They will largely do this. The Russians may draw a line on the map, and they may take local action against Turkish deployment beyond that line. If that occurs, it will be the high point of tension, followed by a little freeze, followed by deescalation. This post-conflict pattern has been demonstrated: (BBC) Turkey’s downing of Russian warplane – what we know.
In 2014, when Syria was almost a complete political vacuum, I proposed a reinstatement of the Ottoman Empire, which was dissolved in the aftermath of World War 1, to serve British and French colonial ambitions. Articles: (2014) Turkey & the New Ottoman Empire, and (2016) Turkey in Syria; The New Ottoman Empire; a Brief Note about Cultural Affinity. Additional mentions here.
This colonial redraw is the direct antecedent of today’s map of ethnic conflict, fueled by artificial boundaries that cut across ethnic lines. In some cases, this strategy was intentional, to make these regions more amenable to foreign governance.
Ottoman Syria was a stable component of the empire for 400 years. The semi-representational methods of Ottoman governance, which achieved stability of a multi-ethnic region, remain a marvel to historians, if not a modern aspiration. A reprise in northern Syria, with organic connection to Turkey’s economy, might well have resulted in durable solution. No alternative of the striped-pants brigade has as much life to it.
Turkey’s involvement in Syria reached a high point in the attempt to prevent the recapture of Aleppo. It failed because it was actuated by proxies with insufficient power. Other constraints to greater activity:
- The tatters of the proclaimed “Zero problems with our neighbors” foreign policy.
- Sensitivity to war casualties typical of a modern nation.
- Reluctance or refusal to engage Islamists of any stripe on the battlefield.
- Turkey’s transition from a member of the Western Alliance to an independent, mini “great power”, which requires a state of balance with Russia.
Russian concerns are a delicate balance of:
- Desire to continue peeling Turkey away from the West, with the eventual removal of nuclear weapons from Turkey.
- Reliance on the Bosporus, a choke point for the Black Sea warm-water ports.
- Recognition that Recep Erdoğan was, and is, an Islamist. (Hoover) Erdogan The Nationalist Vs Erdogan The Islamist.
The Russians complain, with justification, that Turkey was not acting with effect against terror groups in the Idlib region. The location of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the time of U.S. action was on the edge of Idlib.
There is a tendency for Islamists to cloak themselves within the current political scene. This was demonstrated by Mohamed Morsi, who came to power by popular election, and proceeded by subtle and then less subtle steps to dismantle Egyptian democracy. (That el-Sisi finished the process is not germane here.)
Erdoğan has also subverted Turkish democracy. He began by showing up to chair meetings he had no standing in, and continued (like el-Sisi), with constitutional change that opens the door to further weakening. The huge number of Gülen movement imprisonments goes beyond the modern meaning of sedition; it is an authoritarian clamp-down. (BBC) Reality Check: The numbers behind the crackdown in Turkey.
Subversion of democracy is not a Russian concern. Erdoğan the crypto-Islamist is. Since 1991, Turkey and Russia have not shared a border. But the intervening states, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, are weak and porous. The recent history of the Middle East suggests that the ambition, and potential for Islamic export and aggression correlate with national transition from secular to Islamist.
If it were necessary to choose a single word to define U.S. foreign policy, it might be one of “preserve”, ‘protect”, or “defend.” For Russia, it would be “if.” Because Russia is a threatened continental power, this leads to complex constructs, that begin with “If Turkey…”.
At the current level of Erdoğan‘s Islamism, the “if” still allows accommodation of the Turkish occupation. Provided that the remaining terror pockets of Idlib are eliminated, it offers practical advantages to Russia:
- A reduction of the area of control required of Assad’s overstretched forces.
- Leverage with Turkey. As an arrangement that lacks the pretense of legitimacy, Turkish occupation is a useful pressure point.
- Continuance of a Turkey-Russia alliance, in the context of the Russian “if.”