Turkey’s military intervention in the nine-year-old Syrian conflict took a further deadly turn when regime forces killed five Turkish soldiers in the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib today.
Turkey’s Ministry of Defense said another five Turkish troops were wounded when Syrian government forces opened fire on them. The attack on the Taftanaz military base, which the Turkish army took over from the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last week, came as Turkey poured fresh troops and equipment into the province following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vows to retaliate for a separate attack seven days ago. Eight Turkish soldiers died in that attack.
Erdogan said Damascus must pull back its forces from new territory it has captured in recent weeks or face a full-scale Turkish offensive. But regime forces kept advancing over the weekend, entering the strategic town of Saraqeb.
The escalation highlights Turkey’s failure to persuade Russia, which is backing the regime’s ongoing offensive to wrest Idlib from the jihadi Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, to pause hostilities. A Russian delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin and special envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev has been in Ankara since Saturday and met today with presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said no consensus had been reached between the sides so far, and Ankara shows no sign of backing down. Government spokesman Fahrettin Altun said Turkey would “crush anyone who dares to target our flag.” The Ministry of Defense claimed 101 regime soldiers had been killed in response to today’s attack on Turkish troops. Omer Celik, a spokesman for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, said it was out of the question for Turkish troops to withdraw from 12 observation posts set up in Idlib as part of a de-escalation zone agreed in 2018 between Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Turkey pledged to use its presence to defang Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and fold so-called moderates into the rebel forces under its wing. The opposite happened, with the jihadis seizing more territory. Moscow’s reluctance to rein in Damascus is a clear indication that it’s no longer willing to indulge Erdogan’s pleas for more time. It’s also not opening Syrian airspace to Turkey, denying Turkish forces the ability to strike back more effectively.
Celik said Turkey expected NATO to stand with it “in the fight against terrorism” and added that Turkey wants to see whether “those who constantly talk about Turkey’s importance will take a stand.”
NATO has yet to react.
US President Donald Trump’s special envoy for Syria engagement, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, is expected to arrive in Ankara Wednesday. Washington has made statements in support of Turkey but it’s unclear what if anything it's actually prepared to do. Well-informed sources told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Jeffrey sees the drama unfolding in Idlib as an opportunity to pull Turkey out of Russia’s embrace. Yet at the same time, it could upend balances in ways that would deal a further blow to the already faltering UN-led Geneva peace process backed by Washington.
Nicholas A. Heras, Middle East portfolio manager at the Institute for the Study of War, noted that if regime forces “with Russia’s close backing conquer Idlib, the end result would be that the only regions of Syria that would remain separate from Assad’s rule would either be directly Turkish or American administered.” Heras went on, “This situation would look like foreign actors imposing an ‘imperialist order’ on Syria, frustrating attempts to return all of Syria under one sovereign authority led by Assad.” This in turn, Heras told Al-Monitor, would allow Russia to “shatter the hard-won, delicately balanced US effort to maintain the international consensus against renormalizing Assad as the once and future leader of Syria.”
Either way, Idlib’s estimated three million civilians, nearly half of them displaced by conflict elsewhere in Syria, are the biggest losers, with the United Nations warning of a looming humanitarian catastrophe. Mark Cutts, the UN’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator, told the BBC, “This is a winter exodus, with ice on the ground, sub-zero temperatures, people freezing & trying to keep their babies alive, people sleeping on the backs of trucks ... Scale of crisis is unimaginable.”
At least 1 million people are estimated to have been displaced within Idlib itself since the regime unleashed its most recent offensive in April. Hundreds of thousands have headed toward the Turkish border, which remains sealed. Turkey is already home to over 3.5 million Syrians fleeing the war, leading to growing resentment as the country grapples with a weakening economy.
Erdogan’s decision to engage Syrian forces directly for the first time since the start of the conflict is a measure of Ankara’s desperation to staunch a further flow.