The ongoing civil war in Syria has entered its eighth year and multiple peace initiatives in the past have failed to yield any desirable outcome. What has however changed the current dynamic of the Syrian crisis is the recent killing of more than forty Turkish soldiers in two separate air strikes by Syria forces in Idlib in February 2020. Despite the recent meeting between President Erdogan and President Putin, peace and stability nevertheless seem a distant reality given political fragility on the ground, a lack of commitment on the part of numerous militias and varying interest of different stake holders. In 2015 it was the entry of Russia in the civil war that had changed the tide in favor of President Assad and now again it is Russia which seems to have foiled strategic calculations of Turkey in Syria. Till recently the town of Idlib in North-West Syria was the only city beyond the control of Assad’s forces but the current joint Russia-Syria operation has brought back large part of territories in Idlib and around into the control of Syrian forces. The war over Idlib has turned the two peacemakers of the past (Turkey and Russia) into strategic foes and their growing hostility seems to have changed the whole gambit of Syrian politics.
Sochi Ceasefire and Deployment of Turkish Forces in Idlib:
Not long after outbreak of the civil war in Syria, the changing security situation on the Syria-Turkey border, refugees’onslaught and the new resurgence of Kurds in Syria had forced Turkey to launch operations like Euphrates Shield (August 2016-March 2017)[i], Operation Olive Branch (Jan 2018)[ii] and Operation Peace Spring (November 2019), which brought it in direct confrontation with the forces of President Assad. Over the years, President Assad’s forces and its allies have recaptured all territories within the control of rebel forces, ISIS and other militias except the town of Idlib- a sanctuary for anti-Assad forces and other dreaded militias including Al-Nusrah and Al-Qaeda.[iii]
Idlib is home to around three million people and Turkey has always been opposed to any onslaught in Idlib because of the fear of refugee pouring into its territories. It has preferred a negotiated exit of the rebel forces and a political solution for the inhabitants of the Idlib. It had warned against any military action in Idlib way back in 2016 after the fall of Aleppo.
Turkey and Russia had signed an agreement in the town of Sochi in Russia on September 17, 2018 calling for the removal of Kurds from the Turkish-created safe zone, waging a joint Russia-Turkey war against the terror groups in the region.[iv] The agreement envisaged the creation of a buffer zone in Idlib between the Syrian forces and rebel forces and gave radical groups, such as Al-Nusrah and Al-Qaeda a month’s time to move to other areas during which the area would be safe from Russian or Syrian attacks.[v] The Sochi agreement also permitted the creation of twelve observation points in the de-militarisedzone to be manned by Turkish forces. What worried the observers was how one would differentiate between the opposition and the terrorist forces and with one in the area and others to leave.
Idlib: A New Flashpoint:
The Sochi agreement was thus doomed to fail and hence the strikes and assaults in Idlib continued unabated. Russia has always claimed that Idlib is a hot bed of terrorism and that the rebels there were preparing chemical weapons[vi]and showed no commitment towards ceasefire. Syria, on the other hand, maintained that whoever was being killed in Idlib was a terrorist, while Turkey pointed out that those killed included civilians as well. Since the signing of the Sochi agreement, 1800 civilians have been killed and around 1.7 million people have left Idlib and thronged to the Syria-Turkey border.[vii] Since December 2019, 380 people have been killed and 800,000 fled the town of Idlib.[viii]What came as turning points in the Syrian crisis was the killing of eight Turkish soldiers on duty in Idlib on February 3, 2020, and again on February 28 Turkey lost thirty-three of its soldiers in Syrian air strikes. Turkey also claimed to neutralize 309 Syrian soldiers and hit 200 government targets. Today, many of the Turkish monitoring points are surrounded by the Syrian advancing army and one does not know their fates. Russian side is backing the Syrian National army in Idlib and giving all air protection.
