Another aggravation in Idlib brought Russia and Turkey closer than ever to the brink of a military conflict. The danger of sliding into a “random” conflict is also great because no one really wants to fight and does not believe in the possibility of confrontation.
Both sides (Moscow and Ankara) are well aware of how much more productive the cooperation is for them, how high the costs of a military conflict (even short-term) will be, and therefore in both capitals they are sure that the opponents will not go to the end.
This is the problem. Not believing in the opponent’s ability to take the last fatal step, both sides are tempted to play to raise bets, expecting that even at the last moment, the opponent will deflate. In the course of such a game and such expectations, it is not surprising for both sides to miss the moment when the thin line between peace and war will be crossed.
However, Russia clearly went to the current aggravation knowingly. The offensive of the Syrian army in Idlib has happened before. But all of them were local in nature and therefore did not cause acute Turkish hysteria. Thus, piece by piece, one could bite off Idlib for another five years. Perhaps at some stage the aggravation would have occurred, but it is possible that it could have been avoided. Nevertheless, last winter a strategic offensive was prepared (and therefore sanctioned and secured by Russia). At its first stage, even the biggest optimists among experts did not dare to admit to free the entire M-5 highway, but now they are already talking about the possibility of establishing control even over the M-4 highway. More than half of the territory of Idlib province, controlled by terrorists, has been liberated. So far, the militants have not been able to completely stop the [Syrian army] attack, even with the open support of the Turkish army. The Russian Aerospace Forces, Russian military specialists and the special forces continue to support the advancing Syrian units, despite the fact that Turkish army units entered into direct fire contact with them.
Thus, Moscow deliberately organized a large-scale operation, realizing that it would almost certainly cause Erdogan’s tantrum. And Russia did not stop it (despite quite acceptable successes), even after the Turkish leadership began to practice the threat of direct military intervention.
The answer to the question why this was necessary lies on the surface.
Firstly, it was clear that the interests of Russia and Turkey in Syria coincided only until a certain point. Then they become diametrically opposite. That is, the crisis still had to break out, albeit later. The final withdrawal of Americans from Syria is just around the corner. After this, only Russia, Iran and Turkey can claim to participate in the post-war settlement of the Syrian problem. These three players have a lot of common interests, but there are also deep contradictions. Moreover, the general one is mainly connected with the confrontation with third forces, while the contradictions are fundamental: both Turkey and Iran claim to be the regional leader in the Middle East. But as long as Russia is actively present in the region, this role is too tough for them — any actions will have to be coordinated with Moscow, prone to the role of an independent and open-minded arbitrator. Consequently, the option of situational unification of Iran and Turkey at the final stage of the Syrian crisis is not ruled out, with the aim of reducing Russian influence (and presence in the region). But in the format proposed by Russia today, Iran is not ready to play on the side of Turkey against Russia and Syria. This is not in his interests. And the Americans have not finally left the region. And even in the case of a very problematic success, Turkey takes the prize, while Iran simply drags chestnuts out of the fire for her.
Secondly, Ankara is now practically in international isolation. She has disgusting relations with the United States, the EU, NATO (which Turkey recently frightened with the possibility of an exit), contradictions with Egypt and the Arab countries of the Gulf. Even with Israel there is a cold peace that does not have any prospects of developing into a friendship (characteristic of the relations of these states at the turn of the century). If Turkey dares to get involved in hostilities, no one will help her, and she herself has no chance to survive not only against Russia, but even against the Syrian army, which Russia will help.
Thirdly, the Turkish troops are greatly extended due to the exorbitant geopolitical ambitions of Ankara. The contingents are located in Iraq, Syria and Libya. At the same time, Greece is always closely monitoring Turkish problems, having not abandoned its intentions to liquidate the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. So in the western direction it is required [for Turkey] to constantly keep a powerful grouping [of forces]. Finally, in the territory of Turkey itself, Kurds, recently once again pacified by force, are ready to revolt at any moment.
In general, the strategic position of Turkey is awful. This moment is extremely convenient in order to once and for all determine the role and place of Ankara in the Syrian settlement and stop [Erdogan’s] unnecessary ambitions.
But Turkey, in turn, may consider that Russia’s strategic position is not much better. Nobody canceled Western sanctions. Of the gas bypass pipelines under construction, only projects closed to Turkey were successful, while America managed to temporarily suspend the rest. In recent years, economic and military-technical cooperation [between Russia and Turkey] has been actively developing. The S-400 contract may have a continuation in other areas, and the construction of a nuclear power plant in Turkey is certainly very interesting to Rosatom.
As mentioned above, a direct military clash (or even a conflict of a hybrid nature) causes both countries too serious losses and does not give any obvious advantages. So both in Moscow and Ankara, with good reason, they could believe that the opponent would not go to the end. I do not exclude that it was precisely in order to dispel these misconceptions of the Turkish leadership at an early stage that Moscow took the most rigid position, including sanctioning attacks on Turkish troops (given the level of control over the territory, such an attack could not be accidental). Russia also remained indifferent to Ankara’s militaristic hysteria, except that it urged not to spoil the fever, but Moscow did not stop the operation of Assad’s troops or stop its support, simply ignoring Erdogan’s demands.
Now the question is whether the Turkish president still has the opportunity to retreat. He has an extremely difficult internal situation. Although the  coup attempt was brutally suppressed, the forces opposing Erdogan cannot be defeated completely. On the contrary, the recent elections show an increase in the popularity of nationalist forces, which Erdogan’s party is beginning to yield. The system rests, in fact, only on the charisma of the leader. To maintain his charisma, Erdogan must constantly win. But now he is clearly losing in Libya and Syria, with his support of the terrorists, he has trapped himself. If he now publicly renounces them, it will be a defeat for Erdogan personally, and it will seriously undermine his domestic political positions. Many years of bravura imperial politics (neo-Ottomanism) turn into zilch.
However, it may be possible to come up with some beautiful formulations of new [Russian-Turkish] agreements that will allow Erdogan, even for his own [people], to return to Istanbul on a white horse. Otherwise, a conflict could literally break out before our eyes, the consequences of which for a new configuration of borders in Eastern Europe and the Middle East will be difficult to overestimate (unless, of course, it develops into something more).
Until now, Russian diplomacy has demonstrated high professionalism in resolving such conflicts. So one can hope for the best (without forgetting, of course, prepare for the worst). But at the same time, one should not lose sight of that obvious moment, that maybe not this year and not with Russia, maybe even after Erdogan, but Turkey is almost doomed to start a war with at least someone. For the past twenty years, Ankara has built its policy on the basis of the threat of force or the use of force (often hybrid). During this time, Turkish society has been accustomed to an overestimation of the role and capabilities of its own state, but the main thing is the extrapolation of force, the threat of force and the use of force have become not just no alternative foreign policy methods of Turkey, but have been legitimized in such a quality in the public mind. For a large part of Turkish society, [possible] compromise is a shame.
Thus, each subsequent geopolitical retreat or defeat of Turkey fuels a thirst for revenge in society. The demand for war is growing, maybe not with those who offended [us], but with someone weaker. But still, we [- Turks -] must prove to ourselves that Turkey can still scare someone. So far, this trend is only growing and will grow in the near future. Of the well-known Turkish politicians, not a single one is known who claims the need to break it. On the contrary, everyone is trying to straddle the wave of public demand for militarism.
In any case, [the war] later and with anyone else is better than [the war] with us and now.
Rostislav Ishchenko, 03/02/2020.