Three basic factors underlie Turkey’s stance in the confused military situation in north-west Syria. The first is that Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a Sunni Muslim while Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, adheres to the Shia branch of Islam. Despite any occasional accommodation between Erdogan and the Shi’ite Iranian leadership which is backing Assad, they are far from natural allies. This is why Erdogan has been supporting Syria’s anti-government forces, and explains how the opposition have recently brought Assad’s apparently inexorable advance into Idlib province to a shuddering halt.
Last week Turkey deployed dozens of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) as well as heavy artillery, and with their help opposition factions managed to recapture a number of villages in southern Idlib province, stopping the advance of Syrian government forces towards the M4 highway, linking Latakia to Aleppo. In the east, the government also lost control of the strategic M5 highway linking Damascus to Aleppo.
This was the first time that Turkey had deployed its Turkish-made UAVs in the battle against Damascus. They backed their drones with fighter jets flying along the Syrian-Turkish border and powerful ordnance, and so far this has successfully frozen Assad’s advance. The drones have not only hit positions and convoys of government forces along the front line, but they have also penetrated deep into Damascus-controlled areas and reportedly targeted military airports near the cities of Aleppo and Hama. They have also successfully targeted high-ranking officers in both Syrian government forces and allied militias.
Of course a counter-offensive has begun. Government forces reinforced with Iran-backed militias, Russian regulars and mercenaries, are already attempting to fight their way back into Saraqeb.
Following the death of 34 Turkish soldiers in southern Idlib, Erdogan gave the Syrian government a deadline of 29 February to withdraw from areas it had taken over in northwest Syria since December. As the deadline expired, Erdogan announced that he was launching operation Spring Shield, targeting Syrian government forces.
The success of the Turkish drone-led offensive can in part be ascribed to Russia’s decreased military activity in the northwest. Russian air raids have been relatively few over the past few days – a fact noted by the pro-Iranian media, which has accused Moscow of abandoning Syrian government forces and Iranian militias on the Saraqeb front line.
Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on March 5 and agreed a cease-fire which both parties agreed to monitor. The Turkish president, with his newly strengthened bargaining position, was able to freeze the Russo-Syrian effort, undertaken without regard for human suffering, to bring the whole of Idlib into Assad’s grip with a consequent enormous increase in the numbers of refugees fleeing north.
The second relevant factor in this convoluted situation is that Turkey is a member of NATO, and Erdogan has been demanding an emergency summit to discuss the conflict in north-west Syria following the death of the Turkish soldiers at the hands of pro-government forces.
The request was made under Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty, which stipulates that any ally can request consultations when they believe their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened. Hovering in the background of Erdogan’s demand is the implicit threat of a call to implement Article 5, which deems that an attack on any one member of the 29-strong alliance is treated as an attack on all NATO member states.
However Erdogan’s call for NATO support on the grounds that his soldiers were attacked and killed is questionable. Turkey’s own position is equivocal. It could be argued that Turkey is breaching Syria’s territorial integrity by conducting military operations in Idlib. NATO is unlikely to take up arms on Turkey’s behalf in such circumstances.
The refugee issue is another bone of contention as far as the European members of NATO are concerned. Under the terms of the 2016 agreement between Turkey and the EU, Brussels pledged €6 billion to Turkey to help it deal with the estimated 3.6 million refugees that had taken refuge in Turkey since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Since then Turkey has housed up to 5 million, and is now opening its borders to allow refugees from Idlib to reach the Greek frontier. Greece, however, is refusing to allow them to cross, and the EU is at odds about how to deal with the prospect of a further influx of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians.
The third key issue motivating Erdogan is his long-term intention to prevent the establishment of a formal Kurdish entity along the Syrian-Turkey border. In fact the region, known informally as Rojava and occupying about 25 percent of pre-civil war Syria, is home to nearly 5 million Kurds. Because its leading political party has links with Turkey’s militant PKK, Erdogan asserts that Rojava itself is a challenge to Turkey’s national interests. A political crisis was averted in August 2019 when the US reached an agreement with Turkey to create a so-called “safe zone” in north-eastern Syria, to allow Turkey to protect its borders. It amounts to a Turkish occupation of what was once sovereign Syria,
The Muslim dimension, the NATO-European connection and the Kurdish issue – these are the considerations moving Turkey’s president Erdogan, as he seeks to pluck advantage from the chaos that Syria has become.