To put it bluntly, Turkey is directly waging an undeclared war in Syria against the Syrian regime and, indirectly, against Russia, Iran and Iranian affiliates. This came after long-term civil turmoil in Northern Syria and Turkey’s gradual engagement in the region. Initially supporting various radical Islamist militants with the aim of regime change, Turkey then used these militants as proxies to clear the border areas of the PYD ('People Protections Units', the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party), before eventually taking on the Syrian army directly in and around Idlib province. Syrian forces are now engaging Turkish troops, armed vehicles, and drones, while Turkey is constantly pounding Syrian army posts. During the recent 'Spring Shield' operation, Turkish F-16s, operating in Turkish airspace, downed two Syrian fighter jets, destroyed eight helicopters, 103 tanks, bombed Syrian air defense systems, and claimed that it killed over 2,000 Syrian troops. Such actions have all the features of a conventional interstate war--the first Turkey has engaged in since the Cyprus intervention in 1974--, albeit in a geographically limited area. This is a massive intensification from Turkey’s previous military operations in Syria, which were conducted against sub-state military groups Indeed, a few months ago no one could have imagined that Turkey would be at war in Syria confronting the Russians. Idlib was not an area on many people's radar, and there was a perception in and outside of Turkey that the Erdoğan government had drifted away from the West and towards a pro-Russian foreign policy.
Russia has for a while been openly stating that Turkey has not fulfilled its commitments according to the Sochi deal of September 2018, having still not disarmed radical Islamist militants in the buffer zone near the Turkish border. With sporadic attacks on Turkish troops beginning last month, the warnings from Russia against further Turkish involvement in the area increased. Yet Turkey’s response was to escalate the crisis with further troop deployment across the border. Instead of finding a middle ground, Erdoğan gave an ultimatum to the Syrian government that it should withdraw its forces to the Sochi line, i.e., behind Turkish observation posts, until the end of February. The Russian reply came in the form of targeting Turkish troops on route to a Turkish post, killing 33. This deliberate targeting of Turkish troops by Syrian/Russian forces sent a clear message that Turkey should abide by the Sochi deal and cease its troops surge.
Idlib as a War of Choice
Idlib originally posed a soft challenge for Turkey that could have been managed diplomatically, with the mobilization of relevant international bodies such as the UNHCR and with tightened border control. However, Turkey insisted that it would not withdraw its troops, instead reinforcing its troop presence in the area. Finding it difficult to justify the military presence in Idlib to both Turkish public opinion and to the world, Turkish security officials argued that Turkey had to engage in Idlib to ease the suffering wrought by the Assad regime’s attacks on civilians, as well as to prevent the flow of refugees to the Turkish border. It should be noted that this is a novel justification for military inolvement, and Turkey may be the first country in world history to wage a war in a neighboring country to stop refugee flows.
The war in Idlib is neither inevitable nor winnable. Historically, Turkey has resorted to force under two circumstances: In protecting the well-being and security of Turks abroad (Cyprus), and in engaging in the ever-lasting fight against the PKK and its offspring, the PYD, in Iraq and in Syria. Yet as the AKP government increased its cross border military operations, Turkey for the first time begun fighting a war beyond these two casus belli.
An array of miscalculations and misjudgments have been guiding Turkey's actions. These errors have put it practically at war with both Syria and Russia, have resulted in the loss of 53 of its soldiers in one month, and have caused its foreign policy to falter, forcing it to ask for NATO support and running the risk of precipitating a new migration crisis with Greece and the EU.
Turkey is now trying to convince Russia, who is primarily responsible for the killing of its troops, not to attack again--while at the same time doing nothing to change its course of action and constantly bombing its ally. While Turkish pro-government experts strongly advocated the purchase of S-400 missiles for the defense of Turkey’s airspace, the same experts defended the sending of thousands of Turkish troops to a hostile environment--effectively a war zone--without aerial support.
Fearing Russian reprisal, Ankara has avoided holding Russia directly responsible for the February 27 attack and, while still escalating the conflict on the ground, has preferred to de-escalate on the diplomatic front, adopting a relatively mild rhetoric towards Moscow.
What is Erdoğan’s Drive?
Despite prevalent opinion, I disagree with the argument that the main motive behind Erdoğan’s insistence on controlling Idlib can be found in his Islamist drive. The radical Islamist militants in and around Idlib have little to no value for Erdoğan as ideological allies. Most of these militants in Syria despise Turkey’s Islamists, finding them too liberal. It seems unrealistic for Erdoğan to confront the Syrian army militarily and Russia politically for the sake of protecting radical jihadists.
Although Erdoğan’s (and Davutoğlu’s, for that matter) initial plan was to replace the Assad regime with a Muslim Brotherhood government, this policy has apparently collapsed, and now requires a full scale war for a regime change. What Turkey is doing is instrumentalizing these radical militants for its own national security. I argue that Ankara's insistence on fortifying the Idlib area is not an Islamist project, but rather is motivated by a kind of nationalist/security oriented thinking that aims to establish a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria. Turkey considers such a policy a long-term strategy that can be realized only under current conditions when Syria is still undergoing a civil war and is militarily weak. A 30 km strip covering the northeastern part of Syria is deemed a necessary for Turkey’s security. Turkey is planning to relocate some of its Syrian refugee population to these areas, thus changing the demography of this strip and allowing for a degree of Turkish control and administration there. The Idlib area is strategically important for this aim in terms of its location, lying in an area adjacent to Turkey’s Hatay province. With its goal of creating demographic changes in the area, Turkey wants to secure its domination along this strip stretching from Manbij to Idlib as long as possible.
Turkey’s initial expectation was that the Syrian army was too weak to face a military confrontation with Turkey, Russia was too concerned to loose Turkey as a strategic ally to intervene militarily, and that the US and NATO would support Turkey if conflict arose. Nonetheless, from a military perspective the Turkish military is strong enough to maintain control of the Idlib area on its own. But such a policy comes with a definite cost. If Turkey persists in its efforts, it could face a severe disruption in its relations with Russia, a deeper military engagement with Syrian forces, a long-term war of attrition with more loss of life, and a need for a growing reliance on NATO and the US.
The Idlib affair marks a breaking point in Turkish foreign and security policy. It has showed the limits of Turkey’s cooperation with Russia in Syria, once again deepening the regional crisis and redrawing the strategic lines on the ground, and placing Turkey on the side of US, NATO and Israel in confronting Russia, Iran and Syria. The attack on Turkish troops has also dealt a serious blow to Eurasianist in circles in Turkey, placing them in a dilemma between nationalistic sentiments and confrontation with Russia.