Fatigue with Syria's endless conflict can't hide the enormity of this moment. It is highly unlikely that the Syrian regime had the will or the firepower to target and kill over 30 Turkish troops without Moscow's backing, or arms, or direct involvement.
In the past, an error would be confessed. A phone call between Moscow and Ankara would calm tensions. Instead, Russia is doubling down on how the Turkish troops were close to terrorists at the time of the attack. They are sending cruise-missile-capable ships to the region. The danger with deals between strongmen is that they depend on personal pragmatism or chemistry.
But when authoritarians like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan feel betrayed — or even publicly scorned — the consequences are emotional, not pragmatic.
Syria’s overnight flare-up is so toxically potent because the two power-brokers here, Russia and Turkey, are not only engaged in a direct shooting conflict, but also want totally different outcomes from the current crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan spoke on the phone in the aftermath of the attack Friday. But the scope for a swift and full diplomatic settlement here — the magic call between the Kremlin and Ankara — is limited. Both sides need and seek completely different outcomes.
First, Damascus seeks to control all of Syria again. This is a lofty almost impossible ambition, but one that makes more strategic sense when it comes to Idlib. This is a pocket of land where the most radicalized rebels have been pushed and where constantly battered and brutalized civilians harbour unshakeable loathing for a regime that has bombed their hospitals and schools incessantly. Damascus does not want this pocket of rage to threaten their Aleppo city, or emerge again as a rebellion years down the line. It needs to control the territory.
Moscow is simply enjoying the power vacuum in the region, left by President Donald Trump’s talk of disengagement. Russia feels like the only superpower in the Middle East now, even though its military is still dwarfed there by the Pentagon. Moscow is the power prepared to do things. Here, they want their client state, Damascus, to enjoy the full scope of their firepower and military support. It sends a clear message across the region that Russia is an effective ally and is prepared to get ugly to get its way.
Erdogan is sat in a soiled bed of his own making. He cozied up to Russia, bought their missile systems, turned his back on NATO, invaded northeast Syria despite European and American pleas not to, and is now caught in a direct shooting conflict with his new friend, Moscow. Erdogan found Putin’s contempt for Western ideals and democracy soothing, but failed to calculate the long-term impact of abandoning Turkey’s long-term alliance with the West.
Yet Turkey’s strategic problems here are almost existential. Their move into northeast Syria and heavy involvement in Idlib stem from Turkish exhaustion with their millions of Syrian guests. Refugees have transformed southern Turkey’s cities into bustling hubs, and spread camps over their once barren countryside. It was always evident that eventually Turkey’s huge hospitality would ebb. Now Erdogan has sought to control parts of Syria into which he can eventually send these people back.
Instead, regime advances in Idlib have led to the opposite risk. Over three million cold, tired, shelled, traumatized Syrians cannot enter Turkey now as the border is closed. But they dare not get any closer to a regime that has simply killed them in the past. Erdogan needs to retain control over parts of Idlib to prevent another refugee crisis cementing the one he is currently trying to disperse. Ankara cannot entertain any other solution in Idlib.
So this moment is perhaps more dangerous than the unexpected and chaotic foray into northeast Syria last year. That slowed when it hit regime lines and involved a NATO army taking on the rag-tag Syrian Kurds, many of whom had fought ISIS merely with hunting rifles.
This new phase in the conflict refuses to deflate. Turkish casualties mount, as do Syrian regime deaths. Russians are in the battlefield, in numbers, assisting the regime and will eventually be in the crosshairs. Turkey is still in NATO, but has little credit with it now. Russia has never felt so powerful in the region, or over a divided transatlantic alliance.
Erdogan and Putin both urgently want opposite things and the moment in which Syria’s endgame is decided is upon us now, not months down the line. That will undermine any off-ramp or soothing phone call in the days ahead.