After Violent Clashes With Syrian Forces, Turkey Must Ask Itself a Hard Question

Fighting between Turkish and Syrian forces shows Ankara has run out of options in Idlib

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin during a ceremony for a dual natural gas line connecting Russia and Turkey, in Istanbul, January 8, 2020.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin during a ceremony for a dual natural gas line connecting Russia and Turkey, in Istanbul, January 8, 2020. Credit: SPUTNIK/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

After six Turkish soldiers and a civilian working for the army were killed in a Syrian government shelling Monday, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared that soldiers' blood will not be shed cheaply. Shortly afterward, Turkish forces attacked several Syrian military bases, killing 76 soldiers, according to Turkish reports. This is perhaps the most violent confrontation between Turkish and Syrian forces in recent times, and it may expand, unless Russia and Turkey manage to enforce their January 12 agreement and establish a ceasefire.

The flashpoint continues to be the province of Idlib, considered the final obstacle in the way of Bashar Assad’s quest to regain total control of Syria. An estimated 50 to 70 thousand rebel fighters are concentrated in the region, having come from all across Syria. Most of them belong to radical Islamist groups such as the Sham Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Nusra Front, and include fighters from foreign countries, mainly from the Caucasus. None of the sides involved in the war have a feasible solution for how to get rid of these armed groups.

Russia and Turkey signed an agreement in September 2018 according to which Turkey assumed responsibility for disarming these militias. Russia and Syria, in turn, were to abstain from a comprehensive military action in Idlib, in order to avoid mass displacement of the region's three million civilians toward Turkish borders. Turkey, as was clear from the outset, couldn’t complete the task in the time allotted, and despite persistent pressure from Russia, simply failed to persuade militias to disarm or move to other countries.

Russian diplomatic pressure eventually gave way to military pressure, and Russian and Syrian forces began advancing on Idlib, capturing key towns and villages. Last week, Russia and Syrian forces took control of a major road and the city of Ma’arat al-Numan, which had been under rebel control since 2012. The military assault has already caused the flight of civilians towards the Turkish border. According to reports by human aid groups, 120,000 people have already reached the border area, and the pressure will only mount as the assault continues.

Syrians gather at the border with Turkey during a symbolic protests demanding to be allowed through, Harim, Idlib, Syria, January 2, 2020. Credit: AFP

Turkey, which thought that it could block the assault and stop the flow of refugees, looks as if it has lost control over its diplomatic and military moves.

In an unprecedented statement (at least since relations between the two countries were repaired in 2016), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “Russia claims it is fighting terrorists. Who are these terrorists? They are civilians trying to protect their homes.” Erdogan then accused Russia of not abiding by the agreements of Astana and Sochi, in which it made a commitment to refrain from a military offensive in Idlib. Erdogan said that Turkey had waited, and from now on would act independently. He went even farther, posing an ultimatum to Russia: “If we are loyal partners with Russia on this, they have to put forth their stance... Our wish is that Russia immediately makes the necessary warnings to the regime which it sees as a friend.”

The problem is, however, that the country with no remaining options in Idlib is Turkey. It understands that a military campaign against Syrian forces could put it on a collision course with Russia, which has become its only superpower ally after the rift with the United States. Turkey has no real influence on militia fighters, and lacks a solution for the hundreds of thousands of refugees that may cross its border. It has become trapped in a policy it brought unto itself, and it’s doubtful whether Erdogan's warnings will stop the military campaign Damascus and Moscow have launched in Idlib.

A boy cries after government airstrikes in the town of Ariha, in Idlib, Syria, Wednesday, January 15, 2020. Credit: Ghaith Alsayed,AP
Syrian refugees head northwest through the town of Hazano in Idlib province as they flee renewed fighting, January 27, 2020. Credit: Ghaith Alsayed,AP

After it captured the city of Afrin and several districts in the western Euphrates valley as part of its campaign against Kurdish forces, Turkey will now have to decide if its military involvement in Syria has gone too far. So far, Russia is relating to Erdogan’s statements with cold politeness while continuing to talk about combating terror. Turkey is still an important ally, particularly in the diplomatic battle Russia is waging against the United States, but Russia is keen on ending the war in Syria quickly, so it can cut its outlays and transfer full control to Assad. If Turkey is perceived as an obstacle in Russia's way, their alliance may be enveloped by a dangerous winter frost.

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