PATRICK LAWRENCE: Moscow’s Difficult Decision on Idlib

Turkey’s leader, who nurses dreams of some kind of neo–Ottoman restoration across the Middle East, is now on a reckless tear.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a press conference in Turkey, Dec. 1, 2014. (Russian government)

By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

As Recip Tayyip Erdogan prosecutes his latest military intrusion southward into Syria, all the old mythologies about the Turkish president and the 9-year-old Syrian conflict are rehearsed once again, hopelessly threadbare as they are. The problem now is not the fog of war. The problem is the war of fog.  

Let us be clear from the start, then, as to what has unfolded since last week and what will be the desired outcome. The Syrian Arab Army, a force for good, must not stop short of decisive victory in Idlib, the governorate in northwest Syria sheltering the last jihadist militias operating on Syrian soil. Russia, which is correctly (and legally) supporting the S.A.A.’s campaign, should try to avoid a direct conflict with a NATO member but should engage Turkish forces if there is no alternative.

NATO, breaking its own Article 5 covenant, will not come to the aid of a member nation engaged in so despicable an assault on another sovereign nation. I am not alone in holding this opinion. Don’t forget: Most NATO members are squeamish, mealy-mouthed Europeans who have given up the ghost in Syria.

It will do the entire world much good if the egregious Erdogan sustains the bloodiest nose of his six years as Turkey’s dictatorial president in consequence of this drive into Syria. Let us say precisely the same of what remains of the U.S. presence in Syria. Excellent it will be if Washington must at last acknowledge that it has lost every chip it has put down in Syria since it began arming, training and financing a variety of vicious Islamist factions, including the Islamic State, in early 2012 at the very latest. At this point it claims to be protecting Syrian oilfields from… Syria.

This is not Turkey’s first foray into Syrian territory, let us remember. It launched a similar campaign in 2016; it began another incursion last autumn. Turkey has from the start of the Syrian conflict been a conduit for arms supplies to the Islamic State and other jihadists, while transshipping Syrian oil from ISIS–controlled refineries into international markets.

A Turkish-backed FSA fighter loads an M2 Browning during the fighting in northern Aleppo Governorate, November 2016. (Mada Media, Wikimedia Commons)

But Operation Spring Shield, as Erdogan grandly names this latest invasion, already proves Turkey’s costliest and most aggressive attack on its southern neighbor. Last Thursday Syrian airstrikes, possibly with Russian participation  killed at least 30 Turkish soldiers and as many as 36. On Friday and through the weekend, Turkey retaliated with drone and artillery attacks that killed more than 100 Syrian troops and destroyed a significant number of S.A.A. tanks and radar systems. A Turkish F–16 shot down two Syrian fighter jets on Sunday.  

This brings the Syrian conflict to one of its most critical moments in its 9-year history. Turkey has for the moment impaired the S.A.A.’s advances into Idlib. Should Russia retaliate to make sure this success is temporary? This is Russia’s question in the coming week. It is Moscow’s most difficult decision since it intervened in behalf of the Damascus government in September 2015.

Avoiding Direct Confrontation

Russia and Turkey have to date assiduously avoided any kind of direct military confrontation. Elijah Magnier, who has covered Middle Eastern politics for several decades, reports that Russia suspended its air support of the S.A.A. amid Turkey’s weekend offensive. If this proves so, it can be counted prudent, but Moscow’s announced priority in Syria — a final defeat of the terrorist militias holed up in Idlib — should not be compromised.

Erdogan has betrayed the Russians so often it is a wonder Moscow has any patience left for him. A Turkish F–16 shot down a Russian jet two months after Russian aircraft deployed in Syria five years ago. Ankara and Moscow agreed two years ago to establish a ceasefire zone in northwest Syria, with Turkey also committing to remove jihadists led by Hayat Tahrir al–Sham, formerly al–Nusra, which was formerly al–Qaeda in Syria in the name-changing shell game these cutthroats play. That accord went the way of the West (so to say) long ago.

