission in Syria, for all intents and purposes, is over. The Continent has the most to lose and in order for the alliance to survive, the Europeans need to show leadership, geopolitical ability, and greater resolve in supporting its members in the face of Russian aggression. This is not a test of America’s commitment to NATO, it is a test of Europe’s and whether they realize it or not, they too have a stake in Idlib.
Matthew Mai is a student at Rutgers University studying public policy.