- The 3 February bloodshed between Turkey and government forces in Idlib province was the latest reminder of the ever-increasing precariousness of Ankara’s policies in Syria.
- Russia is likely to encourage Ankara and Damascus to refrain from further clashes, but more Turkish observation posts could be soon besieged if the regime offensive continues unabated.
- While developments in Idlib will undermine Turkey-Russia relations, they will likely survive the fallout as Ankara’s and Moscow’s interests remain aligned on multiple fronts.
The artillery bombardments by Syrian government forces of Turkish military positions in the western Syrian governorate of Idlib on 3 February have highlighted both the increasingly precarious nature of Turkey’s policies in Syria and the growing tensions in Ankara’s relationship with Moscow – Damascus’s more important ally.
Although Russia is now expected to press both sides to de-escalate, its refusal to try to prevent the clash is an indication of its growing frustration with Ankara – and its apparent confidence that with his relations with the EU and particularly the US severely damaged, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan now needs Russia more than Russia needs him.
Five Turkish soldiers and three civilian contractors are reported to have been killed when regime forces opened fire on a Turkish military outpost outside the rebel-held town of Saraqib. Turkish units responded by firing on regime positions. Although Damascus has denied any casualties, unconfirmed reports suggest that around a dozen Syrian soldiers may have died.
In recent weeks, backed by Russian airstrikes, Syrian forces have intensified their attacks on Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in the country. Yesterday’s clashes occurred after Turkey – which has had a military presence in Idlib for the last two years under a monitoring agreement with Russia – deployed troops to try to block a regime advance towards Saraqib, which is located on the strategically important M5 highway.
The fall of Idlib would be a fatal blow to the already fading hopes both of the Syrian rebels and Turkey, their last remaining international backer, of toppling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Ankara also fears – with justification – that further regime gains in Idlib could result in another massive influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey. Regime advances since December have resulted in an estimated 600,000 civilians fleeing towards the Turkish border. There are already an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, where their continued presence has led to rising social tensions and contributed to a decline in Erdogan’s popular support.
However, with little prospect of support from the West and with the US still mulling sanctions against Turkey for its purchase of two Russian S-400 air defense systems, Ankara’s options are limited. Washington’s confused response to the October 2019 incursion, codenamed Operation Peace Spring, has also significantly reduced US influence in Northern Syria and forced the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), previously Washington’s main ally, to cooperate more closely with Damascus and Moscow.
Russia’s resultant reduced incentive to take Turkish concerns into account has coincided with Erdogan pursuing an increasingly aggressive foreign policy – not only in Syria, where Turkish-backed rebels are now fighting against regime forces in Idlib, but in Libya, where Ankara has recently significantly increased its military aid to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in its war with Russia’s ally, the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA).
Erdogan’s policies in Syria, including its occupation of a large swathe of the north of the country, have become one of the main reasons for his increasing international isolation. On its own, Turkey lacks the capabilities to risk a sustained military confrontation with Damascus, much less Russia and Iran, the regime’s other main ally.
In the short term, Russia is likely to encourage Ankara and Damascus to refrain from further clashes. But, unless it agrees to a pullback in Idlib, Turkey is going to face more military pressure – and both Moscow and Damascus have made it clear that they eventually expect Ankara to withdraw its forces from Syrian territory.
Four of Turkey’s 12 military observation posts in the Idlib region remain besieged by regime forces. Five other outposts could be surrounded within weeks, if the regime offensives continue unabated. This increases the risk of further confrontations between Syrian and Turkish troops.
Although bilateral relations are currently strained, the shared interests on a variety of other areas mean that Ankara and Moscow will preserve their “alliance of convenience.” But Moscow could become increasingly reluctant both to accommodate Turkish concerns – whether about Syria or anywhere else – and to expand cooperation in other areas, including in the defense industry.