Last Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued an unequivocal warning to his neighbour Syria against attacking Turkish army positions in the northern Syrian province of Idlib. “Should one of our soldiers suffer even the slightest injury, I declare here and now that we will fight back the Syrian troops everywhere,” he declared in front of a packed parliament hall.
He confirmed once again that Turkey is determined to push back the Syrian troops beyond all Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of February: “we will definitely do that.“Any resistance by Syria – whether with the use of Turkish ground troops or the Air Force – will be nipped in the bud. Planes that " bomb civilians today will no longer be able to fly around as freely as before,” he added excitedly.
Then the Turkish president vowed to avenge the blood of the martyrs: any sacrifice on Turkey’s side would cost Syria “very dear”. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar also spoke of retaliation last Wednesday: the Turkish security forces in Idlib had been ordered to retaliate mercilessly against any Syrian attack. The Syrian Regime would therefore be better advised not to dare attack Turkish facilities.
Advance of Syrian troops
The statements of the political and military leadership of Turkey sound like a blatant declaration of war on the neighboring country: “how could it get this far?“the Turkish Journalist Sedat Ergin wondered and attributed the dramatic escalation between Ankara and Damascus to the advance of the forces loyal to Damascus towards Idlib. At the beginning of February, Syrian troops largely took control of the strategically important m-5 Road, which connects the Syrian economic metropolis of Aleppo with the capital Damascus.
As they also marched towards Saraqib, Ankara apparently saw its red lines crossed: the town of Saraqib forms a junction between the M-5 and the second most important highway M-4, which leads from Aleppo to the Mediterranean port of Latakia. Should the Syrian army take control of both roads, the fall of Idlib province would only be a matter of time. Preventing a case of Idlib, however, is Ankara’s stated goal.
Idlib province in northwestern Syria is the last refuge of Syria’s Sunni Opposition. Until recently, it had over three million inhabitants. At least half of them were Syrian internally displaced persons who had been expelled from their ancestral homeland for political and/or religious reasons. In addition to the civilians, 50,000 to 70,000 rebels have also entrenched themselves in Idlib province, most of them armed jihadists of the Hayat al-Sham (HTS) militia. In order to put an end to the jihadists in Syria, Assad’s forces had already besieged the province in September 2018, supported by Iranian militias and the Russian Air Force. Shortly before the big Offensive, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Erdogan agreed on the creation of a buffer zone in Idlib in the popular Russian tourism resort of Sochi.
Erdogan promised to dismantle Idlib’S HTS jihadists. In return, Putin, actually the main actor in Syria, blew off the Offensive. Turkey is expected to establish twelve observation posts in the province. The Turkish President Erdogan still saw himself generally as the patron of the Sunnis in the Middle East and also as the skilful strategist of a regional power, who negotiates with the “great ones of the world” on an equal footing.
Hundreds of thousands of people on the run
However, the Sochi agreement was doomed to failure from the outset. Turkey could not get the jihadists of Idlib under its control, let alone disarm them. And so al-Assad and the leadership in Moscow and Tehran saw a total attack on Idlib as legitimate. Since last April, the province has again been mercilessly bombed.
The unstoppable advance of the Syrian troops since the beginning of February also triggered an unprecedented wave of refugees. According to the UN, up to 700,000 people are said to be fleeing towards Turkey. The refugee camps are already hopelessly overcrowded. It rains and the temperatures drop to 10 degrees Minus during the night. “People are freezing and desperately trying to keep their children alive,” a UN Human Rights Coordinator told the press. “The scale of the crisis is unimaginable.” But more and more refugees are arriving every day. They are the great losers of the war – once again. Most of them want to get out of Syria. But the escape route is blocked for them. Because Turkey has sealed its border with a three-Meter-high concrete wall.
Turkey is already hosting over three million refugees from Syria. That’s all she wants and can’t accept. In order to halt the advance of the Syrian troops, Ankara decided on its own initiative to establish further observation posts in the Idlib buffer zone.
