As Assad nears victory in Idlib, Turkey takes casualties

Summary: Turkey faces difficult decisions in Syria as Assad’s forces close in on Idlib.

We are again grateful for the article below to David Barchard, a writer on Turkish history and politics.

Turkish and Russian officials came together Monday for the third time this month searching for a way out of the deadlock over Idlib, the northwest Syrian province where Syrian Government forces are advancing, bringing Turkish troops into the line of fire and triggering a growing exodus by its 3 million inhabitants.  The issue has divided the two countries, placing their three-year-old partnership under grave strain. There has been a succession of unproductive meetings, top level contacts, and numerous threatening, or at least totally uncompromising, statements by both sides.

The central problem for Turkey however is that while it would feel confident fighting against the forces of al-Assad, it knows any direct confrontation with Russian troops would be a military, political, and strategy disaster, unravelling its foreign policy efforts of the last four years. Late in 2015 Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet, ushering in a Russian embargo lasting over six months until Ankara climbed down and apologised. Currently circumstances force it to go on doing what it can to hold back the Syrian government advance in Idlib, while striving to avoid a breakdown with Russia.

Two Syrian military helicopters have been shot down over Idlib in the last week (credit: ebaa.news)

Over the weekend President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey declared that his country was determined to ‘push back’ Syrian forces in Idlib. In Russia, the media have reverted  to anti-Turkish hostility last seen in 2015 and 2016 when relations between Moscow and Ankara were frozen amidst accusations of Turkey reneging on agreements over Syria. Turkey responded with a denial and even threats to shoot down planes targeting civilians. Meanwhile on the ground, a build up of forces continues and the task of averting a clash grows harder.

Turkey has poured troops, and also at least 100 armoured vehicles and ammunition into Syria during the last week in readiness to defend its observation posts in Idlib from the advancing Syrian army. But the advance is continuing and with it the prospects of a full-scale clash between the armies of Turkey and Syria. Thirteen Turkish personnel, all but one of them elite soldiers  from Turkey’s special forces, have perished at the hands of the Syrian army, (Syrian Arab Army, SAA)  this month. Turkey says it has ‘taken out’ 51 Syrian soldiers in reprisals and Russian sources add substantial civilian casualties to this figure. Turkish forces and their local opposition allies have downed two Syrian helicopters.

The local population of Idlib consists almost entirely of opponents of President al-Assad, many already fugitives from other parts of Syria, with whom compromise is impossible.   Consequently the hostilities are triggering a mass exodus under way since December which now seems to be approaching around three quarters of a million people, trying to enter Turkey but kept out by a two metre high fortified border wall.  Mark Cutts, the UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, warns that the problem is on a scale not seen since the early stages of the Syrian Civil War, which saw at least six million people displaced. “Roads remain clogged with a never ending stream of vehicles moving northwards, as civilians escape from frontline areas and head to places closer to the Turkish border,” tweeted Cutts on Saturday.

Turkey’s main goal in sending troops elsewhere into Syria has been to crush the autonomous Kurdish enclaves and occupy the areas they formerly held, preparing the way for their resettlement by Syrian opposition refugees of mainly Arab background, but in Idlib it performs a completely different role, that of protector of its population, which is mostly Arab  by background.

Turkey has obligations at several levels in this respect. It covertly backed the Sunni opposition in Syria from the beginning of the war. In return the local Sunni militia of Idlib fight alongside Turkish forces in Syria, taking many more casualties in combat than Turkish forces. Turkey has been paying about 35,000 of them since 2014. Currently they receive between $100 and $300 a month, usually in Turkish liras, and so the source of much complaint. (A few who have agreed to be relocated to Libya are reputed to be earning a bounty of $2000.)

During 2017 and 2018 as Russian and Syrian threats to move against Idlib grew Turkey stepped in to shield them, promising to disarm the militants along the borders.  On 12 October 2017 Turkey sent troops into Idlib, initially a token force of only 150 men.  Under the Sochi and Astana agreements with Russia, it agreed to man a dozen observation posts around the province without taking over the actual administration of Idlib. That remains in the hands of diverse opposition groups, headed by Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the militant Salafist group with 20,000 fighters, regarded as an affiliate of al Qaeda though it denies this.

