Turkey has “opened the doors” for thousands of Syrian refugees encamped on Turkish soil to now travel freely to Europe. Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan claims 18,000 refugees have already crossed Turkish borders into Europe. According to him another 30,000 are expected to cross in the coming days. Violent clashes on the Hellenic-Turkish frontier between Greek police and migrants have occurred and the situation there is expected to deteriorate in the coming days as more Syrian refugees make for Europe.
This move comes just days after 33 Turkish troops were killed in a Syrian air attack in Idlib. In response Turkey has been striking Syrian government targets, urging Russia to remain out of its present conflict with the Syrian government, and attempting to build a strong base of international support for future actions in Syria. This is where the refugee issue comes into play. Turkey claims the European Union has not lived up to the terms of its deal with Turkey which had kept over 3 million Syrian refugees hosted in Turkey and unable to leave for Europe. According to the Turkish government, the EU has not helped Turkey house and feed the refugees, or help to stem the tide of refugees flowing from Syria into Turkey.
Erdogan is attempting to play the refugee card now and exchange it for EU support. In effect, he’s looking for a simple exchange of favors. He will shut off the refugee stream as long as Europe hops on the bandwagon and supports what is expected to be an enlarged Turkish military and political offensive in Syria. In other words, a quid pro quo. Turkey’s move with the refugees has been labeled blackmail by many political analysts and observers. Close, but not entirely accurate. Turkey’s playing of the refugee card is more a textbook example of Realpolitik. This move was based on political and practical considerations, not moral principles or ideology. To dress it down to a layman’s term, Realpolitik can best be summed up as ‘fucking your buddy.’
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.
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.
The fate of Idlib could very well be determined Friday when the leaders of Russia, Iran, and Turkey will meet in Tehran to discuss the upcoming offensive against the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. Bashr al Assad’s forces are massed around the borders of the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, and preparations for offensive operations are underway. Air strikes against rebel positions have already begun, leading to speculation that the Syrian offensive could be just days away from jumping off.
The UN, various non-government organizations, and relief groups have warned that a full scale Syrian offensive could lead to an unprecedented humanitarian disaster. Unfortunately, the human consequences are unlikely to make Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad reconsider intended course of action. They might be influencing Turkey’s position, however.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will come into the summit meeting with serious reservations. Turkey has been a supporter of the non-Islamic State Syrian rebels against Bashar al-Assad and has called for an end to the bombing now underway in Idlib. Another concern for Erdogan is the border Turkey shares with Idlib. A Syrian offensive has the potential to create an influx of refugees from Idlib into Turkey, adding to the more than 3 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey now.
Moscow, on the other hand, shares none of Turkey’s reservations. Russia is largely in agreement with the idea of the Syrian army moving into the province. Roughly 60% of Idlib is controlled by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and ISIS. Russia remains committed to destroying these groups. In fact, Russian warplanes have begun flying missions against Islamist targets in Idlib once again. When Syrian troops do begin operations in Idlib, they will do so with unfettered Russian support.