After President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria last October, Erdogan summited with Vladimir Putin in Sochi, where the Russian president fashioned an arrangement providing for Russian and Turkish troops to police — this is side-by-side, mind you — a buffer zone along the Turkish­–Syrian border, the intent being to restrain Erdogan’s designs in Syria while assuaging his worries about Syrian Kurds in the designated zone. Out the window in less than six months.

This guy could be counted a tinpot dictator out of Chaplin’s 1940 satire were he not so destructive of global order and human life. Erdogan, who nurses dreams of some kind of neo–Ottoman restoration across the Middle East, is now on a reckless tear. “We have fought Russia 16 times in the past, and we will fight it again,” a top Erdogan adviser declared as the new offensive proceeded over the weekend.

‘Get Out of Our Way’

Turkish military envoy arriving in northern Idlib province mid-February. (VOA via YouTube)

Not one day later, Erdogan claimed — true or not, who knows? — that he told Putin in a telephone conversation to “get out of our way and leave us face to face with the regime,” meaning the Assad government in Damascus. Now we have it on paper: Never mind the Kurdish question, Erdogan has all along been after “regime change,” as we insist on calling coups.

The new Turkish assault does have the modest benefit of facing us four-square with the question of just who the “rebels” in Idlib are, and who comprises the “Turkish-backed fighters” invading Syria. Shame on the government-supervised New York Times and other news outlets for their incessant use of these disgracefully dishonest euphemisms. It is minorly reassuring that Tulsi Gabbard, a sitting congresswoman, now insists that the jihadists the U.S. and Turkey have backed for the last nine years be called by their proper names. Gradually, one imagines, truth will win its long war with bunkum.

The US Fog Machine

Where is the rest of Washington on these questions? Where it ought not be, of course. The fog machine continues to fire on all eight, albeit forlornly now.

When Erdogan ordered an incursion into Syrian territory soon after Trump announced the U.S. troop withdrawal last autumn — this was before the Sochi summit temporarily calmed him — Capitol Hill screamed horror and passed limp-wristed sanctions against a few Turkish officials.

Now we have Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator and a longtime Dummkopf in the foreign policy space, tweeting just as Turkey ripped into Idlib last Friday: “Our NATO ally is doing the right thing. Putin and Assad must honor their commitments and stop the massacre.” Astonishing. Simply astonishing.

The prize for American presumption must go to James Jeffrey, the State Department’s special representative for Syria. Jeffrey has been complaining for many weeks about Syria’s campaign to restore its own sovereignty in Idlib, as if it has no right to do so. Not quite a month ago, Jeffrey briefed correspondents to the effect that Damascus should negotiate a ceasefire with Hayat Tahrir al–Sham (HTS in State-speak) because it should “acknowledge that part of the country will not be under the control of the government in — the regime in Damascus.” The nerve.

Here is some of Jeffrey’s stunning apology for the murderous, beheading terrorists known in our newspapers as “rebels” or “the opposition”:

“The HTS has not — we have not seen them planning or carrying out international terrorism attacks. We’ve seen them focusing on basically maintaining their position in Idlib…. The Russians claim that they constantly launch attacks on the Russians…. We have seen only intermittent and not very strong or significant military actions on their part against the Russians. The Russians use this as an excuse. Basically, they’re on the defensive, they’re just sitting there….”

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister and a diplomat many times the caliber of Jeffrey, had a succinct and sound response to this drivel when he addressed the point during a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council a couple of weeks later:

“Exhortations about the possibility of peace agreements being made with the thugs as it takes place when the situation in Idlib is discussed are absolutely unacceptable.”

The plainest English is sometimes spoken by non-native speakers.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale). Follow him on Twitter @thefloutistHis web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site. 

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30 comments for “PATRICK LAWRENCE: Moscow’s Difficult Decision on Idlib

  1. Lily
    March 7, 2020 at 03:46

    Putin did it again.


