The killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in an airstrike last month in Syra's Idlib Province not only brought Turkey and Syria to a state of undeclared war but also worsened Ankara's relations with Moscow. As Turkish and Russian goals in Syria seem to be at odds, there are growing expectations in some circles that this would be a good time for Ankara and the West to improve their relations, not least because Turkey will be forced to seek support from NATO, the US and Europe to break out of its isolation. The alliance duly condemned the attack on the troops after Turkey invoked Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also demanded more support from his NATO and EU allies over the war in Syria and the refugee crisis at his country's border with Greece. According to diplomatic sources, Turkey has presented NATO with a list of 10 requests, including more air support on the Turkish-Syrian border; more reconnaissance aircraft and surveillance drones; and more ships in the eastern Mediterranean.
Professor of Political Science Lenore G Martin from Emmanuel College in Boston does not believe that NATO will respond to Turkey's demands in a way that will bring about a confrontation with Russia. She noted that Secretary of Defence Mark Esper apparently said that the US will not provide air support for Turkey, although it is willing to supply more humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees. "Russians aren't always good partners," said Esper pointedly, telling us a lot about the West's irritation over Turkey's moves towards Moscow.
However, the Idlib crisis has forced Ankara to get at least political backing from NATO as a balancing act against Russia, according to Professor Selcuk Colakoglu, Director of the Turkish Centre for Asia Pacific Studies in Ankara. "This was the first time that the Turkish government sought support from NATO in Syria since the Astana process with Russia and Iran started in January 2017," he said.
Hence, while NATO expressed political support for Ankara, and allies agreed at least nominally to boost Turkey's air defence systems, Erdogan cannot expect the alliance's military support for his country's actions in Syria as this would require triggering Article 5 of the Treaty. Moreover, Article 6 defines explicitly the scope of military operations, which is limited to member state (i.e. Turkish) territory and the forces, vessels and aircraft of NATO members located in the Mediterranean Sea. In practice, it means that Ankara cannot expect the invocation of Article 5 even if the crisis in Idlib escalates, although NATO is no stranger to violating international norms, including its own charter; the US-led aggression in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 is a case in point.
"It is very unlikely that NATO will take action in Turkey unless there is a direct attack on Turkish soil from Syria," Colakoglu told me. Even if the alliance agrees to provide additional support to Ankara, by installing Patriot missile systems inside Turkey so that they are not a direct target for Syrian or Russian forces, for example, would NATO be willing to target Russian bombers over Idlib?
Kristian Brakel, the country director for Turkey at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin isn't convinced that it will. Western states, says Brakel, are not willing to get more involved in the Syrian quagmire and Erdogan's latest moves on the Greece-Turkey border has left zero goodwill on most fronts.
Several open issues will continue to determine relations between Turkey and the West. Prof. Martin explained that the West supported the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) which Turkey has viewed as its enemy from the beginning of the civil war in Syria. Moreover, the West regards Ankara's purchase of the S400 missile defence system from Russia and the aiding of foreign fighters, many of them Islamists, as a serious threat to Western security.
As such, despite some coordination between NATO and Ankara, the Idlib crisis has made EU-Turkey relations more fragile. In Colakoglu's view, the 2016 migration deal between Ankara and Brussels is no longer useful and needs to be revised. One of the main bones of contention between them has been the method of aid distribution, with the EU channelling its refugee aid through NGOs rather than the Turkish government. In short, there is a lot of distrust between Turkey and its allies in NATO and the EU.
Prof. Colakoglu also noted that the majority of refugees crossing the border from Turkey to Greece were not Syrians, but people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the Horn of Africa, and they were not covered by the 2016 migration deal. As Turkey's economic slowdown has reduced its capacity to absorb 3.7 million refugees, the EU and Turkey, according to Colakoglu, need to develop a broader strategy for all refugees and migrants in Turkey as a matter of urgency. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, though, a meaningful solution will have to wait.
According to Martin, reaching a new deal will be much more difficult due to EU anger at Erdogan's decision not only to allow refugees and migrants to cross into the EU but also to drive them to the border. "The EU leadership has been standing firm, saying that the EU will remain united while also saying that it does not see Turkey as an enemy." That, she added, is far from saying that Turkey is an ally.
We should not forget that Turkey has for years pursued an autonomous foreign policy, and in Brakel's view, "The Turks are not willing to give up on their illusion of a sort of bloc-free foreign policy, one in which Turkey is a regional power of its own, calling the shots." All of this will certainly encumber any future rapprochement between Ankara and the West. Indeed, said Brakel, neither side shows much interest in such realignment.
Furthermore, Moscow is not going to not sit idly by and watch its former ally turning back to the West, as both the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin personally have invested greatly in approaches to Turkey. In Martin's opinion, "Erdogan is playing 'both sides of the coin', even offering to share oil wealth with Russia, much of which is presently in the hands of the US. At the same time, he is asking NATO to support Turkey in Syria. It is a dangerous game making him appear untrustworthy to both."
However, as long as the Western states do not make any convincing counteroffers, the Kremlin will continue to have the upper hand over Ankara in many ways. According to Brakel, it does not need to offer very much in order to keep the situation under control.
The Idlib ceasefire summit in Moscow indicated that neither Turkey nor Russia is ready to sacrifice bilateral cooperation. To compensate for the damage to such cooperation in recent weeks, Moscow may offer Ankara the opportunity to participate in the reconstruction process in Syria, on condition that Turkey reconciles more with Russia. Whether Turkey and the Russia-Iran-Syria bloc could find a balanced solution to Idlib as well as the other territories in the north controlled by Turkey will be decisive for the future of the Moscow-Ankara partnership. As things stand at the moment, Turkey and the West remain far apart.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.