Erdogan Risks Lower Support At Home If Delivers On Idlib Threats - Ex-UK Ambassador

MOSCOW (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 22nd February, 2020) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is seeking broader support at home amid unprecedentedly low approval ratings, risks losing even more trust points if he proceeds with threats of launching a full-on military operation in Syria's Idlib, Peter Ford, a former UK ambassador to Syria, told Sputnik.

Following a sharp escalation in Idlib and inconclusive talks between the Turkish and Russian delegations in Moscow, Erdogan has warned that Turkey was fully ready to launch an extensive operation in Idlib "any minute." The country is already deeply entrenched in the Syrian conflict, assisting pro-Turkey militants in Idlib, who on Thursday tried to breach the defenses of the Syrian army near the villages of Qmenas and Nerab, but were repelled by Damascus forces with support of Russian aviation. The Turkish Defense Ministry later reported that two Turkish soldiers had been killed and five injured in the air attack, and that over 50 Syrians had been killed as a result of return fire.

"There is now a reaction in Turkey itself, the opposition parties who control half of the parliament are against the adventurism of their president, complaining about the loss of life of young soldiers. I think the lesson that Erdogan has just received will be very sobering and will hopefully make him and the other decision-makers in Ankara more realistic," Ford said.

The diplomat suggested that the Turkish troops might consider their current situation humiliating and even revolt.

"Turkey cannot even use helicopters to take out their dead bodies, and this is a shaming situation. I'm sure the Turkish military, they are unhappy about the humiliation, which the Turkish army is now facing and will not want to risk more and bigger losses. In fact I would go so far to say that given the history of the Turkish government and the Turkish army, Erdogan is playing with fire with the risk of mutiny in his own army," the former ambassador said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called the Turkish operation a violation of the bilateral agreements on distinguishing Syrian armed opposition from terrorists and warned that it may make the situation in Idlib worse.

According to Ford, Turkey will know better than to end up in an open confrontation with Russia.

"I think Turkey will not seek or be ready for real confrontation with Russia. I think the experience of recent days will have taught them a lesson, they sent their military alongside some real extremist jihadis and they got their answer: those troops will be targeted as long as they are co-located along with jihadis. If they are alone, they will be left alone. If they are working side by side in military operations with the jihadis they will be targeted," the diplomat said.

He added that the Russia-Iran-Turkey peace talks on Syria the so-called Astana format are likely to continue, as they testify to Ankara's political weight in the region.

"It's a bit hard to say, I think yes [the format will continue] because it's a face favor for Turkey, it shows that Turkey is still one of the decision-makers on Syria, it gives them a role alongside Russia and Iran, they do get something out of it. So when they calm down I think they will go back to the Astana formula. It'll help to save face," Ford said.

In the Kazakh capital in May 2017, Russia, Iran and Turkey brokered a deal that created four de-escalation zones in Syria. While the territories of three of them have been controlled by Damascus since 2018, the fourth zone which includes Idlib and parts of neighboring provinces of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo remains out of the government's control. A large part of the de-escalation zone is in the hands of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terror group (formerly known as Nusra Front, banned in Russia), as well as over 10 other militant groups. In this regard, Russia and Turkey met in a bilateral format in September 2018 to establish a demilitarized zone in Idlib.