Analysis |

Syria Conflict Is Shifting From a Proxy War to a Clash of Superpowers

A series of strikes has sparked recriminations between Turkey and Russia, and the threats that come with them will have to be defused to avoid direct violent conflict

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A Turkish self-propelled artillery fires from near the town of Saraqib in the eastern part of Idlib Province, Syria, March 2, 2020.
A Turkish self-propelled artillery fires from near the town of Saraqib in the eastern part of Idlib Province, Syria, March 2, 2020.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Turkish target bank in Syria’s Idlib province is steadily expanding. The Turkish Defense Ministry reports that at the start of this week, Turkey destroyed 82 Syrian targets, including nine tanks, two Howitzer mortars, six rocket launchers and two military vehicles, and also killed 299 Syrian soldiers.

To date, Turkish fire has killed more than 2,500 Syrian troops, some from militias and some from the regular army. There are no reports on the number of civilians killed in these strikes, as if each casualty is assumed to be an armed enemy. The Turks meanwhile report that 50 Turkish fighters have been killed since the confrontation began.

Turkey is carrying out most of its airstrikes using drones built by the Turkish companies Kale Group and Baykar Technologies, as part of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vision to build an independent military and technological infrastructure that doesn’t rely on outside suppliers. Kale Group, which was started in the 1950s as a ceramics manufacturer, is now not just the largest one in the country. It is also one of Turkey’s largest corporations, encompassing 17 companies, including ones that supply parts for American fighter jets. It was a partner in the production of the F-35 stealth jet before being removed from that project following Erdogan’s decision to acquire the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems.

Baykar Technologies, whose chief technology officer is Erdogan’s son-in-law, Selcuk Bayraktar, is the leading company in designing and manufacturing advanced drones that can remain in the air for over 24 hours and carry a hefty explosive charge. The Turkish government recently announced an allocation of $100 million for further development of the drones, a budget that was approved by Erdogan’s other son-in-law, Minister of Finance and Treasury Berat Albayrak.

A convoy of Turkish military vehicles near the town of Hazano in the rebel-held northern countryside of Syria's Idlib Province, March 3, 2020.Credit: AFP

But given the threat that the war poses to Turkey’s relations with Russia, the financial interests of the Erdogan family in the war in Idlib could now hit a land mine. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Erdogan to try to reach new understandings about the management of the battlefield in northern Syria after a series of violent clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces sparked recriminations between the two major powers. The two agreed to establish a secure corridor along a key east-west highway in Idlib and hold joint patrols on it as of March 15 in an attempt to alleviate tensions in the area.

Russia has already begun to adopt hostile rhetoric directly against Turkey, accusing it of violating the Sochi Accord of September 2018, in which Turkey pledged to remove radical militias such as the Sham Liberation Front from the Idlib area and to disarm all the other militias. Meanwhile, Turkey is accusing Syria and Russia of striking its forces and seizing control of the outskirts of Idlib. Violence was supposed to be reduced in and around Idlib, but the Russian-Syrian pressure is causing it to increase. Furthermore, the main roads connecting the province to Turkey are controlled by Syria, and a new wave of hundreds of thousands of refugees is heading for the Turkish border.

Russia and Syria reject these allegations. They report that Turkey is the one backing the militias, which have an estimated 50,000 fighters, and that these militia forces were integrated in bases Turkey built around Idlib.

Russia media, using less diplomatic language, cite the cooperation between Turkey and ISIS, and the sanctions Russia imposed on Turkey in 2015 after the downing of the Russian jet over its territory, as a clear sign that Russia can return to the sanctions, which severely impacted the Turkish economy. No official Russian statement has confirmed a plan to impose sanctions, but the Turkish media is issuing a threat of its own: It’s warning that if Russia imposes sanctions on Turkey, Turkey may close the Bosphorus Strait to all Russian vessels. Legally, it’s questionable whether Turkey can close the Strait unless it can prove that the Russian ships are endangering its territory and especially Istanbul, which sits on the Bosporus. But this vicious dialogue between the two countries’ media outlets, which are controlled by their leaders, gives a clear picture of how relations have deteriorated.

Turkey is currently trying to build a defense system that will put it on equal footing with Russia. Erdogan argues that as a member of NATO, Turkey can insist that its fellow members, especially the United States, defend it from Syrian and Russian attacks. There is some doubt over the legitimacy of this demand – Turkey is the one that initiated the first strike in Syria when it seized Kurdish territory in the eastern Euphrates region, then seized the Kurdish Syrian city of Afrin, and is now clashing with the Syrian Army.

