The military escalation in Idlib reached a new, and highly dangerous threshold. On Thursday February 27, air raids against a Turkish military observation point in Idlib led to 33 Turkish military casualties, and scores more were wounded. The large number of casualties caused uproar and anger among Turkish public opinion. Ankara accused the Syrian aviation for the attack, and on the next day Turkish military launched a massive reprisal targeting Syrian Army positions with artillery and drone attacks; Turkish official sources reported to have “neutralized 309 regime troops.” Since, Turkey launched “Operation Spring Shield” with massive attacks against a Syrian Army defenseless against Turkish drones.
Last weeks escalation is not just between the Syrian and Turkish armed forces; it is also between Ankara and Moscow. Following the deployment of some 15’000 Turkish soldiers in Idlib and coming under repetitive air raids, they fired portable anti-air missiles (MANPADs) against Russian Sukhois. Turkish military had also actively supported Syrian opposition fighters in recapturing the strategic town of Saraqeb on the M5 highway. The attack on the Turkish forces with precision missiles carried out at night was possibly a Russian retaliation, and a warning. Russian defense ministry sources put the blame on the Turkish side, saying: “Turkish troops were acting inside ‘combat units’ with jihadist militants in Idlib when they were targeted by a Syrian government airstrike.”
Since last week, Turkey and Syria are in an active state of war. What will be the position of Russia? How high is the risk of a Russian-Turkish war?
For the moment the two sides are avoided direct confrontation: Russia that had complete domination over Idlib airspace simply allowed Turkish aviation to decimate Syrian army units, without intervening this far.
Friends and Foes
Turkish and Russian military already had come close to war over Syria nearly five years back, when Turkey shot down a Su-24 Russian military jet in November 2015. Russia retaliated by imposing a series of economic sanctions against Turkey. Russia is Turkey’s second biggest economic partner, and therefore the sanctions hurt Turkish economy, and especially agriculture, tourism and construction sectors. Turkey risked losing $3.5 billion from the lack of Russian tourists, and $4.5 billion from cancelation of construction projects. Moreover, Turkey is completely dependent on Russia for its energy: Russia supplies 55% of its total natural gas needs. This made Russia in 2018 the main exporter to Turkey at 9.9% of total ahead of Germany at 9.3% of the total exports.
Last weeks escalation is not just between the Syrian and Turkish armed forces; it is also between Ankara and Moscow.
Economy explains why both countries rapidly found ways to overcome the incident of the Russian jet, deepen their economic cooperation, and even develop new military cooperation. After relations were normalized starting from June 2016, the two sides signed and additional agreement to enlarge the $20 billion Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant near Mersin already under construction, to be operational in 2023. The TurkStream 930 km natural gas pipeline that will increase Russian energy exports to Turkey was signed in December 2016. Even the assassination of Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador in Ankara on 19 December 2016 did not hinder the Russo-Turkish entente. Cooperation between the two reached a new high in 2017 when they signed a $2.5 billion deal to sell S-400 Russian air defense systems. This was an enormous victory for the Russian military industry but also for Russian diplomacy: it created tensions between Turkey and NATO alliance. In April 2019, the two leaders discussed how to bring their economic partnership to $100 billion from $26 billion in 2018.
In the Syria conflict, Russia and Turkey, with Iranian participation, broke away from international negotiations process in Geneva, and start separate negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan. This process was based on achieving cease-fires, and separating rebel fighters that were integrated in the negotiations process from those designated as “terrorists” such as the al-Nusra Front that was affiliated with al-Qaeda. Astana process made Russia the overall manager of the Syria conflict: it succeeded in manipulating the Syrian rebels by signing cease-fire agreements between some, and fighting others. The result was successive fall of rebel areas: rebel Aleppo fell in June 2016, in August the same year an agreement led to the evacuation of Darayya, a suburb to the south of Damascus; in June 2018 Daraa was taken by the Syrian Army and many former rebels integrated in governmental forces; in April 2018 East Ghouta was taken by loyalists. Russia was determined to spread its influence all the way north by taking the strategic highways M4 and M5 linking Syria’s big cities. The Idlib offensive that started in April 2019, brought slow but steady advance of loyalist forces. It also brought Turkish army observation posts that, were supposed to maintain the cease-fire deal, under siege.
Following Astana accords, Turkey scaled down its ambitions in Syria: instead of seeking regime change, Ankara aimed to create a “buffer zone” in north Syria. Such a zone would achieve two main goals: to continue having influence over Syria opposition, and eliminate Kurdish armed forces, the YPG. Cooperation with Russia equally satisfied Ankara’s interests – although only partially: Turkish military operation against Afrin (“Operation Olive Branch”) was possible only due to Russian cooperation.
Ankara aims at playing an independent role in the Syria conflict. In doing this, it has confronted interests of both Russia – by fighting directly and indirectly Syrian loyalist forces – and American interests – by attacking YPG, a Kurdish group armed and supported by the Pentagon.
Ankara has maneuvered by playing Washington against Moscow, and by mixing proxy-war with direct military intervention.
Immediately after the attack against its soldiers in Syria, Turkish authorities declared that they no longer guard migrants and refugees from crossing to Europe.Ankara is actively encouraging thousands of refugees to try and cross to European countries.
In the context of the war in Syria, to “blackmail” its European NATO partners by the refugee question means that Ankara will continue to play its independent policy, putting pressure on Europe, rather than seeking NATO support against Russia.
Delicate Diplomacy and the Fog of War
The possibility is high that the two leaders Putin and Erdogan will try and meet in the next days to defuse the dangerous situation in north-west Syria. This does not mean that the two sides do not have major differences in Idlib – they do. But if one considers bilateral interests, and more broadly their tense relations with Europe and the US, they have an interest in de-escalating, just like they did after the Sukhoi incident in 2015.
Still, one should not underestimate the “fog of war”: Russia and Turkey are both partners but also enemies. They have a charged history with 16 wars fought against each other. Today, they are fighting on opposite sides in Syria as well as in Iraq. One step further ahead, one air strike too painful, one sacrifice too much for the image of the omnipotent ruler and the Russo-Turkish partnership could turn into Russo-Turkish antagonism.