The US administration’s reaction to the latest Idlib ceasefire agreement between Turkey and Russia is perhaps best described as a mix of bewilderment, disappointment, and dismissal. This is not entirely surprising given Washington’s repeated messaging to its NATO ally about the need to end its bourgeoning business with Russia, a leading strategic rival to the United States as outlined in the US Director of National Intelligence’s worldwide threat assessment report.
It did not help that Washington was not fully informed about President Tayyep Erdogan’s deal with President Putin. Hinting at the lack of coordination, a State Department Spokesperson told Turkish television that, “the United States looks forward to discussing the details of this development with our NATO ally Turkey.” Casting doubts over the deal’s prospects, the spokesperson explained that “of utmost importance now are actions on the ground by Assad and his (Russian and Iranian) supporters, which will show whether an enduring ceasefire will be achieved.”
Meanwhile, diplomatic sources at the United Nations indicated that the US mission is actively obstructing a draft resolution in support of the Erdogan-Putin deal over Idlib.
Rivalry with Moscow aside, part of what is contributing to a sense of bewilderment in Washington is the stark discrepancy between, on one hand, the admirable performance of the Turkish military and, on the other, the painful concessions made by President Erdogan during his audience with President Putin.
Turkish military posts in Syria’s Idlib will stand after ceasefire
According to US intelligence estimates, the Turkish military has delivered a debilitating blow to the Syrian regime’s already limited capabilities since the beginning of “Operation Spring Shield” on February 27. Battlefield assessments point to over 3,000 Syrian soldiers dead or injured, over 180 vehicles destroyed, and the regime’s rotary and fixed aircraft capabilities being cut to down to size.
Furthermore, Turkey as NATO’s second largest army demonstrated an impressive ability to launch a systematic and well-coordinated drone campaign that wreacked havoc on the regime’s ground forces, and those of Iran-backed militias fighting on its behalf. The deadly Turkish campaign of fire from the sky evoked memories of “The Highway of Death,” when American A-10 Warhog jets wreaking havoc on the Iraqi military during its 1991 retreat from Kuwait.
To put it bluntly, prior to Erdogan’s capitulation, the assessment in Washington was that Assad and Russia’s plan to reach the Turkish border had come to a screeching halt. The emerging military balance of power in northwest Syria was one increasingly in favor of Turkey, which by then had some 10,000 troops on Syrian soil, accompanied by thousands of rebel forces fighting alongside it.
Yet once in Moscow, Erdogan accepted a ceasefire based on current lines of control rather than a return to pre-battle lines as he had long insisted. Furthermore, the agreement did not address the fate of Turkish military observation still under siege further east, nor does it clearly spell out the right of over a million refugees who fled toward the Turkish border to return.
So why did Erdogan concede despite an increasingly favorable military balance?
One line of analysis says that President Erdogan’s calculus is perhaps heavily influenced by factors outside the Syrian battlefield, namely the difficult military realities he faces in Libya, where Russia is also an important player. Turkish concessions in Syria, even if unwarranted, might have been made to help ease the plight of its desperate allies in Libya. Another factor might also have been rising political opposition at home, which last week manifested in an all-out brawl in the Turkish parliament.
But perhaps the lead reason behind President Erdogan’s concessions is the lingering impact of self-inflicted wounds to Turkey’s strategic relationship with the US. His military may be among the finest in the world, capable of decimating what is left of the Syrian military, but Turkey still cannot facedown Russia without the necessary assurance of the US.
President Erdogan’s dilemma is in his continued conviction that he must deal favorably with Russia due to its position in neighboring Syria, but that he must do so while soliciting US support every time Moscow applies pressure.
For its part, Washington made it abundantly clear that Erdogan cannot and will not have it both ways. US support will remain limited unless Erdogan takes concrete steps away from Russia, rethinking his purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system in the process.
Until then, Erdogan will find himself compelled into signing unfavorable and short-lived deals with Russia time and again, counting his fingers every time he shakes Putin’s hand.
Firas Maksad is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs and a DC-based consultant on the Middle East. He tweets @firasmaksad