Erdogan has made up with Putin and now hopes to prevent Syrian Kurds from securing territory near its border
Rebel-held eastern Aleppo looks as though it will either fall or be razed to the ground in the face of relentless Russian bombardment from the air and under siege from Iran-backed militia on the ground.
President Vladimir Putin will then have got his way: saving the regime of Bashar al-Assad inside a rump Syria, with the ruins of Aleppo marking its northern perimeter, as part of his reassertion of Russia’s credentials as a regional and global rival to the US.
But it is not just Mr Putin’s ruthlessness that will bring this about. It is Turkey’s tilt towards Russia and, to a degree, Iran, which is the main change in the strategic equation on the crowded battlefield of north-west Syria.
During five years of civil war that has killed up to 500,000 Syrians and displaced half the population, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, sought to topple Mr Assad, backing rebel forces against him and allowing jihadi volunteers to use Turkish territory as a launch pad into Syria.
That sharp focus is fading out as Ankara has turned to more pressing considerations — especially since the violent attempted coup against Mr Erdogan in mid-July.
Turkey’s main goal in Syria now is to prevent Syrian Kurdish fighters from consolidating an autonomous territory below its border. Ankara fears the Syrian Kurds will link up with their Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) allies waging an insurgency in south-east Turkey from bases inside the Kurdistan Regional Government autonomous territory of northern Iraq.
Ankara has also moved to mop up Isis cells and sympathisers inside Turkey and push the jihadis away from its borders. In late August, the Turkish army launched its first real incursion into Syria, spearheading a rebel force officials in Ankara say numbered 3,000. This thrust pushed Isis out of the so-called Manbij pocket of north-west Syria, with Turkey regaining control of 98km of its porous border. But the primary aim was to prevent the Syrian Kurds fighting Isis from moving westwards across the river Euphrates to join up their eastern and western territories.
Before making this tricky military move, Mr Erdogan made up with Mr Putin, ending a rift opened when Turkey shot down a Russian jet that strayed over its border from Syria last November. Russia gave Turkey a free hand against Syrian Kurdish forces to whom it had offered temporary and opportunistic support. Turkey deployed Syrian rebel forces needed to defend Aleppo to take Jarabulus on the west bank of the Euphrates and push on southwards.
Turkish officials say this new warmth towards Russia does not seal the fate of Aleppo and the Syrian rebellion. But it does extend to a transactional relationship with Iran, the Assad regime’s other international patron, which is cracking down on its own Kurdish minority. “We are neighbours and we can do many things together,” says a senior official in Ankara. Better relations with Russia and Iran are a precondition for ending the regional crisis. “If we make all bilateral relations hostage to the Syrian crisis then it’s lose-lose-lose,” he says.
One element in this new equation is that Moscow and Tehran were quicker to condemn July’s attempted coup than Washington and most European capitals, even though Turkey is a Nato ally and EU candidate member.
But as far as Syria is concerned, Turkey long ago concluded that the west has abandoned mainstream Sunni rebels. The US, with a lame-duck president and distracted by an intense electoral contest, is focused narrowly on Isis — angering Turkey by using Syrian Kurdish militia as a strike force. The EU, scorned by Mr Erdogan as impotent, can muse about punishing Russia for its behaviour in Syria but may struggle to renew the sanctions for Mr Putin’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine at the end of this year.
For now, therefore, it looks as though Russia can continue to pulverise rebel Aleppo.
“They are fighting, we are not, they are winning”, is the curt summary of one European envoy in the region.
“This is the worst of the scenarios we envisaged: that we get left with Assad and Daesh [Isis]”.