On February 3, the first “accident” happened unexpectedly: during the construction of an observation post near Saraqib, seven Turkish soldiers and one civilian were killed in a rocket attack by Syrian forces. Turkey responded with a retaliatory strike: according to the Turkish Defense Ministry, 76 Syrian soldiers were killed.
On February 10, another five Turkish soldiers fell at the Taftanaz military airport and caused a kind of panic in the Turkish leadership. Since then, new troops, new tanks and new artillery have been deployed to the area every day.according to the Turkish Defense Ministry, more than 5,000 additional Turkish soldiers are said to have been stationed in Idlib. Some 200 Syrian soldiers are said to have died in retaliatory attacks by the Turkish army. Rebels supported by Turkey also shot down a Syrian helicopter. Nevertheless, the advance of the Syrian troops could not be stopped.
Devlet Bahceli is the leader of the far-right MHP party and the main ally of the ruling party. Without the support of his MHP, Erdogan could not rule. Last Wednesday, Bahceli called on the government to rethink relations with Russia and draw up plans for a “Turkish invasion of Damascus.” “The Turkish Nation should invade Damascus,” he told his MHP group in Parliament. “Let us burn down Syria, let us destroy Idlib”. President Erdogan gave Damascus an Ultimatum: the forces loyal to Assad should withdraw behind all Turkish observation posts by the end of February. Or else dare an open war with Turkey. “We call on you to retreat behind the M-5 Route,” said Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.
In reality, it is an Ultimatum to Moscow. The escalation around Idlib has seriously tested Turkey’s relations with Russia, for the first time since 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian plane. With the massive concentration of troops in Idlib and on the Syrian border, Ankara is signaling to its interlocutors in Moscow that an armed conflict in Idlib will have serious consequences for Russian soldiers as well, commented Barcin Yinanc on Thursday. “It should not be an easy victory for Moscow,” says the journalist, who is generally regarded as a good connoisseur of Turkish politics. Ankara therefore gives Moscow two weeks to get Assad to stop his Offensive on Idlib.
It is generally considered unrealistic that Russia actually responds to this. For the time being, Moscow is seeking to ignore the sabre-rattling from Ankara and attributes the recent escalation around Idlib to Turkey’s inability to live up to its obligations in Idlib. Instead of disarming the Islamist terrorists as agreed in the Sochi agreement, Ankara is supporting them, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. In the end, Turkey is the weaker link: several Turkish observation posts have been surrounded by Syrian soldiers since the outbreak of the crisis. If the conflict escalates even further, an unknown number of Turkish soldiers would effectively become hostages for the Syrian forces. So what next?
The majority of domestic and foreign observers assume that Erdogan’s threats are primarily aimed at forcing Moscow to sign a new agreement on the RE-Division of the Syrian north. Thus, Turkey’s massive military presence promises, firstly, to increase the territory it has taken during three offensives in recent years with the power of arms in northern Syria on the negotiating table with Moscow and to accommodate the thousands of Syrian refugees there. Ankara also hopes that in this way it will continue to play a role in determining political events in the neighbouring country.
Turkish President Erdogan is known in his country as a risk-taking chess player. Since the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011, he has focused on overthrowing al Assad and has supported Syria’s most diverse armed groups. But his plan to overthrow Assad has not worked. Al Assad has brought most of his country under his control and will probably not want to stop at Idlib either.
If Erdogan’s new Plan to persuade Moscow to make more concessions also fails, what then? In any case, the tension is increasing. While the Turkish Defense Ministry also spoke on Friday of retaliatory measures against Idlib, in which “at least 63 Syrian regime soldiers have been neutralized,” the Russian ambassador in Ankara said he had received death threats. According to the “International Crisis Group”, the danger of a direct Syrian-Turkish confrontation, or even a Turkish-Russian confrontation, is steadily increasing.