The almost 9-year-long armed conflict in Syria has gained a new round. Armed clashes between the Syrian forces and the Turkish army occurred against the backdrop of the fighting in the province of Idlib - the last bastion of the anti-Assad opposition.
Syrian troops, with Russia's support from the air, have been attacking the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, controlled by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the National Liberation Front, for many years now.
The troops of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad carried out shelling of these territories on February 10, and the Turkish military, who are there by agreement with Russia, were hit. Not without the dead. In response, the Turks staged a massive shelling. Killed over 100 Syrian militaries. Assad’s troops continue the offensive and surrounded some of the observation posts of the Turkish military.
Turkey brings armored vehicles and multiple launch rocket systems to Idlib province. According to various sources, it deployed from 2,000 to 5,000 troops there as reinforcements. Erdogan promised to open fire on Assad’s troops and anyone else if shelling of the Turkish military’s positions in Idlib continues.
There is no consensus on who is responsible for deepening the crisis. Ankara accuses Moscow and Damascus of violating the agreements in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) in 2017, according to which a de-escalation zone was created in Idlib province, partly in Latakia, Aleppo, Hama, and the Sochi agreement in 2018 heavy weapons by the parties to the conflict 15-20 km from the contact line.
According to the agreements, the Turkish military assumed the role of guarantors of the peace process. Russia blames Turkey for all the sins, which supposedly allowed this crisis to happen, since it did not separate the radical Islamists Hayat Tahrir al-Sham from the militants of the National Liberation Front and the civilian population, according to the agreements in Sochi in 2018, supplied Assad’s opponents with weapons, ammunition, and armored vehicles.
Damascus and Moscow are confident that Turkey-sponsored militants were the first to launch an offensive. The situation in northwestern Syria remains explosive and could lead to unpredictable consequences.
No matter how Damascus and Moscow want to regain control over the entire territory of Syria, Ankara is not going to leave the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. These lands have been of interest to Turkish authorities since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire since they were part of the Aleppo province.
The first president of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, advocated the inclusion of the territories of Idlib and Aleppo in Turkey in the early 20s, but then France insisted on the annexation of these territories to its Syrian mandate. Taking advantage of military-political instability, Turkey, under the pretext of security zones and de-escalation, managed to regain control over part of its territories of interest.
Putin ceded these lands to Erdogan in 2018, approving the introduction of the Turkish military in order to establish bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey. It is unlikely that then anyone would ask Assad’s regime about this.
Thanks to its participation in the Syrian conflict, Turkey was able to establish control over the territories adjacent to its border. At the end of last year, the Turkish military occupied the bordering northeastern lands of Syrian Kurdistan. Turkey occupies areas of Idlib, which have not yet managed to capture the Syrian and Russian military.
Among the representatives of the military and political elite of Turkey, expansionist sentiments reign. Erdogan’s coalition partner in parliament, the head of the far-right Nationalist Party, Devlet Bahceli, said Turkey would be safe only when its troops entered Damascus. The threat of force is Turkey’s long-established technique in relations with Syria.
Pan-Turkism, neo-Ottomanism, flirting with Islamists in Middle Eastern countries are the priorities of the foreign policy of the Erdogan regime, which seeks to strengthen influence in countries that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey can use the occupied territories of Syria in order to resettle part of the refugees.
The capture of Idlib by Assad’s troops with the support of Russia is not beneficial for Turkey because new waves of refugees will rush into Turkey and with them motley Islamic extremists. It is one thing to use Syrian fighters as cannon fodder for military operations against the Kurds or send them to help the government of Fayez Sarraj in Libya.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan have discussed the Idlib problem many times (the last time was February 12), but they cannot come to any concrete solution. Sochi and Astana agreements on de-escalation in Idlib were never implemented, the ceasefire is not respected. Moscow does not make concessions to Ankara in Idlib, so as not to spoil relations with Damascus and Tehran.
The Assad regime is the backbone of Russian influence in the Middle East. Assad is Iran’s closest ally whose confrontation with America intersects with the Kremlin’s desire to reduce US influence in the region and fill the vacuum. Iran perceives Turkey as a competitor for regional leadership, despite the fact that the Turks willingly bought Persian oil. In the battles for Idlib on the side of Assad’s troops, up to 800 militants of the Iranian-sponsored Shiite group Fatemiyun take part.
In 2017-18, Moscow gave Idlib to Turkey for temporary use, and now it is taking it back in order to contribute to the full restoration of the territorial integrity of Syria. Even after the incident with the death of the Turkish military, Assad’s troops continue the offensive. They captured the highway connecting Aleppo with Hama, Homs, and Damascus. Idlib is the last bastion of the anti-Assad opposition, with which Assad is not going to share power.
Putin and Assad underestimated Erdogan, hoped that the Turkish troops themselves would leave Idlib. Apparently, the Kremlin was confident that the Turkish authorities would not spoil relations with Russia because of a piece of land.
At the same time, the Turks are perplexed about why Russia is ready to exchange a rather effective partnership with Ankara for the Assad regime, which is in international isolation. Even US President Donald Trump, with whom Erdogan has a lot of problematic issues, went to meet him, withdrew American troops from the territories of Syrian Kurds of interest to Turkey and limited himself to protecting oil fields in eastern Syria.
At the dawn of a new crisis
An increase in the degree of tension in Idlib once again confirms that the alliance between Turkey and Russia is situational, but not strategic since their interests in the Middle East do not coincide. If hostilities continue between the Turkish and Syrian military, then relations between Russia and Turkey will face a new crisis.
Related: Putin, Erdogan launch Turkish Stream
A similar precedent already took place at the end of 2015, when Turkey shot down the Russian Su-24 front-line bomber, which violated its airspace. Then Putin imposed a ban on the supply of food and agricultural products from Turkey to Russia, ordered to cancel tourist tours to Turkish resorts. Now the situation is a mirror. The Turkish military died.
Realizing that without the help of Russia, Assad’s regime does not make unnecessary gestures, Turkey may resort to pressure measures to force the Kremlin to reconsider its priorities in Syria. Alternatively, the Turks may block the supply of natural gas through the TurkStream gas pipeline, which Gazprom launched last month, freeze the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant by Rosatom, and terminate cooperation in the supply of Russian weapons.
To play on the nerves of the Russians, the Turks can conduct a situational rapprochement with the United States. Washington is already trying to capitalize on the contradictions between Ankara and Moscow over Idlib. The US State Department sent to Turkey Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey to discuss the response to the shelling of Syrian troops.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo supported the Turkish military, called on Russia and the Assad regime to stop the attack on Idlib. In Russia, there were even versions that Erdogan went into a confrontation with Assad's troops under the influence of the United States.
The Americans want to create the ground for normalizing relations with Turkey and achieve its rejection of the S-400 missile defense systems acquired from Russia, the cessation of interference in the civil war in Syria, the Blue Motherland doctrine and the appropriation of vast Mediterranean waters, and not impede the use of the American military base Incirlik.
Erdogan is unlikely to take such steps, given the ambition to turn Turkey into a self-sufficient center of power in the Middle East. The maximum that he is interested in from the Americans is defrosting the supply of American F-35 multi-functional fighters. Turkey will not return to the wake of US foreign policy under the current leadership. Current events in Idlib make it clear that Erdogan has no real allies, and he is not ready to make serious concessions to the United States and Russia.