Confrontation between Russia and Turkey in Syria
By Zurab Batiashvili, Research Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
At the end of January 2020, Assad’s regime’s forces and their allied pro-Iranian units, with solid support from Russia, started a mass attack on the jihadists and the Turkey-supported opposition stationed in Idlib province.
Why is Idlib Important?
Idlib province is currently the last stronghold of those opposed to the Assad regime where the anti-Assad sentiments remain strong. The opposition hoped that it would be able to gather its strength in Idlib and launch a counter-attack.
However, the opposing side moved to be the first to attack – Moscow decided that it is time to end the conflict that started in Syria in 2011, in which it got involved in 2015, spending considerable material and military resources in the process. It also took advantage of the fact that according to the Guardian, Ankara has recently deployed thousands of Syrian fighters to support a pro-Turkish government in Libya; thereby, reducing the number of defenders of Idlib province. In addition, it must also be noted that it is Russia which controls the airspace there which, in the majority of cases, is a decisive factor.
Approximately four million people live in the region, part of whom are displaced from other Syrian provinces. Therefore, attacks on Idlib mean the movement of large numbers of refugees towards Turkey. Turkey has already accepted up to five million refugees, creating numerous challenges for the country and also costing Ankara about USD 40 billion for their subsistence (from EUR 6 billion pledged by the European Union for this purpose, Turkey has only received EUR 3 billion so far). This situation is a huge burden for the Turkish economy which is facing a difficult period in general. Due to this, for years Ankara has been lobbying for the creation of a “buffer zone” in northern Syria, along the border, in order to place Syrian refugees there. At the same time, these territories, on the one hand, would be under Turkish influence and, on the other hand, Ankara would no longer have a direct contact point with the hostile Assad regime.
Attack on Idlib
A land offensive against south-eastern and eastern parts of Idlib province started on January 27, 2020 and has been in progress ever since. It is followed by intensive bombings by Russian military aviation (killing the civilian population, including women, children and the elderly) which have made the advance of Syrian land forces easier.
The Assad regime and its allies have broken through a well reinforced defense line organized by the opposition and the jihadists and have not only occupied the strategically significant M4 (connecting Aleppo with Latakia) and M5 (connecting Aleppo with Damascus) motorways, but have also surrounded several Turkish observation points there (in reality – military bases). Hence, new waves of refugees have started moving to the north, towards Turkey. Ankara has, at this stage, managed to direct this first wave towards Afrin (a region in northern Syria occupied by Turkey in 2018). However, it will be hard pressed to stop a bigger wave of refugees in the future.
Due to this, in hopes of turning the situation around, Ankara sent additional military equipment (including tanks) and troops to Idlib province on February 3. This military convoy was bombed by the Assad regime, killing five Turkish soldiers and three civilians. In response, Turkey opened artillery fire, taking the lives of tens of Syrian soldiers. It should also be noted that four Russian FSB (Federal Security Service) employees, who actively participated in the planning and implementation of military actions, also fell victim to the intensive fighting that recently broke out in Idlib (details have not been disclosed to the public).
Additional Turkish military units that arrived on the ground organized more observation points which were supposed to contain relatively weak Assad units. The President of Turkey, Erdogan, strictly warned Assad, categorically demanding from him to pull back and lift sieges around Turkish units. Erdogan threatened to use military force if the demand was not met. Assad’s regime, however, did not heed the threats and pressed on in their attack.
On February 6, the Assad regime and its allies occupied the strategically important town of Saraqib that connects the M4 and M5 motorways, encircling four newly created Turkish observation points and, most important of all, moved to a distance of four kilometers from the city of Idlib which is home to a million people and is the main target of the military operation.
Positions of the Parties
The biggest sacrifices in the conflict were made by the Assad regime and its supporters, on the one hand, and the opposition, on the other. However, they are still considered to be proxies (supporting forces on the ground) as the former are considered to be backed by Russia and Iran and the latter enjoy backing from Turkey.
Therefore, it is natural that Moscow and Ankara have blamed each other for violating peace agreements (the Sochi and Astana agreements) and the military escalation in Idlib. It is notable that after the beginning of the military escalation, the President of Turkey flew to Kyiv on February 4, pledging support to the Ukrainian army and once again pointing out that Turkey does not recognize Crimea as a part of Russia. Many in Moscow saw this as a non-friendly gesture and a challenge.
Despite this, the Turkish and Russian presidents talked over the phone. However, the parties failed to reach an agreement regarding the de-escalation of the conflict in Idlib province. That said, despite careful criticism, the parties are still avoiding burning down the bridges completely.
In terms of the escalation of the conflict, Iran naturally supported its long-time ally, Assad, while Washington and London harshly condemned Assad’s actions and made statements supporting Turkey.
- Given the background of the developments in Idlib, Ankara has once again seen what a “reliable” partner Moscow is, as it was trying for a long time to warm relations with Russia and get military-political dividends from this process due to pragmatic considerations. Ankara has clearly seen that relying on Moscow as an alternative to the West is not an option;
- Due to their nature, Russia and Turkey cannot be strategic partners as these countries have differing long-term national interests (often opposed to one another). Apart from Syria, other clear examples of this include Nagorno-Karabakh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Libya where these two powers are supporting different parties of conflicts;
- Military-political confrontation does not automatically mean worsened economic relations between Russia and Turkey as it is in the interests of both sides to maintain financially profitable ties. Hence, at this stage, they are not making sharp high-level statements and are avoiding direct military confrontation. However, as the developments in the past showed, such risks always exist during military action;
- The worsening relations with Russia do not mean that Turkish policy towards the West will change significantly. A score of fundamental differences between the parties remain (such as Trump’s new peace plan and Jerusalem’s status in it, the issue of the Palestinian state, attitudes towards the pro-Kurdish YPG in northern Syria, relations with Iran, etc.) and cannot be eradicated easily;
- However, it has also become clear that after worsened relations with Russia, Ankara has become more active in the region in terms of supporting allies. Georgia’s political price has risen in this regard as well. The statement made by the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, about Georgia’s membership in NATO can be considered in this context as well;
- In case of the movement of large masses of refugees from Idlib province towards Turkey, radical jihadist fighters could easily mix with these masses and it will become difficult to detect them. If they move to Turkey, they could then spread all around the world and create new threats in numerous countries;
- In the case of such a development, relevant Georgian structures will have to work with ten times greater attention so that the Caucasian fighters among the jihadists do not try to infiltrate Georgia. As the case of Chataev and his group showed, such a threat is rather realistic and deserves adequate address.
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