EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not understand that his biggest divergence with Russia is over the future of all of Syria, not just a Syrian province. In theory, it is understandable that he wants to protect the “moderate fighters” because he feels indebted to them for their help to the Turkish army in two cross-border operations. But more than that, he wants to protect them in order to maintain a force that can eventually fight either or both of his two nemeses in Syria: President Assad and the Syrian Kurds.
At first glance, the plan looked viable: using the “Arab Spring” as a legitimate pretext, Turkey would convince Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign; the Syrian ballot box would establish a Sunni-majority regime loyal to Turkey; and the regime would cooperate with Ankara to eliminate the emerging security threat to Turkey embodied by Syria’s Kurds. When Assad refused to quit, Ankara brought together various factions of (Sunni) armed opposition to oust him from power in what would later become Syria’s sectarian civil war.
In the early days of the war, the architect of Turkey’s “Syria design,” then Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, was very optimistic. The war will end “in weeks, or months,” he said, and “we will pray in Damascus.” Seven-and-a-half years later, Davutoğlu is a retired politician, armed opponents of the Assad regime are holed up in a northern province surrounded by Syrian and Russian forces, and Turkey is struggling to protect selected opposition groups through negotiations with Russia. Idlib is today a small battleground that represents Turkey’s big miscalculations.