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.
Operation Peace Spring, Turkey’s long-anticipated military operation to establish a buffer zone free of Kurdish militias in northeast Syria is now underway. The offensive commenced with airstrikes against suspected Kurdish militia, and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has officially claimed the purpose of the operation is to establish a safe zone that will house Syrian refugees. Erdogan has also promised to respect Syrian sovereignty.
So far Syrian ground forces do not appear to have crossed the border but that will happen eventually. For now, the first phase of the operation is underway and focused on preparing the battlefield with air and artillery. When the enemy positions (real and suspected) have been sufficiently weakened, only then will Turkish ground forces cross over. That moment could come in a matter of hours or days, depending on a number of factors both political and military.
Reaction from around the world has been swift, and guarded for the most part. The UN Security Council will hold a private meeting on Thursday to discuss the Turkish action. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has urged Turkey to ‘act with restraint.’ In Washington, President Trump stated the US does not endorse the operation, and has made clear to Turkey that he believes it is a ‘bad idea.’ The president’s full statement, released by the White House is as follows:
“The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea. Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place—and we will hold them to this commitment.”
There will be additional updates posted on this blog later in the evening, or as events unfold.
The criticism stemming from President Trump’s decision to remove US troops from northeastern Syria and allow Turkey to move forces into the area should come as no surprise. The Trump administration’s foreign policy decisions have been under fire since 20 January, 2017. Pundits, former diplomats, retired military officers, and politicians have second guessed practically every move the administration made, as well as the reasons behind the decisions. In some instances the criticism was motivated by politics, in others by the simple fact that Trump’s foreign policy was, and continue to be a mystery to many inside and outside of the Beltway.
As far as Syria goes, there should be no surprise, or for that matter, criticism surrounding the move by the president. Outside of defeating ISIS, the United States had no other vital interest related to the Syrian conflict. ISIS has been removed from the board so there is no other compelling reason for the US to keep troops in the area. Even humanitarian reasons aren’t enough to justify a longer commitment.
Syria is in the process of being Balkanized by its erstwhile allies and supporters. Assad’s victory was a pyrrhic one in every way imaginable. The post-conflict phase is now getting underway. The corpse of Syria remains on life support, allowing just enough circulation and heart activity for Turkey, Russia, and Iran to start partitioning sections of the country off. What’s left of Assad’s government, and the territory it controls will become a vassal state beholden to Russia. Iran is busy attempting to craft southern portions of Syrian into a forward operating location where it can springboard operations against Israel. Now Turkey is getting into the act, and with tacit US approval is preparing to move forces into northeastern Syria and establish a security/buffer zone. Erdogan has been seeking this opportunity for years, and with good reason. For a nation-state, security is always linked to expansion.
President Trump has been eager to pull the US out of its open-ended military engagements in the Middle East. His efforts have met with some success, and some failure. Contrary to what some pundits, and politicians on both sides of the aisle claim, Trump is not abandoning the Kurds, or giving Turkey a blank check with regards to Syria. If the Turks move against the Kurds or take action viewed as being outside of the parameters of the arrangement, there will be repercussions.
We will discuss this, as well as Turkey’s coming operation in Syria around midweek.