Battle for Idlib heats up as Turkey rejects Russian plan and sends more troops

More than $336 million will be needed to support the displaced but relief efforts are severely underfunded.
Sunday 23/02/2020
Turkish-backed Syrian fighters prepare to fire shells at a position near the village of al-Nayrab, about 14 kilometres southeast of the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria, amid clashes with government forces on February 20, 2020. (AFP)
Turkish-backed Syrian fighters prepare to fire shells at a position near the village of al-Nayrab, about 14 kilometres southeast of the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria, amid clashes with government forces on February 20, 2020. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - A fresh military escalation in Syria’s Idlib province heightened the risk of all-out war as Turkish forces clashed with Syrian troops and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his warning that the Turkish Army could go on the offensive “any time.”

Talks between Turkey, a supporter of rebels fighting the Syrian government, and Russia, the Syrian government’s main backer, to resolve the impasse in Syria’s last rebel-held region failed.

In a telephone call February 21 with Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was “seriously concerned” by the “aggressive actions” of jihadists in Idlib, a Kremlin statement said. Erdogan, however, “stressed that the [Syrian] regime should be restrained in Idlib and that the humanitarian crisis must be stopped,” the Turkish presidency said.

Before his call with Putin, Erdogan said Turkish troops would not pull back from Idlib “unless the regime stops the persecution of the people of Idlib.”

In a separate telephone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron the same day, Erdogan asked European powers for help.

Ankara and Moscow did iron out differences elsewhere in Syria in recent years but the conflict in Idlib has strained relations between the two governments.

Erdogan rejected a Russian plan that reports and Syrian activists described as calling for a 6km-wide corridor along Idlib’s border with Turkey that would serve as a “safe zone” for hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing the fighting.

Analysts said Turkey is not seeking a military victory in Idlib but is trying to make sure it has a foot in the door when decisions are taken about the future of the province or Syria as a whole.

“Ankara’s priority in Syria and elsewhere is not necessarily to back a winner,” said Simon Waldman, an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think-tank. “Its aim is to carve a stake in its near abroad and to ensure that other powers sufficiently recognize Turkish interests.”

Erdogan repeated Febraury 19 that he had given Syrian forces until the end of the month to withdraw to positions beyond Turkish military posts in Idlib, some of which have been surrounded by Syrian forces.

“We can go in suddenly one night,” Erdogan said on February 19. “The Idlib operation can start any time.”

One day later, two Turkish soldiers died in an air strike in Idlib, putting the Turkish death toll since the start of the month at 15. Ankara blamed the attack on the Syrian Air Force and not on Russian jets active in the region. Russia accused Turkey of providing military support to a rebel counterattack near Idlib.

Syria’s state news agency SANA said Turkey supported fighters of the former al-Nusra-Front, a group with ties to al-Qaeda, by giving them armoured vehicles and rocket launchers. SANA published pictures of military being destroyed, describing the scenes as Syrian Army units “eliminating Erdogan’s al-Nusra mercenaries.”

Despite the tension, Ankara was keen to stress it was not seeking a direct confrontation with Russian forces in Syria.

“We have no intentions of a face-off with Russia,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar told CNN Turk.

Erdogan sent troops into Idlib earlier in February to block the Syrian advance. Since then, Turkey reinforced its troops with additional soldiers and military hardware, including battle tanks.

Russia warned Turkey against attacking Syrian forces. “If we are talking about an operation against the legitimate authorities of the Syrian republic and armed forces of the Syrian republic this would of course be the worst scenario,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 19.

Syrian troops and allied forces backed by Russia have stepped up their offensive against jihadists and their rebel allies in Idlib and the neighbouring province of Aleppo. In a sign of how big recent gains for Damascus have been, the airport in Aleppo received its first scheduled flight of a passenger plane in eight years.

Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed February 13 that government forces would press onward.

The fighting triggered the biggest mass displacement in nine years of conflict in Syria. Approximately 900,000 people have been forced from their homes and shelters in less than three months, leaving huge numbers to sleep rough in the bitter cold. Turkey, which has already accepted 3.6 million Syrian refugees, has closed its borders.

“Existing camps are overcrowded and shelter in existing houses is getting scarce, civilians have no option but to sleep in the open fields,” said a statement by a group of Syrian NGOs, released at a news conference February 19 in Istanbul. Russia denied that hundreds of thousands of people were trying to flee to the Turkish border.

Savas Genc, a political scientist and Turkey expert at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, said Russia had the upper hand over Turkey in the Idlib crisis.

“We are not talking about interdependence here but a dependence by Turkey on Russia,” Genc said by telephone.

Genc noted that Erdogan was known for his pragmatism and that the Turkish leader could try to repair Turkey’s frayed ties with the West if the relationship with Russia deteriorated. “He can cooperate with Russia today and with NATO the day after tomorrow,” Genc said.

Turkey said deployment of an US Patriot anti-missile system on the border with Idlib would be possible. “There is the threat of air strikes, missiles against our country,” Akar told CNN Turk channel. “There could be Patriot support.”