February 24, 2020

TURKEY: Shifting focus from threats to damage limitation in Idlib

BY Wolfango Piccoli

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( 5 mins)
  • On 22 February, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan announced plans for a four-country summit in Istanbul on 5 March to discuss the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Syrian governorate of Idlib
  • Erdogan’s call for international negotiations represents a significant climbdown from his repeated threats earlier in the month for Damascus to voluntarily surrender all the territorial gains that it has made since the beginning of the month.


France and Germany have already indicated their willingness to meet in Istanbul on 5 March. Russia has described its participation as possible but has yet to confirm it will attend. Even if it does, Moscow and Damascus are expected to use the next ten days to increase and consolidate the regime’s gains in Idlib and present the 5 March summit with a fait accompli. Rather than forcing the regime to retreat, Erdogan’s priority at the summit is likely to be trying to prevent another massive influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey – such as by establishing a “safe zone” inside Idlib close to the Turkish border where the displaced non-combatants can be supplied with humanitarian aid. Erdogan is aware that not only has the continued presence of an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees inside Turkey has led to growing social tensions, but opinion polls suggest it is contributing to the decline in his popular support.

Recouping losses

Erdogan’s failure to deliver on his threats to force Damascus to retreat has again demonstrated the gap between his ambitions and Turkey’s capabilities while reinforcing already serious concerns about decision-making processes in the presidential palace.

Since the beginning of February, Ankara has deployed around 9K additional troops – including tanks and artillery – to Idlib to reinforce the forces in 12 officially recognized Turkish observation posts that were established in the governorate under an agreement with Russia that was signed in Sochi in September 2018. The primary goal of the deployment was to try to intimidate Damascus into halting its offensive. But the attempt failed. Regime forces have continued to advance, capturing large swaths of territory, including taking control of the strategically important M5 highway that links Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s main economic hub.

Despite the bellicose rhetoric from Turkish officials and the now largely government-controlled Turkish media, Ankara has been reluctant to deploy Turkish forces in frontline combat with regime troops. Instead, they have mostly been used to provide artillery support for the alliance of rebel organizations fighting against the regime in Idlib, which includes both groups financed and controlled by Ankara and the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

In recent years, and particularly since the transition to an executive presidential system in July 2018, there have been growing concerns about the repercussions of the concentration of decision-making in Erdogan’s own hands and the resultant decline in expert input from elsewhere in the state apparatus. In 2019, as regime forces began to advance in Idlib, Erdogan refused to relocate some of the Turkish observation posts, with the result that at least four – some reports suggest eight – have now been surrounded by regime troops. In the last few weeks, even though Erdogan has ordered thousands more Turkish troops into Idlib and threatened to attack regime forces, he has not dared to defy the Russian ban on Turkish aircraft flying over the governorate – thus leaving the Turkish forces on the ground highly vulnerable to airstrikes. On 20 February, a Russian Su-24 warplane served notice of its capabilities by bombing a Turkish tank unit that had been providing artillery support for rebel forces. Two Turkish soldiers were killed and five wounded. When combined with the Turkish troops who have been hit by retaliatory regime artillery strikes, the Turkish death toll in Idlib so far in February now stands at 17 with dozens more wounded.

Fearful of a full-scale military confrontation with Damascus and Moscow in Idlib, Ankara has turned for help to the West, even asking the US to supply it with Patriot air defense systems in the hope that they could be used to protect the Turkish forces on the ground against Russian airstrikes. The request has been rejected. Indeed, although Turkey’s NATO allies would come to its aid if the country itself was attacked, there is no prospect of any of them committing assets to support Ankara’s military operations in Idlib.

Nor is there any doubt that, in the event of sustained tensions with Russia, it is Moscow which has the stronger hand. The S-400 air defense systems that Erdogan controversially bought from Russia in 2019 are not due to become operational until April 2020, and the software for the systems is under Moscow’s control. Similarly, Russia is Turkey’s main source of natural gas and is currently building the country’s first-ever nuclear power station in Akkuyu. In addition, Russia is Turkey’s main tourist market. Any repeat of the ban that Moscow imposed on Russians visiting Turkey in 2015 – after the downing of a Russian warplane close to the Turkish border in November of that year – would have a devastating impact on one of Ankara’s main sources of foreign currency.

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