    This means ceasefire, free motorways, acceptance of the Kurdes in the Constitutional Comitee and for Turkey good relations with Russia.

  2. March 5, 2020 at 10:11

    Erdogan playing both sides against the middle as usual. On one hand working with Washington who tried a coup against him with the Gulenists and on the other Russia to possibly get a better deal on Turkish shares of the new pipelines? Who knows, but in time we will see.

    March 5, 2020 at 09:11

    Some good strong statements here. Even in some alternative media, the matter of Syria often is not stated clearly.

    Erdogan and Putin are meeting right now in Moscow.

    I’m hoping Putin makes it clear that patience is running thin.

    Actually, everyone’s patience with Erdogan is running thin.

    His pushing refugees in large numbers towards Europe is appalling.

    But Putin is a careful, pragmatic man, and the matter of the NATO connection cannot be ignored.

    I’m sure there are days Putin regrets having saved Erdogan in the coup.

  4. Lawrence Magnuson
    March 4, 2020 at 22:59

    I understand this hyperbolic sometimes, okay oftentimes, hot type of writing with an explosion in each sentence. Strident and not helpful.

  5. Linda Wood
    March 4, 2020 at 15:53

    For what it’s worth:


    Joe Biden spoke to Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thari, in April of 2013, about his support for the extremists. One of Biden’s closest advisers said that the vice president told the emir, “If you gave me a choice between Assad and Nusra, I’ll take Assad.” Biden went public at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on October 2, 2014:

    “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks . . . the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni–­Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-­Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”


    Biden Syria @ Harvard JFK October 2, 2014

    … at 2:30.

  6. Realist
    March 4, 2020 at 14:15

    No question but that Erdogan consistently breaks his word on every treaty or agreement he signs, and then resorts to thuggery after his deceptive diplomacy has reached its predictable and treacherous end point. I think he learned the tactic from his “allies” in Washington. In any case, he certainly thinks as the neocons do: tell any lie and sign any document to gain leverage and then break your word and start shooting when expedient. State actors like him and the barbarians on the Potomac guarantee that the world will never see peace in any of our lifetimes.

  7. Cascadian
    March 4, 2020 at 13:27

    The Syrians, Russians, Hezbullah, the Iraqis and the Iranians should engage the Turks and push them back to the mountain passes – only when control of those passes is in their hands will it be possible to control and stop the flow of arms and materiel to the takfiris via Turkey.

  8. Jeff Harrison
    March 4, 2020 at 13:27

    Erdogan lacks the finesse of the Russians and the brute power of the US. Russia is already rearming Syria and will continue to do so (I predict). It is the end stage for the collapse and irrelevance of the UN which has shown itself to be about as honest a broker on the world stage as the US has been in Palestine.

    • anon4d2
      March 5, 2020 at 19:48

      Yes, all of the Mideast, African, Asian and S/C American wars should and could have been prevented or stopped by the UN, were it not controlled and neutralized by the corrupt influence of US money power, which never serves the purposes it claims.

    March 4, 2020 at 12:02

    Wonderfull text, full of precious informations!

  10. March 4, 2020 at 11:38

    Thank you Mr. Lawrence for this excellent informative piece. You cite Tulsi Gabbard as another authentic, accurate and thoughtful person with information regarding the “rebels.” She will hopefully become a part of our Fed Government when we take back control of it in November.

    The US government becomes more and more dangerous as it feeds us with more and more propaganda.

  11. peter mcloughlin
    March 4, 2020 at 11:16

    The path to world war can be long, circuitous and with many temporary resting places for peace. Finally the journey arrives at its destination.

  12. March 4, 2020 at 10:50

    Meanwhile, here in the quite bizarre alternative universe that is America the exceptional, the MSM peddled narrative is that we are fighting jihadists when we have actually been supporting them for literally decades going back to the Mujahideen. The complete disappearing of Tulsi Gabbard in MSM and by the DNC isn’t because she poses a threat to win the party nomination. It is because she is the only candidate who will speak the truth aloud about our endless collusion with our jihadist buddies and this public honesty takes the mask off of our empire of lies. A mask that is so very carefully constructed and patched up and repaired daily by our completely amoral and corrupt MSM outlets and their brain dead news personalities.