Donald Trump’s America isn’t keen to join the war in Syria alongside Turkey, but it sees an opportunity to hinder Russia, particularly after Turkey asked the United States to arm it with Patriot anti-aircraft missiles. In the past, Washington offered Turkey to purchase the American missile system if it would abandon its agreement to buy missiles from Russia, but since Turkey did not give up that deal, worth over $3 billion, and intends to acquire fighter jets from Russia, the United States decided to withdraw the offer.

Even now, the Turkish request has divided the American administration, with the Pentagon refusing to sell the Patriot missiles while the U.S. special envoy to Turkey, James Jeffrey, lobbies tirelessly for the request to be approved. Jeffrey is not just an experienced diplomat and former ambassador to Turkey. He speaks Turkish and has expressed his admiration for Turkey and his close friend Erdogan on a number of occasions.

When he met with Erdogan this week, he brought an American commitment to aid Turkey with weaponry and ammunition for the campaign in Idlib. The aid package does not include the Patriot missiles, but if the meeting between Erdogan and Putin does not yield a compromise and the conflict worsens, the U.S. may ultimately accede to the Turkish request. Still, it is not entirely clear why Turkey even needs the Patriot missiles, since it seems impossible in any scenario that Russia would attack Turkey with planes or missiles on its territory, and Turkey has adequate means to defend itself against Syrian aircraft.

An aerial view of a camp for displaced Syrians in Deir Hassan village in Idlib Province near the Turkish border, March 5, 2020.Credit: AFP

For now it seems that the Patriot missiles issue is mainly important on the diplomatic level, to make clear to Russia that Turkey has strong American backing despite its tensions with Washington. But American backing alone is not sufficient. He is also working to recruit European Union member states to his side – not as partners in the military campaign, but to wield their influence and put pressure on Putin. As usual, Erdogan is not relying on traditional diplomacy and courteous rhetoric. Instead, he is threatening the European countries that if they don’t help him establish the security zone in Syria – to which he wants to transfer a quarter of the four million refugees now residing in Turkey – he will open up the borders and let the refugees flow into Europe unhindered. He actually already did so this week, with official reports saying that eighty to a hundred thousand refugees have already crossed into Greece without being blocked by Turkish forces.

Not only is Erdogan seeking $3 billion in financial assistance (in addition to the $6 billion already promised when the refugee accord was signed in 2016), he is demanding European support for the campaign he is waging in Syria. EU countries are indeed frightened by the Turkish threat, which has already been translated into action, but the question of funding is still in dispute. The EU isn’t completely sure how the previous aid money it paid was divided – did it reach its intended destination and is Erdogan’s claim that Turkey has already spent $40 billion to absorb and maintain the refugees accurate? So far, these questions are only being discussed in the corridors of the EU institutions and have not been posed to Turkey, apparently out of the fear it could ignite Erdogan’s short fuse just when he is holding a bomb that could cause huge upheaval in Europe.

All the threats that have arisen between Turkey and Russia, and between Turkey and the EU, will now have to be carefully defused one by one in order to avoid direct violent conflict. Turkey is demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces retreat to the positions they held prior to the battle for Idlib, that they liberate the two main highways – the M4 and M5 – that connect Idlib and Turkey, and that they halt the offensive on Idlib so as to stop the flow of refugees.

Practically speaking, Russia could agree to this, but in return it will demand a plan of action with an agreed-upon timetable for evacuating the armed militias from the province. The problem is that Russia does not believe that Turkey will want or be able to meet such a commitment, because as long as these militias remain in Idlib, they give Turkey diplomatic leverage that preserves its standing as one of the three countries (along with Russia and Iran) that will outline the diplomatic solution to the war in Syria.

Once these militias are disbanded and no longer pose a military threat or an obstacle to the deployment of Assad’s forces in the province, Turkey will lose the pretext for its military presence in Syria. This presence is vital to Turkey so it can continue to prosecute its war against the Kurds in northern Syria, whom it considers a threat to its national security. If Russia and Turkey fail to reach understandings regarding the disbanding of the militias, the war in Syria could go from being a proxy war to a direct confrontation that would draw in other countries.

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