After attacks on his soldiers in the Syrian province of Idlib, Turkish President Erdogan threatened retaliatory strikes against Syrian government forces “everywhere” in the country. Quite a few observers classified this as a de facto declaration of war.
The answer came immediately – from Russia, the protective power of Syria. There are jihadist groups supported by Turkey, which attack the Syrian troops in Idlib and also “act aggressively against our military objects,” said a Kremlin spokesman. “This is unacceptable.”
Moscow’s public criticism of Ankara is rare and shows how high the level of sensitivity is now. “There is a high risk of further accidental escalation between Ankara and Damascus – and thus between Ankara and Moscow,” says Syria expert Muriel Asseburg.
Turkey has accepted 3.6 million refugees
Turkey and Russia had actually agreed on an agreement in 2018: Ankara, as a guarantee power for Idlib, was to monitor a ceasefire between the government and rebels with twelve observation posts. To this end, Turkey should disarm the jihadist militia Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is close to the terrorist organization al-Qaida, and which controls the province with 10,000 men. Russia complained that this had not happened, and Assad continued its offensive on Idlib.
Hundreds of thousands are fleeing from the advancing regime troops in northwest Syria. The camps of internally displaced persons have long been lined up along the Turkish-Syrian border. But Turkey has already accepted 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Erdogan definitely wants to avoid a new wave of refugees in which jihadist extremists may mix. Therefore the border remains closed. Millions of civilians literally get between the fronts in a space that is getting smaller and smaller.
Ultimatum until the end of February
“There are around three million civilians in the region, around half of whom fled from fighting or the regime from other parts of the country or were transferred there,” said Syria expert Asseburg. “Many of them are fleeing from contested areas once again, but have little left where to flee to escape the bombing, looting, and retaliation by the advancing Syrian army.” According to the UN, 700,000 Syrians have been displaced in the northwest of the country since early December 2019.
An ultimatum from Turkey to the Syrian regime continues to put pressure on the kettle: Assad should withdraw its troops behind the Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of February. Otherwise the Turkish army would do this.
Ankara is ultimately about the Kurdish question
“The way out of the current escalation,” says Asseburg, “is likely to be a temporary agreement between Ankara and Moscow: the regime is expanding its control over the important M5 / M4 transit routes, but initially refrains from reaching the border.” In this way, at least temporarily, an area would remain under the control of the rebels and refugees would not be pushed to the Turkish border. The problem of how to deal with the radical rebels would also be “postponed for the time being”.
Ultimately, observers agree, Ankara has a keen interest in maintaining its influence in the Syrian province of Idlib. Because Turkey wants to have a say when it comes to the future of Syria. In the long term, however, the focus is less on Idlib in the northwest than on the northeast of the country and the Kurdish question: «In the future, there should be neither Kurdish self-government nor a coherent Kurdish settlement area under the control of the PKK sister party PYD or PYD units in the Syrian army »Says Asseburg.
“Instead of hoarding money for the next escape”
The situation in Idlib remains precarious. The Munich Security Conference, which starts this Friday, has now added the Syrian province to the list of topics. Experience has shown that little will come of it. The “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” in Idlib recognizes a cynical pattern: “Russian and Syrian bombers unleash a firestorm, attacking civilian infrastructure. Assad’s troops advance on the ground. The West protests, but usually does nothing. Then the protective powers of the Syrian parties to the conflict agree on a “de-escalation zone” or an armistice. People are regaining everyday life, patching up their demolished houses, opening shops instead of hoarding money for the next escape. »