Reacting to the killing of the soldiers, President Erdogan had accused the Russia government of supporting the massacres in Idlib.[ix] He has warned the Syrian forces to withdraw behind the observation points by February. He has asserted that his forces would strike the regime’s forces everywhere irrespective of the Sochi agreement.[x]Turkey has moved around 1500 tanks and 5000 additional soldiers in Idlib following the incident. Russia is reportedly providing air protection to the Syrian military on the ground. Syria has threatened to attack more Turkish forces and termed their presence as an illegal act and violation of its sovereignty. The head of Turks Nationalist Movement, an ally of Erdogan’s government, Develt Bahclihas asked President Erdogan to send the army into Syria.[xi]He also called for revising past agreements with Russia and blamed itfor killing of Turkish soldiers.
Blame Game between Russia and Turkey:
Amid the escalation of conflict in Idlib, both Russia and Turkey have accused each other of violating the Sochi agreement. Turkey has accused Russia of not stopping Syrian strikes and its movements in Idlib. Russia, on the other hand, has accused Turkey of failing to neutralise the terrorist group, not abiding by the Suchi agreement and instead supplying the opposition groups with sophisticated weapons. There are reports that Syrian helicopters in Idlib were shot down with the help of Turkey-supplied anti-Aircraft system.[xii]Despite a series of efforts, President Erdogan has not been able to hold direct talks with President Putin and Russia has not heeded Turkey’s demand to ask Syria not to move across the observation points. Turkey government has instructed its forces to attack Syria forces in Idlib and sought the help of NATO but failed to receive any assurances like the one after it had mistakenly shot down a Russian aircraft in 2015.[xiii] It is worth recalling here that in November 2015, a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 aircraft was shot down by Turkish F-16 fighter jet near the Turkey-Syria border. It was for the first time that Russian aircraft was shot down after it had launched the Pro-Assad operation in Syria in the same year. Turkey was able to mend its ties with Russia after it had remained soured for almost a year and at one time it seemed that it could lead to war.
President Putin almost waited for eighteen months for the neutralisation of Syrian terror groups but President Erdogan failed to fulfill the obligation and Turkey also failed to stop Al-Nusrah’s attacks on air base in Hmeimim, located in south east of Syria and currently operated by Russian forces. What further antagonised Russia amidst this crisis was the visit of the President Erdogan to Ukraine, and supporting the return of the Crimean region to Ukraine that is currently under Russian control.[xiv]
The ongoing escalation in Idlib and loss of more than forty Turkish soldiers has changed the dynamics of the Syrian crisis. The past endorsement of the Syrian move in Idlib by Russia has escalated tensions not only between Syria and Turkey but also adversely impacted Turkey-Russia relations as well. A meeting finally took place between President Erdogan and his Russian counterpart on March 6 in Moscow after a series of efforts by Turkey. Both sides agreed for a military ceasefire in Idlib. Given the past record of similar ceasefire agreements, prospects of any sustainable peace seem fragile. There are already reports of retaliation on the part of Turkish troops destroying two missile launchers belonging to Syrian forces. One does not know how long this military ceasefire will last and how peace will be established in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold. However differences between Russia and Turkey over Idlib might not only delay the peace in Syria but open a new front in Syria complicating the matter further and forcing Syrian civilians to bear its brunt.
Both Russia and Turkey have different ambitions in Syria. Russia is focused with its newly acquired regional and global aspirations while Turkey is concerned with its national security and new strategic and political objectives. Finally, Turkey’s presence in Idlib or any part of Syria on the pretext of preventing the influx of refugees would be difficult to continue as it impinges on the Syrian sovereignty and its territorial integrity.
[i]Turkey Ends Operation Euphrates Shield, BBC, March 30, 2017 Accessed https://preview.tinyurl.com/t53pdgj March 18, 2020
[iii]Russia and Turkey to Set Up a Buffer Zone to protect Civilians, The Guardian, September 17, 2018, Accessed , https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/17/russia-and-turkey-to-set-up-idlib-buffer-zone-to-protect-civilians February 17, 2020