In order to understand why the war in Syria’s northwest Idlib province is likely to spread, it may be helpful to think back to the dark days of early World War II.
Britain was alone and on the ropes. Plenty of countries wished it well. But with France, Denmark, the Low Countries, Norway, and Poland all under the Nazi boot, no one was willing to step forward with anything along the lines of practical aid. The future looked grim, which is why murmurs in favor of a negotiated settlement were growing harder and harder to ignore.
But then the United States and Soviet Union entered the war, and suddenly Britain had the world’s two greatest industrial powers on its side. Grumbling ceased. Hitler was also eager for allies, yet the only ones he could come up with were Italy, Hungary, Romania, and Finland, third-rate powers all. All would fall by the wayside as the slaughter intensified while Britain, the US, and the USSR would go from strength to strength.
It’s not only how many guns and soldiers you have, in other words, but how many allies – and who those allies are.
Now flash forward to Syria eighty years later. Damascus is diplomatically isolated thanks to the unremitting hostility of the US. But, militarily, it’s the opposite. Not only does it enjoy the support of Hezbollah and Iraq-based militias loyal to Iran, but it’s also found an all-important ally in post-Soviet Russia. Before Vladimir Putin intervened in September 2015, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was visibly weakening under a jihadist onslaught financed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab gulf oil monarchies. Afterwards, the situation stabilized and then – to Turkey’s fury since it also backed jihad – slowly turned in Assad’s favor.
Now it is in a position analogous to Britain prior to mid-1941. It has no shortage of friends thanks to its membership in NATO. But no one is offering military assistance since every halfway sane leader from Vienna to Washington is determined to steer clear of the mess in Idlib. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan needs allies before he’s destroyed and is therefore doing everything in his power to lure others into the fray.
So far, events may be working in his favor, which is why the war is likely to spread.
Actually, Erdogan is trying to do two things. He wants to enlist other countries and neutralize Syria’s chief ally as well. The latter goal is why his response to the recent death of as many as 55 Turkish troops was so carefully calibrated. Although the evidence is murky, it appears that both Russian and Syrian jet fighters took part in the Feb. 27 attack on a Turkish mechanized infantry battalion consisting of roughly 400 soldiers. According to an account in Al-Monitor, two Syrian Sukhoi SU-22 pounded the convoy, forcing the troops to take cover. But then a pair of Russian Sukhoi SU-34s dropped advanced laser-guided bunker-buster bombs on two roadside buildings where Turkish forces had taken shelter, burying them in the rubble.
Al-Monitor speculated that the attack was in retaliation for the intense MANPAD fire – short for man-portable air-defense systems – that Russian aircraft received over southern Idlib a day earlier, as well as MANPAD and drone attacks threatening Russia’s Khmeimim air base along Syria’s Mediterranean coast. If so, it was Russia’s way of saying basta – enough. But while Erdogan’s communications chief, Fahrettin Altun, blasted out a series of tweets promising a powerful response to "the murderous regime" in Damascus and vowing not to retreat, the government held its tongue as far as Russia was concerned. A day later, Erdogan telephoned Vladimir Putin in an effort to talk down tensions. Three days later, he called for a ceasefire while preparing to fly to Moscow for talks.
Erdogan was clearly hoping to drive a wedge between Putin and Assad so as to defuse one threat while concentrating on the other. But it’s unclear if Putin will play along. According to David Hearst, editor in chief of Middle East Eye, the phone call between the two men quickly degenerated into "a shouting match," with Erdogan telling Putin to get out of the way and Putin telling Erdogan to get out of Idlib. Moreover, Putin is under growing pressure to wind up Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict, which another ceasefire will merely prolong. So it looks like Russia may continue to strike while the iron is hot.
If so, the war will continue to heat up, if only in Idlib. As to whether it will spread, Turkey asked the US two weeks ago to conduct aerial patrols along the Idlib border and install two batteries of Patriot anti-aircraft missiles to protect against Syrian attacks. It would have marked a significant escalation for Washington if Trump had fallen for the bait. But he didn’t. When Erdogan called Washington a day after speaking with Moscow, he agreed to call on Russia and Syria to halt operations in Idlib. But when it came to actual assistance, he made it clear that he had nothing to offer more beyond intelligence cooperation and humanitarian aid.
Indeed, he went even farther according to an anonymous Turkish official. "Trump complained about the ‘endless wars’ and the billions of dollars the US has ‘wasted’ in the Middle East," the official said. "He said he would withdraw from the region." It confirmed what White House National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien earlier told a Washington think tank: "I don’t think anyone in this country is prepared to send the 82nd Airborne into that chaotic environment to try and solve another problem that’s not of our making in Syria."
So the US is determined to keep out, at least for now. But then there’s the EU. Aware that Europe’s worst nightmare is a return to the refugee crisis of 2015, Erdogan played on such fears by loading thousands of refugees onto shiny Mercedes-Benz buses after the Feb. 27 attack and driving them to the Greek and Bulgarian borders. Greek border guards fired tear gas and water cannons to force them back while Turkish border guards reportedly fired tear gas against the Greeks to help them get through.
The strategy sent panic through European ranks. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Turkey’s actions "wholly unacceptable" amid reports that more than 100,000 refugees had crossed over while Austria’s rightwing government threatened to seal the border. Matteo Salvini, star of Italy’s ultra-right, tweeted, "Not long ago, Erdogan threatened to send MILLIONS of immigrants. Madness. Remember?"
A flood of traumatic memories came rushing back. From Erdogan’s point of view, his country has already taken in some 3.6 million refugees from Syria and other Middle East conflict zones, and therefore he’s entitled to much in return. He wants help in dealing with the influx, he wants money to offset the economic burden, and he wants military assistance so he can prevail in Idlib. Hence, his goal is to "weaponize" millions of refugees so he can force NATO and the EU to do his bidding.
With an estimated 900,000 people displaced in Idlib due to the fighting, the refugee crisis is rapidly intensifying. If they make it across the border, then Erdogan may gain the leverage he’s looking for. After helping the US and Saudis to create havoc throughout Syria, he’s hopes to benefit by creating even more. It may work.
Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He writes a weekly column for Antiwar.com. He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com.