Had Turkey been able curb the jihadis and so stabilize the situation in Idlib before last year, this status quo might have prevailed indefinitely, though al-Assad would surely not have been permanently content with the existence of a large rebel enclave inside a reunited Syria. But Idlib is only 127 km or two and a half hours drive from Latakia and the Hmeimim Air Base, the main seat of Russian forces in Syria. Russia claims rebel rocket attacks against Hmeimim killed around 269 persons during the last year.

So late last autumn Moscow allowed the SAA to start an all-out attack on the province, backed from the air by Russian fighter jets. Turkey had almost no leverage against this. Until the last few days it has had only a tiny number of troops in Idlib and convoys were attacked and outposts surrounded.

It would not have had this problem if it had not consistently refused to make peace with al-Assad. Instead Turkey argues that it has legal rights to intervene inside Syria under the Adana Agreement, a deal it signed with al-Assad 22 years ago when the two countries normalised their relations. For others however it is hard to imagine that permission for limited cross border hot pursuit of terrorists was ever intended to imply a green light for a clash between the armies of the Turkish and Syrian governments on Syrian soil.

That last point however came under some challenge inside Turkey where far right national politicians and media seem to be urging territorial expansion on their leaders. The leader of the Nationalist Action Party, Devlet Bahceli, in the past has reminded his followers that northern Syria is former Turkish soil, while this week he called for all out war against Damascus and confrontation with Russia. Some newspapers, usually those ones close to Ikhwan (Muslim Brothers) and similar Islamist groups, have even called on Turkey to incorporate Aleppo inside its borders. Russian diplomats in Ankara, where an Russian ambassador was shot dead by an Islamist policeman three years ago, have complained of receiving threats. For their part Turkish analysts notice a breach opening in their relations with Iran as well as Russia.

President Erdogan probably does not have to take these hard-line voices from his domestic political scene very seriously, but he is aware that Turkey’s opposition is currently somewhat in the ascendant, fuelled partly by economic discontent over the rising cost of living and resentment at the influx of refugees from Syria. The Turkish public generally supported him in his moves to crush Kurdish separatists in Syria, but this does not apply to Idlib and lives lost there.

The confrontation over Idlib has led to new American declarations of backing for Turkey and its rights in Idlib. On 15th February Presidents Trump and Erdogan had a telephone conversation, their second in just over two weeks. James Jeffrey, President Trump’s Special Envoy on Syria, has strongly endorsed Turkey in its confrontation with al-Assad; speaking broken Turkish, Jeffrey referred to the Turkish soldiers killed as ‘martyrs’, the Islamic term. But Erdogan brushed this aside, saying Jeffrey was ‘not convincing.’ Turkey will be grateful for any diplomatic support it can get from Trump or the easing of economic sanctions, but it remains conscious of the American alliance with the Syrian Kurds and US tolerance of the Gülen movement, and knows any support will be confined to words.

On Sunday afternoon, Turkey and Syria still seemed to be on collision course as Turkey sent in more troops and SAA forces attacked the provincial capital, Idlib town, the provincial capital, amid heavy fighting with both sides claiming successes. Some Turkish sources claim the SAA is suffering heavy losses but these lack credibility. Its chances of taking the town look very strong.

At their meeting on Saturday, it appears that the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, again proposed a ceasefire to the Turks. One was proclaimed in the province on 12 January but is now long forgotten. Lavrov’s original proposal was for the ceasefire to last only 30 days and exclude militants, i.e. much of the population of Idlib.

But on Sunday afternoon the Turkish Foreign Ministry and official media in Ankara began to bring up the idea of a ‘permanent ceasefire in Idlib’ on the eve of Monday’s meeting of officials in Moscow. The alternative seems to be to refer the problem to yet another summit meeting between President Erdogan and Putin. That would be their ninth meeting in ten months, but none of their previous summits has broken the cycle of violence or stemmed the ominous surge of refugees northwards.

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