Turkey has not won a war against Russia since the 1600s, although there have been at least half a dozen of them. You would think that even the most aggressive Turkish leader would try to avoid another one, but you would be wrong.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for the past 17 years, says he is going to start a war with Russia at the end of this month. Just in Syria, of course, where both Turkey and Russia have already been meddling in the civil war for years. He’s not completely deranged.
“We are making our final warnings,” Erdogan said Wednesday. “We did not reach the desired results in our talks [with Russia]. … A [Turkish] offensive in Idlib is only a matter of time.”
Idlib, in Syria’s northwest, is the last province controlled by rebel forces, and Turkey is their patron and protector. Russia’s military intervention on the side of the Syrian regime in 2015 saved President Bashar al-Assad from almost certain defeat, so there was already strain on the Turkish-Russian relationship — but until recently it was kept under control.
While Russia was determined to stop militant Islamists seizing power in Syria, it was also angling to lure Turkey out of its membership in the NATO alliance, so in 2018 Moscow and Ankara made a deal at Sochi on the Black Sea. The northwestern province of Idlib, where all the surviving rebels had retreated, would remain under Turkish protection, at least for the time being.
That deal broke down last year for several reasons. Almost all the other rebel forces in Idlib were subjugated (after considerable fighting) by the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham organization, which is just al-Qaeda with a name change. (You remember al-Qaeda: the 9/11 attacks, head-chopping, the Islamic State group.) And Turkey made no effort to stop the jihadi take-over.
Turkey also didn’t keep its promise to free up the M5 freeway, which runs between Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s two biggest cities. (Its northern section, in Idlib province, was in rebel hands.) So in December, the Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower, launched an offensive to clear the jihadi forces off the M5. They have now succeeded, and Erdogan is very cross.
The Russian response to Erdogan’s threats has been steadily hardening. After a last-ditch meeting between Turkish and Russian delegations in Moscow on Tuesday failed to produce results, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned: “If we are talking about an operation against the legitimate authorities of the Syrian republic … this would of course be the worst scenario.”
He added sarcastically that Russia would not object if the Turkish military took action against the “terrorist groups in Idlib,” in line with the Sochi accord. But what would the Russians actually do if Erdogan carries out his threats?
Erdogan is threatening air strikes against targets throughout Syria, not just in Idlib. He has a big air force, and he could certainly do that, but Russia has a bigger one. Would it just sit idly by and let its Syrian ally be pounded from the air? That seems unlikely. A ground war between Turkish and Syrian troops could well be accompanied by air battles between Russia and Turkey.
You can spin the speculation out endlessly — what would the Israelis do? What would the United States do? — but the likeliest outcome is that Erdogan backs down and the ceasefire line in Idlib is redrawn to leave Highway 5 in Syrian hands.
However, “likeliest” is a long way from “certain.” This could end up as a major war, and since Turkey can easily block Russian ships heading for the Mediterranean, Russian victory would not be quick or easy. But they would win in the end, as they always do, and Russia’s victory would make it the paramount power in the eastern Mediterranean.
It would also entail the fall of Erdogan. There’s always a silver lining.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).”