    • anon4d2
      March 5, 2020 at 19:43

      Yes, the US MSM and political parties are owned by our corrupt oligarchy along with US elections and judiciary: we have minimal tools to restore democracy. Biden’s win in the South suggests another generation of corruption by money power.

  13. March 4, 2020 at 08:55

    America is getting what it wants, a continuous effort to weaken Syria. For awhile, it seemed the Assad must go mantra had been buried. Turkey has come to its rescue and a very serious problem for Russia has arisen. If Putin can salvage this one, he will truly be a miracle worker. If he can save the Syrian people from further suffering, that too will be wonderful. It is a lot to ask when American, Israel and their allies don’t want this to happen.

  14. Tristan Patterson
    March 4, 2020 at 08:12

    Gone is any semblance of level headed statesmanship and facts in the world today. It’s all lies, hypocrisy and propaganda laid bare with nary a whisper from the press.

    • Jpc
      March 4, 2020 at 13:38

      Can anyone explain how these “foreign policy experts” can utter such total unsupportable rubbish wrt the situation in Syria and the background to same.
      Then there’s the shameful chemical weapons episode and it’s political gaming.

  15. Donald Duck
    March 4, 2020 at 06:07

    Russia cannot remain indifferent to the situation in Syria. It’s presence there is wholly explicable. Having been forced to carry out costly wars against the jihadists in the neighbouring Russian provinces of Chechnya and Dagestan, Russia needs a buffer zone between its soft underbelly and an infiltration of the jihadist cut-throats. It is imperative therefore that Russia stays the course in defence of its homeland. Easily said, but no real alternative other than abject surrender.

  16. geeyp
    March 4, 2020 at 04:42

    Personally, I, for the most part, turn to Sergei Lavrov for the straight skinny on interpreting what is really going on there. Erdogan deserves a smack and has deserved one for some time. Likewise for the aforementioned USA culprits that Mr. Lawrence has mentioned here. These people are so unnerving. Tom Cotton – I can not stand lies. Are you even aware of your constantly lying to the American people? Or do you think all of us are that stupid??

  17. Moi
    March 4, 2020 at 01:59

    Erdogan is undoubtedly duplicitous but so is Russia.

    For example, Russia has not allowed a single use of the S400 system in Syria despite Israeli aircraft firing at Syrian targets from within Syrian airspace. They stand aside while Turkey uses drones and F16s to attack Syrian troops fighting al-Qaeda on Syrian soil.

    Russia talks about aiding Syria but it seems to do little but provide military equipment and bomb civilians. Even then the supposedly fantastic S400 sits idle and doesn’t even provide deterrent value.

      March 5, 2020 at 09:18

      Syria doesn’t have the S-400 system. It has an updated S-300 plus pantsir.

      Russia has S-400 there to protect its own bases.

      Syria has used some elements of its system quite regularly with missiles coming from Israeli jets firing from over Golan . Just the other day, in fact.

    • Moi
      March 5, 2020 at 16:31

      John, OK, the Russians veto the use of Syria’s S300 air defence systems, not S400.

      Russia created a deal with Turkey that allowed the latter to set up bases inside Syria. Turkey did not abide by the terms of the deal and when fighting broke out between Syria and Turkey, to me it is duplicitous for Russia to do nothing to protect the Syrians.

      Syria has been the meat in the sandwich between a bewildering array of foreign forces. The only honorable ones appear to be Syria and Hezbollah.

      And the UN does nothing to stop this outrageous illegal proxy war that has cost hundreds of thousands of deaths.

