With the situation in Syria’s Idlib Governorate escalating in recent days, leading to the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers on February 27, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faces extremely difficult choices and has no options that do not involve major risks.
However, what must also be addressed are the strategic objectives of Russia. Does Moscow support an unlimited offensive by the Assad regime or is it actually using the situation on the ground to gain leverage against Turkey? And if so, what does it want from Turkey? In short, the escalation is dramatic but probably remains a high-risk negotiation tactic, out of which a new Russian-Turkish understanding over Idlib will come.
Looking purely at the military situation, deescalating is probably Erdoğan’s best option. But if he does so without securing a ceasefire in Idlib, the result could be a large influx of Syrian refugees from Idlib trying to get into Turkey. Maybe the only alternative to this influx would be to arrange for them to reach areas Turkey controlled though its Afrin and Euphrates Shield operations. This would of course increase the burden on Turkey, which provides most social and infrastructural services in those areas, but it would be better than having more Syrian refugees enter Turkey, where this is already causing domestic opposition and reducing support for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party.
The opposite option is to demonstrate Turkish resolve. In other words Ankara must show the will and determination to respond to every attack on its forces in Idlib in kind, in the hope of dissuading the Assad regime from further attacks. Already it has reportedly sent thousands of more troops to Idlib and provided its allied Syrian armed opposition groups with man-portable surface-to-air missiles, which have shot down two regime helicopters. Turkey was no doubt also involved in the successful recapture by opposition forces of the strategic town of Saraqib on February 27. But even if this demonstration of resolve works, it might only serve to protect Turkish forces. It may be insufficient to deter the regime from continuing its offensive in Idlib and western Aleppo.
However, present trends indicate the regime is deliberately targeting Turkish troops, probably because it feels or knows that it has Russian protection. In fact, Russia is certainly behind this high-stakes gambit. Therefore, Turkish military responses are unlikely to be effective for as long as they remain limited. It is significant that so far Russia has not been directly involved in attacks on Turkish forces. However, a Turkish resort to stronger military responses increases the risk of at least a political, if not also a military, confrontation with Russia, which has means of retaliation. This includes enabling attacks on the Turkish-held enclave in northeast Syria, or providing the Kurdistan Workers Party with man-portable surface-to-air missiles, as it previously did when Turkey supplied similar weapons to the Syrian opposition in May 2016.
Also, in order to escalate more strongly, Turkey would have to introduce more ground forces into Idlib. This increases the risk of incurring casualties and prompting more direct Russian counteractions. Or else it can send the Turkish Air Force into Syrian airspace over Idlib, which cannot happen without Russian permission, which will not be given.
Where does this leave things? On the one hand, an all-out war is very unlikely. The potential costs and also the damage to strategic relations between Turkey and Russia would be too great for Erdoğan to take such a risk. Supportive statements from the NATO secretary-general, U.S. President Donald Trump, and other Western leaders are not sufficient for Turkey to abandon the investment it has made in developing relations with Russia.
On the other hand, Russia also has an interest in not losing all the gains it has made in its relations with Turkey, nor in pushing Turkey back toward its NATO allies. This may offer Erdoğan some room for maneuver. It would involve keeping up Turkish military responses and inflicting a cost on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces (so long as Russian forces do not step in directly to block Turkish attacks), so as to convince Russia that Turkey will not back down, thereby compelling Moscow to rein in the Syrian regime.
All this hinges, mainly, on what Russia seeks in Idlib. Its airpower played a major role in supporting offensive action by regime forces in 2018, leading to the Sochi deescalation agreement. Indeed, most of the real military pressure on Turkey at that time came from the Russian Air Force, backed by regime artillery, with limited movement by regime ground forces. But there were later occasions when Russia did not provide active air support for regime attacks in the governorate, suggesting that it did not seek leverage against Turkey in pursuit of certain strategic or political goals at those times.
What is different this time is the scale of the regime’s ground offensive, backed by its air force, in which Russia has provided powerful political and strategic backing, but has not played the lead military role. Russia may also be seeking agreement relating to other parts of Syria, especially Hasakeh and Deir Ezzor. Indeed, the severity of the military escalation in Idlib—the sustained attacks on Turkish observer forces in Idlib and the boldness of regime advances encircling one Turkish observation post after another are unprecedented—may reveal a broader strategic purpose: Russia is sponsoring talks between the Assad regime and the Kurds, and may be trying to soften up Turkish resistance to whatever deal may be hammered out in Damascus. This would be a precursor to ending Turkey’s military presence and relinquishing its Syrian opposition allies and civilian safe zones in Syria.
That may still be some time away, but the current conflagration in Idlib suggests that wider strategic goals are at stake.