On Thursday a Syrian airstrike against Turkish forces in Idlib killed between 22 and 34 Turkish soldiers. The casualties inflicted in the airstrike are already having an effect from Ankara to Damascus and could end up expanding the Syrian conflict in the coming days.
Before today, Turkey has been calling for Russia and the Syrian government to end its offensive in Idlib, and for Syrian forces to end their encirclement of Turkish positions in the province. Although Turkey appeared to initially lay blame for today’s attack on Syria’s shoulders, Russian jets have been active in the area for some time. To be certain, Russia is complicit in today’s attack. The Russian military provides targeting information, and intelligence on Turkish forces to the Syrians.
Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan called an emergency security meeting in Ankara. As the meeting was taking place the first wave of Turkish retaliation was underway. Artillery attacks against Syrian forces in Idlib, and rocket attacks on government targets in Nubl, Zaharra, and Latakia. “We are hitting, with land and air backup, all known regime targets, and will continue to do so. We’ll continue our operations in Syria until the hands that attacked our flag is dealt with,” Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said.
There is a lot happening on multiple fronts with regards to Syria, Russia and Turkey’s reaction to the airstrike earlier today. Tomorrow we’ll discuss the growing crisis in Syria further and cover any new developments that might occur overnight.
Whether by design or reluctantly, Turkey is being drawn deeper into the Syrian conflict. Fighting has escalated as Syrian government forces are attempting to retake control of Idlib, the last rebel-held province in the country. Clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces have been going on since last week. Attacks against Syrian observation posts in northwestern Syria have been taking place since last week. Monday’s attack killed 5 Turkish troops, bringing the Turk military death toll to 14 while the Syrian number is undoubtedly higher.
Turkish government officials have been warning of stronger retaliation against Syria for the attacks on Turkish observation posts. President Recep Tayip Erdogan warned that Turkey will strike Syrian government forces anywhere in the country if any more Turkish soldiers are harmed in the last rebel bastion. Even more than protecting its own soldiers’ lives, Turkey’s tough talk and actions in Syria are also designed to prevent the government from capturing the Idlib province entirely. At least before Turkey can arrange some type of ceasefire, or partition of the territory.
Turkey’s motivation for acting in Idlib is more practical than ideological. Ankara has long supported the non-ISIS rebel groups opposing the al-Assad government in Syria. Lately the Turks have been using the relationship to send Syrian rebels to Libya in order to help support the Libyan Government of National Accord. In order to keep the stream of support going from Syria to Libya, Turkey has to do whatever is possible to keep the government forces and Russians from occupying all of Idlib. Another practical reason is the refugee crisis on Syria’s northern border. As fighting intensifies, the number of Syrian civilians looking to escape has risen considerably. Turkey has closed the border, yet if Idlib falls it may have to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees in order to avoid a humanitarian crisis, and the bad PR it would bring.
Author’s Note: I was away for a few days and just getting settled back in. I’ll try and catch up on events around the world more between tomorrow and Sunday. Sorry for the short length of this post. –Mike
Turkey has urged Russia to restrain Syrian government forces in Idlib province following an attack yesterday that left eight troops dead. In response to the attack Turkey launched airstrikes, and artillery barrages against numerous targets around Idlib. Clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces have continued, and there are reports that government forces have surrounded a handful of the twelve Turkish observation posts established in the area as part of the 2017 agreement between Turkey, Iran, and Russia to create a de-escalation zone. The situation has evolved into one of the largest clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces in the war.
The latest action came as Syria intensified its offensive in Idlib which is the last province held by anti-government rebels. This offensive has caused hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians to flee north in search of safety along the Turkish border. Turkey closed its border to prevent additional refugees from crossing.
The developments have made Russia uneasy. It is firmly supporting the Syrian government but also has to consider its close relationship with Turkey, which could be in jeopardy now. Both sides want to avoid a clash, however if the Turks succeed in pushing back the Syrian offensive in Idlib it could potentially harm Russia’s designs for Syria. Both sides will eventually find a way to overcome their differences with regard to Syria, but the future of Turkish-Russian relations has suddenly become less certain and more complex.
As for Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he appears eager for a fight. Recently he’s made a habit of flexing Turkish muscle wherever possible. First it was Libya, and now Syria. Tomorrow it could be the Eastern Mediterranean given how things are going right now.
Turkey finds itself in an unenviable position at the moment. The nation is in the midst of a currency crisis that appears set to worsen before it improves. On its southern border Turkey is facing a new influx of refugees as Syrian government forces prepare to retake Idlib. On the international front, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been unable to get Russia, Syria, and Iran to agree to postpone the coming Idlib offensive. To complicate geopolitical matters even more, relations between Ankara and some of its closest allies such as the United States and Germany remain severely strained. This issue is bringing concerns about Turkey’s future role in NATO, and relationship with the European Union.
Right now, the situation in Idlib presents the biggest challenge for the Turkish government. A Syrian offensive in the near future will most likely bring a new wave of refugees to southern Turkey. There is widespread fear that more refugees will only serve to worsen the economic, and infrastructural problems in the area. Beyond this, there is the matter of what to do with the refugees as they arrive. The EU is no longer taking in refugees at the pace it was a few years ago. The welcome mat European powers extended to Syrian refugees in 2015 has become a political liability, and energized right-wing populists movements across the continent.
Those concerns played a large role in Erdogan’s trip to Tehran last week, and his request for a ceasefire. Russia, Iran, and Syria largely dismissed his concerns, though the fact that the Idlib offensive has yet to begin suggests Erdogan may have won a brief reprieve. The Turkish president is now warning European nations that the next wave of refugees will cause a new crisis for the Europe, as well as Turkey.
For the near future, Idlib will take the center stage. When the offensive begins there, Turkey could find its problems becoming worse at home and abroad, with Ankara able to do very little to influence the situation.
The looming Syrian offensive into Idlib presents a challenge to the United States. If Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons against rebels and civilians, as he has done twice so far during the tenure of President Donald Trump, how should the US react? The Khan Shaykhun chemical attack in April, 2017, and the Douma attack one year later both brought about US military action. The 2017 US response was a unilateral Tomahawk missile strike against Shayrat airbase. One year later in April, 2018, the US, Great Britain, and France carried out a series of air and missile strikes against targets in Syria in retaliation for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in Douma. If Assad’s forces chose to employ chemical weapons in Idlib will it provoke another US military action? If so, what shape will it take? More importantly, will it run the risk of provoking a Russian response?
The Pentagon and White House are already weighing these questions, and the Pentagon is starting to examine what military options the US will have available if Assad uses chemical weapons in Idlib. Given the Syrian leader’s track record it’s only prudent for the US to begin planning now. If chemical weapons are used again, the White House will want to move swiftly and decisively.
Unfortunately, Assad may not be able to be dissuaded. Idlib province is the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. When it is pacified, it will leave the rebels with just a few isolated pockets of territory. An end to the seven-year old conflict will finally be in sight with Assad’s control of Syria all but guaranteed. International concern that the coming offensive could trigger a humanitarian disaster have done nothing to deter the Syrian government, or its Russian and Iranian backers.
With that in mind, any US threats of military action should Syria use chemical weapons are unlikely to dissuade Assad once hostilities begin in Idlib.