Image Credit: President of Russia
After almost a decade of civil war, Syria is largely under government, Kurdish or Turkish, control. Conflict has become centralised to specific regions, such as the Idlib Governorate, the last major area controlled by various rebel groups, some supported by Ankara. Turkey is wary of a Russian-backed regime offensive underway in the region.
Responding to the offensive, Turkey deployed more forces into Idlib, with a special forces convoy deployed on 24 February. On 1 March, following President Erdogan’s orders two Syrian fighter jets were shot down also in response to the death of 33 Turkish soldiers killed in an air strike.
The President's fears are twofold. Firstly, the possibility of a new wave of refugees, which Turkey, already home to 3.6 million refugees, isn’t equipped to handle. Turkey is ‘the country most affected by the Syrian crisis’ says Erdogan.
Secondly, and crucially, is his vested interest in the war’s outcome. Turkey’s influence as a major stakeholder in Syria could diminish if the offensive succeeds. Turkey supports the Syrian National Army, who are the self-proclaimed official opposition to the regime.
Erdogan knows reality dictates that with Putin’s continued support Assad’s position is largely guaranteed, though targets the benefits of future peace negotiations. Engagement in Idlib is how he positions himself to insure this. He has committed to meeting French, German and Russian leaders at a 5 March summit to discuss the humanitarian and military situation. However, he refuses to back down from threats of imminent military intervention.
Erdogan, however, requires dialogue with Putin, emphasising the need to “draw up our roadmap by negotiating with Russia at the highest level”. Despite militarily competing in Syria, the countries have aligned interests. Both can benefit from conflict resolution, but must cement their positions in Idlib. Neither can allow military confrontation to destroy the strategic relationship. Nor can they allow the other to gain a position of prominence.
Meanwhile, on the ground, regime and Russian forces have already taken Aleppo, and the M5 highway between it and Damascus, Syria’s transportation backbone. This offensive began on 21 December and despite talks between Ankara and Moscow culminating in a ceasefire, going into effect on 12 January, the offensive ultimately continued, with hostilities resuming on 15 January. As a result, the UN estimates that 400,000 have been displaced since December.
Assad aims to capture the strategic M4 highway between Aleppo and Latakia, where, uncoincidentally, Russia has a military base. At the present rate, this looks probable. Continuous successes have been achieved in recent weeks, exemplified by the capture of Maaret al-Numan along the M5 highway on 19 February. Comparatively, Turkish-backed forces are facing consistent losses, further incentivising Erdogan to send in more troops, exacerbating the conflict.
Russia has also shown support for a summit to discuss another possible ceasefire. The Kremlin has dismissed Turkish calls for a return to the 2018 Sochi agreement, which allowed Turkey to establish military posts in Idlib.
Simultaneously, the US has been cast aside in Syria. The withdrawal of US forces from northern Syria last October has effectively given Turkey the green light to control northern Syria. This is to the detriment of America’s Kurdish allies, the YPG, who Turkey view as being associated with the PKK, who they regard as a terrorist organisation. What persists through this international stand-off, is a worsening humanitarian situation.
A significant proportion of the Irbil Governorate’s three million people are already displaced from conflict elsewhere. Furthermore, there is significant fear that fighting could encroach on camps in the area, leading to the potential of a “real massacre of civilians in that area” as warned by Mark Cutts, Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syrian Crisis.
Amidst the lingering prevalence of jihadists amongst rebel forces, Idlib has emerged as the epicentre of the manoeuvring between Russia and Turkey. With conflict intensifying, civilians could once again become trapped in the crossfire, as Idlib becomes the new Aleppo in the ongoing civil war.