Disaster looms for Turkey in Syria’s Idlib

Having dealt a blow to Kurdish militants in northeast Syria, Turkey is now on a war footing with its other adversary – Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Shots have been fired on both sides. The Turkish Defence Ministry said seven Turkish soldiers and one Turkish civilian had been killed by Syrian government shelling of the rebel-held enclave of Idlib on Monday and said it had killed 76 of Assad’s troops in response, though Damascus denied any of its soldiers had died.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has warned the Syrian government there will be consequences for any further attacks. He has also demanded Syrian government forces withdraw to their previous positions in front of the Turkish army observation points they have bypassed in recent advances.

The Syrian government offensive in Idlib demonstrates Turkey’s difficult position. In the face of the onslaught, Erdoğan is left with the choice of either committing more troops and fighting back, or standing by and suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of Assad and his allies that could drive millions of refugees into Turkey.

All other options appear to be closed. The 12 Turkish military observation points, agreed between Turkey and Russia in September 2018, are in no way acting as a deterrent to the Syrian government. Assad remains hell-bent on recovering the last major region of Syria, outside of the northeast, still in the hands of the insurgents.

Turkey’s approach to Syria rests on the assumption that Russia and Damascus do not always share the same interests. On the face of it, that is not an unreasonable idea. President Vladimir Putin, as well as Russian diplomats engaged in Syria, champion a vision where all warring parties sit together and forge a political settlement to end the blood-letting. Except, of course, radical jihadists such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that control large chunks of Idlib, are to be excluded from any future deal.

But Moscow’s formula is not necessarily what Assad and his Iranian backers also aspire to. While paying lip service to peace talks, whether under United Nations or Russian auspices, they are pressing ahead militarily on the ground in Syria, chipping away territory from the rebels. The Syrian government believes victory is within reach and who can blame them given the gains made thus far? So, in Turkey’s analysis, the divergence between Assad and Russia could translate into leverage; if Ankara and Moscow push together, good cop/bad cop-style, Assad will budge.

Unfortunately, the theory does not seem to work very well – if at all. The Russian air force has backed one Syrian government offensive after the other. Moscow has a story to tell, too. It insists that according to the demilitarisation agreements on Idlib struck with Turkey in 2018 and 2019, HTS must be neutralised and that as long as the extreme jihadist group is ensconced in the area, military action is wholly justified. The fact that Russian air strikes, as well as the pro-Assad forces on the ground, are targeting everyone, including other rebel factions and civilians trapped in Idlib, gets rarely mentioned. There is scant evidence that Russia exerts a restraining influence on the Syrian government.

Until now, Turkey has stuck to the notion of Russia as a moderating force. When Putin flew in from Damascus to Istanbul for the inauguration of the TurkStream pipeline on Jan. 8, he and Erdoğan unveiled yet another ceasefire in Idlib. Overshadowed by the Russian-Turkish demarche on Libya, the move failed to capture much media attention. But it appears to have marked a turning point of sorts. Assad ignored the ceasefire and by the end of January was in control of the strategically located town of Maarat al-Numan. In response, Turkey upped the ante – setting up three new observation points, boosting troop numbers, and sending in more heavy weaponry. Erdoğan toughened his rhetoric towards Russia, calling out its non-compliance with the deals on Idlib. He is now showing his teeth to the Syrian government too.

The Turkish strategy remains unchanged; deter Assad and bring in Putin as a mediator. But the past record suggests this is unlikely to work. With Putin’s help Erdoğan may gain some time, but sooner or later Syrian government troops will resume their push and Russian warplanes will provide them with air support. Unless the Turkish army enters Idlib on a much grander scale and effectively annexes parts of it, on the model of Afrin, the northern Aleppo governorate, and the new buffer zone in the northeast, Assad is bound seize the area. The human cost in blood and destruction will be devastating. Turkey will be directly affected. Putin can provide some short-term fix, but he will not get Erdoğan out of this mess.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.