  18. Realist
    March 3, 2020 at 23:40

    No question but that Erdogan consistently breaks his word on every treaty or agreement he signs, and then resorts to thuggery after his deceptive diplomacy has reached its predictable and treacherous end point. I think he learned the tactic from his “allies” in Washington. In any case, he certainly thinks as the neocons do: tell any lie and sign any document to gain leverage and then break your word and start shooting when expedient. State actors like him and the barbarians on the Potomac guarantee that the world will never see peace in any of our lifetimes.

  19. William Perna
    March 3, 2020 at 22:49

    Good informative analysis. Brings clarity and understanding. Refreshing. Kudos to Lawrence for calling out government-supported NY Times for their predictable narrative-driven misinformation.

  20. Sam F
    March 3, 2020 at 20:37

    Turkey appears to fear relocation of its Idlib proxy militants into Turkey, if they were forced to its border. Apparently they are also unsuited to the partly-Kurdish NE-Syria border zones it invaded.

    Turkey and Russia agreed a 10 km zone along the Turkish border, much smaller than the current rebel area in Idlib. Have Turkey’s proxies refused the border zone and demanded to stay where they are, or enter Turkey?

    Could Turkey be secretly throwing the IdLib groups to the wolves in Idlib? Is the goal of Turkey in Libya merely to relocate them? Apparently Turkey supports the Tripoli GNA there, while Russia supports the Benghazi LNA. Can they not agree on some place for Turkey’s proxies, and a truce until feasible?

    • Martin - Swedish citizen
      March 4, 2020 at 12:16

      I think you may be on to something.
      A commentator in underlined that Idlib’s population to a large part consists of jihadists and their relatives displaced from all around Syria during the war. Several million of potential jihadist refugees. One could understand if Turkey are reluctant to house them on top of the several million refugees they already take care of, and have been paid for by the EU not to let them transfer there (a disgrace). Turkey now opens the borders on the EU, clearly an additional dimension and perhaps clue to the present crisis. Would the EU want a few million jihadist refugees?
      The commentator pointed at the many potential problems for the Russian position in Syria, including long supply lines, and urged his country to be cautious, proposing a compromise with Turkey.

    • Litchfield
      March 5, 2020 at 10:08

      “Can they not agree on some place for Turkey’s proxies, and a truce until feasible?”

      Probably some kind of prison or “camp” detention is the only feasible outcome. It is criminal to release these head choppers into any civilian environment or polity. They must be removed from Syria, or detained under guard within Syria—and perhaps majorly deprogrammed. Or charged with crimes under either military or civilian law.

    • Sam F
      March 5, 2020 at 19:33

      Martin and Litchfield – Perhaps some isolated area to be occupied only by their own families, such as a habitable county (say 20 x 20 miles) apart from all unrelated civilians, a homeland or restricted-trade zone surrounded with a broad DMZ monitored by the UN and Syria/Turkey/Russia.

      The DMZ can be large and clear enough to quickly spot violators, and surrounded they would be in too weak a position for any offensive operation. They would have to build an economy to survive, using well-monitored trade through Turkey via a truck route across the DMZ, so they would have to become productive at some peaceful industries that Turkey could set up for them.

      Perhaps there is such a subset of their Idlib area from which all others could be evacuated. Turkey could back off under “threats” from Russia, allow Syria to force them away from other civilians and surround them in a large area, then in their darkest hour Turkey and Russia offer to broker a choice of homelands.

      Then negotiate with the second and third generation to provide public education toward reintegration. Let the third or fourth generation emigrate if stable and productive.

  21. John Drake
    March 3, 2020 at 19:16

    Erdogan must be suffering late stage delusions of grandeur; which frequently result in fatal errors. He is crazy if he thinks he can keep poking the Russian bear with his stick and not get terminally clawed. As he escalates he puts Putin in the position of either being humiliated or striking decisively. Putin is not one to be humiliated though he is so clever he may find a way to outmaneuver the neo-Ottoman fool without direct confrontation. Erdogan though seems intent on stumbling into the elimination of that latter option.

    • March 4, 2020 at 09:58

      Could it be the US/ziocabal is putting erdogan up to the bear-poking to promote nato-Russian strife?

Comments are closed.