Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the guest of honor on the opening day of the MAKS 2019 aerospace show, in Zhukovsky, on the outskirts of Moscow (see EDM, September 3). On August 27, a massive security cordon kept both military and civilian visitors at bay, as Erdoğan and President Vladimir Putin, along with their entourages, had the entire airshow to themselves. The two leaders spent the day observing new Russian fighter jets on the tarmac and in flight. Moreover, they discussed possible future arms deals and, notably, Syria. A Russian-supported offensive by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been hitting local civilians as well as Turkish-allied opposition fighters—threatening to engulf the Turkish military deployed in the so called Idlib de-escalation zone. Turkey is acquiring Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, which induced Washington to suspend Ankara from the F-35 strike fighter program. It was announced Turkey may consider buying new Russian Su-35s or possibly fifth-generation Su-57 stealth jets instead, in further defiance of its US ally (Hurriyet Daily News, August 28). Putin also apparently acknowledged that a Turkish zone of special interest or “security zone” could be established in northern Syria, south of the Turkish border (Kommersant, August 28).
Pro-al-Assad forces supported by Russia had been pressing a land offensive since the beginning of August in northern Hama province and in southern Idlib to cleanse the last anti-al-Assad rebel stronghold left in Syria. The Syrian government air force, reinvigorated by Russian aid, specialists and military aircraft deliveries, had been relentlessly bombing the rebels, together with jets of the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS). The rebels are totally outgunned, but the advance of pro-al-Assad forces has been sluggish due to insufficient numbers of effective infantry, according to Russian sources. Pro-Iranian militias, which provided the well-motivated infantry backbone to all previous successful anti-rebel campaigns in the Syrian civil war in recent years, were not involved in the latest Idlib offensive. Apparently Tehran has been steering clear of a possible clash that could seriously sour relations with Ankara (Militarynews.ru, August 19).
To compensate for the Iranian absence, the Russian command deployed its own Spetsnaz (special forces) fighters in addition to VKS bombardments. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged the presence of Russian military personnel “on the ground” in Idlib (Militarynews.ru, August 20). By August 22, the rebel defenses in southern Idlib collapsed and pro-government forces captured the strategically important crossroads town of Khan Shaykhun. South of this settlement, Turkish military outpost number 9 (built under a September 2018 Putin-Erdoğan agreement in Sochi, establishing a de-escalation and demilitarized zone in Idlib) was surrounded by pro-al-Assad forces (Kommersant, August 23). On August 19, an armored Turkish military supply column sent from the Turkish border to reinforce outpost number 9 was stopped by an aerial bombardment before reaching Khan Shaykhun. The Russian and Syrian commands suspected the Turkish column had been deployed to prevent the fall of Khan Shaykhun. The attack killed and wounded a number of Syrian nationals—but apparently, by design, did not harm any Turkish service members (Militarynews.ru, August 20).
The pro-al-Assad forces were eager to push on to cleanse Idlib, believing the fall of the province would effectively end the civil war that began in 2011. The Russian military is also keen to push on toward full victory. The Syrian rebels based in Idlib are continuing to intermittently attack Hmeimin—the main Russian airbase and command post in Syria—using self-made drones; and the Turks have failed to eliminate this threat to Russia, as envisaged in the 2018 Sochi accord. Putin has publicly supported “a local Syrian offensive to eliminate the terrorist threat to Hmeimim” (Militarynews.ru, August 20). The tactical objective to secure Hmeimim is highly important, but the long-term strategic goal to pull Turkey away from the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and hopefully establish a friendly regime controlling the Turkish Straits is equally important. For centuries, Russia has spent vast amounts of blood and treasure and fought many wars in the hopes of either directly annexing the Bosporus and the Dardanelles or at least establishing a friendly vassal regime that would control the strategic waterway (see EDM, July 18). In pursuit of this goal, Putin appears ready to bend over backwards to appease Erdoğan, who has been pragmatically exploiting this apparent Russian weakness in Sochi in 2018 and now at MAKS 2019, in Zhukovsky.
Turkey backs various rebel groups in northwestern Syria, and a successful Russian-supported cleansing of Idlib would have caused immense internal political and social problems for Erdoğan due to thousands or millions of additional refugees potentially pouring in over the border. After the MAKS 2019 summit, the Russian military halted the Idlib offensive. Moreover, Erdoğan apparently secured Putin’s support for his idea of establishing a “security zone” in northern Syria that would include not only parts of Idlib but also Afrin and the semi-independent Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (Rojava), dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its affiliated militia (the People’s Protection Units—YPG). The Kurdish YPG is allied with the US military in the fight against the Islamic State, but Ankara considers it a terrorist organization—alleging it is simply an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdoğan’s northern Syrian security zone is designed as a Turkish-controlled “haven,” into which most of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees at present in Turkey could be settled; while Rojava and the YPG would be obliterated, like during the Turkish-led 2018 offensive in the northwestern Kurdish-Syrian enclave of Afrin. Erdoğan apparently has Putin’s backing and has announced the operation against Rojava must begin before the end of September, or he will be forced to open the Turkish border, allowing millions of Syrian refugees to flood the European Union (Militarynews.ru, September 5).
Erdoğan has been playing Russia, the US and the EU against each other, obtaining perks and free passes from all sides. EU members are petrified the 2015 refugee crisis could repeat, if Erdoğan opens the floodgates. Moscow has supplied him S-400 missiles, rerouting weapons that were earmarked for its own VKS and delivering them on credit that will be difficult to repay considering Turkey’s faltering economy and a financial system on the verge of insolvency. US President Donald Trump reluctantly stopped the delivery of F-35s to Erdoğan but has repeatedly restrained from imposing any sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) (Hurriyet Daily News, August 28). Erdoğan’s high-stakes juggling act has proved successful so far.