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Moscow's Difficult Decision on Idlib

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From Consortium News

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a press conference in Turkey, Dec. 1, 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a press conference in Turkey, Dec. 1, 2014.
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As Recip Tayyip Erdogan prosecutes his latest military intrusion southward into Syria, all the old mythologies about the Turkish president and the nine-year-old Syrian conflict are rehearsed once again, hopelessly threadbare as they are. The problem now is not the fog of war. The problem is the war of fog.

Let us be clear from the start, then, as to what has unfolded since last week and what will be the desired outcome. The Syrian Arab Army, a force for good, must not stop short of decisive victory in Idlib, the governorate in northwest Syria sheltering the last jihadist militias operating on Syrian soil. Russia, which is correctly (and legally) supporting the S.A.A.'s campaign, should try to avoid a direct conflict with a NATO member but should engage Turkish forces if there is no alternative.

NATO, breaking its own Article 5 covenant, will not come to the aid of a member nation engaged in so despicable an assault on another sovereign nation. I am not alone in holding this opinion. Don't forget: Most NATO members are squeamish, mealy-mouthed Europeans who have given up the ghost in Syria.

It will do the entire world much good if the egregious Erdogan sustains the bloodiest nose of his six years as Turkey's dictatorial president in consequence of this drive into Syria. Let us say precisely the same of what remains of the U.S. presence in Syria. Excellent it will be if Washington must at last acknowledge that it has lost every chip it has put down in Syria since it began arming, training and financing a variety of vicious Islamist factions, including the Islamic State, in early 2012 at the very latest. At this point it claims to be protecting Syrian oilfields from" Syria.

This is not Turkey's first foray into Syrian territory, let us remember. It launched a similar campaign in 2016; it began another incursion last autumn. Turkey has from the start of the Syrian conflict been a conduit for arms supplies to the Islamic State and other jihadists, while transshipping Syrian oil from ISIS-controlled refineries into international markets.

But Operation Spring Shield, as Erdogan grandly names this latest invasion, already proves Turkey's costliest and most aggressive attack on its southern neighbor. Last Thursday Syrian airstrikes, possibly with Russian participation killed at least 30 Turkish soldiers and as many as 36. On Friday and through the weekend, Turkey retaliated with drone and artillery attacks that killed more than 100 Syrian troops and destroyed a significant number of S.A.A. tanks and radar systems. A Turkish F16 shot down two Syrian fighter jets on Sunday.

This brings the Syrian conflict to one of its most critical moments in its nine-year history. Turkey has for the moment impaired the S.A.A.'s advances into Idlib. Should Russia retaliate to make sure this success is temporary? This is Russia's question in the coming week. It is Moscow's most difficult decision since it intervened in behalf of the Damascus government in September 2015.

Avoiding Direct Confrontation

Russia and Turkey have to date assiduously avoided any kind of direct military confrontation. Elijah Magnier, who has covered Middle Eastern politics for several decades, reports that Russia suspended its air support of the S.A.A. amid Turkey's weekend offensive. If this proves so, it can be counted prudent, but Moscow's announced priority in Syria -- a final defeat of the terrorist militias holed up in Idlib -- should not be compromised.

Erdogan has betrayed the Russians so often it is a wonder Moscow has any patience left for him. A Turkish F16 shot down a Russian jet two months after Russian aircraft deployed in Syria five years ago. Ankara and Moscow agreed two years ago to establish a ceasefire zone in northwest Syria, with Turkey also committing to remove jihadists led by Hayat Tahrir alSham, formerly alNusra, which was formerly alQaeda in Syria in the name-changing shell game these cutthroats play. That accord went the way of the West (so to say) long ago.

After President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria last October, Erdogan summited with Vladimir Putin in Sochi, where the Russian president fashioned an arrangement providing for Russian and Turkish troops to police this is side-by-side, mind you a buffer zone along the Turkish Syrian border, the intent being to restrain Erdogan's designs in Syria while assuaging his worries about Syrian Kurds in the designated zone. Out the window in less than six months.

This guy could be counted a tinpot dictator out of Chaplin's 1940 satire were he not so destructive of global order and human life. Erdogan, who nurses dreams of some kind of neo-Ottoman restoration across the Middle East, is now on a reckless tear. "We have fought Russia 16 times in the past, and we will fight it again," a top Erdogan adviser declared as the new offensive proceeded over the weekend.

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Patrick Lawrence is a columnist, author, editor, and educator. He has published five books and currently writes foreign affairs commentary for Consortium News and other publications. He served as a correspondent abroad for many years and is (more...)

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