(PC: Ivor Prickett for The New York Times)
In Istanbul, the wind howls. If it could be said that the mere flapping of a butterfly’s wings can ripple through the world until it is felt on the other side of the globe, then the atmospheric hysteria of the night’s wails can be thought of as the abstraction of the air raids in Idlib that began in the early hours of 28 February 2020. The first announcements emerged around 12:26 IST: Nine Turkish Soldiers killed in air raid in Syria’s Idlib: Turkey’s Erdogan holds extraordinary meeting after attack that killed at least nine Turkish troops in northwest Syria. These reports were soon replaced as the count increased. By 2:00 am, Hatay Governor Rahmi Doğan disclosed that 36 wounded Turkish soldiers had been sent to the hospital. Other approximations suggest that these numbers downplayed the situation because it was unclear which causalities belonged to Turkey and which belonged to the Özge Suriye Ordusu (ÖSO). Additional reports emerged such as “33 Turkish soldiers killed in Syrian air raid in Idlib: UN Secretary-General Guterres warns risk of escalation ‘grows by the hour’ and calls for an immediate ceasefire” among others (Al Jazeera, 2020). With the deaths of these Turkish soldiers due to the airstrike, significant political winds have changed. Such gusts may even spin the very axis that defines Turkey’s foreign policy stance to Europe, the US, and Russia.
In the case of the conflict-ridden city of Idlib, 59 km South of Aleppo, it was not a butterfly that flapped its wings, but an air raid. The town of 3 million+ people is known as one of the last remaining strongholds run by forces opposing Russian-backed President Bashar al-Assad (BBC). Since the US departure from the northwestern region (September 2019) and the Turkish offensive in the region (9 October 2019), notched escalations in the Syrian conflict have come at more rapid successions (New York Times, 2019). Regarding the air strike, “The deaths are the largest number of fatalities suffered by Turkey in a single day since it began sending thousands of troops into Idlib in recent weeks... The ferocious bombing campaign and ground assault have displaced nearly one million people since December, more than half of whom are children” (Al Jazeera, 2020). Overt actions taken in Latakia indicate that Turkey is more openly positioning against Russia, militarily and politically: “Turkish military fired missiles at targets in Syria’s central Hama, northwestern towns of Nubl and Zahraa, as well as in regime and Russian bastion, Latakia, in response to regime airstrike” (Daily Sabah, 1:08 am IST 28.2.20).
What does this imply? The Russian airstrike strengthens the Turkish-US axis on the basis that the Turkish military simply cannot compete with that of Russia on its own. Turkey will likely seek improved relations with Western powers. Amongst non-state actors and proxy players, the whirlwind accelerates. The PKK vehemently justifies Assad’s actions. Russia makes claims that they do not operate in the region where Turkish soldiers died, however, Assad’s daring stance is unlikely to have been possible without Russian backing. Conversely, the Turkish military cannot ignite a conflict with Russia without invoking either European or US support, however, they have taken an active part in these escalations particularly in the last weeks and months (via Operation Peace Spring). Meanwhile, Europe is bracing itself for a new incoming wave of refugees and asylum seekers and, most likely, thumbing through ways that it can increase resources to allocate to Turkey in order to slow down this inevitable tide of persons en routeto the continent. Likewise, in addition to worsening the humanitarian catastrophe that has plagued Syria since 2011, the air raid is likely to isolate Russia further.
How Turkey responds to this provocation from a foreign policy standpoint remains to be seen. Turkey has no option to ignore the air raid. Yet, Turkey maintains the understanding that waging a proxy war with Russian-backed Assad forces is entirely different than open confrontation with one of their favorite frienemies. Of all the former feasible foreign policy options on Turkey’s political radar prior to the airstrike, none these options would have included ‘wage open war with Russia.’ However, Russia’s overt aggression against Turkey made all former potential policy positionings obsolete overnight.
If such political winds howl in Istanbul, in Idlib they must roar.