Turkey and Russia Clash in Syria as Casualties Mount

| Intel Brief
The Soufan Center

 

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike on Thursday in a development that threatens to drastically escalate the conflict in Syria.
  • In an effort to pressure European countries, Erdogan suggested that Turkey would open its border to millions of Syrian refugees and provide them with a clear path to continue streaming toward Europe.
  • Erdogan seems to have overplayed his hand with Putin, believing that more robust security cooperation with the Kremlin would afford him with increased leverage in other theatres—this has not proven to be true.
  • Moscow’s scorched earth campaign in Idlib proves that Putin remains determined to help Asad seal a victory in the nearly decade-long civil war and will resort to all measures available to achieve this objective.

Dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike on Thursday in a development that threatens to drastically escalate the conflict in Syria. A Turkish military convoy was shelled as it moved to resupply an observation post at Al Bara, and the post was subsequently hit with airstrikes. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, it remained unclear whether the airstrikes were launched by the Russians or the Syrian regime. Turkey may be reluctant to point the finger at Russia and instead decide to blame the Asad regime to prevent the situation from spiraling further out of control. Despite repeated pleas, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been unable to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ally, Syrian leader Bashar al-Asad, to withdraw forces that have recently encircled Turkish military positions. The most recent round of fighting follows the recapture of the strategic town of Saraqeb by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels. Ankara has repeatedly threatened to mount a full-scale military invasion of Syria, but the Turks likely realize they have limited options in Syria. Even an appeal to NATO regarding Article 5 would not seem to qualify since the attack took place on Syrian soil and not in Turkey.

Numerous social media sites have been restricted in Turkey as of late Thursday evening, including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Instagram. Russian state television stated that Turkish troops and their proxy forces were firing MANPADS at Russian planes in Idlib in response to the airstrikes on Al Bara. The conflagration between Ankara and Moscow in Syria comes even as Erdogan has embraced Putin while moving away from NATO. Despite increased friction, Turkey still participated in joint military exercises with NATO partners toward the end of 2019. Erdogan has previously asked the United States for two Patriot missile batteries, but has not received an affirmative response. Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400 missile system was a clear rebuke to NATO, although Erdogan may have overplayed his hand, believing that more robust security cooperation with the Kremlin would afford him with increased leverage in other theatres. Besides Syria, Turkey and Russia also find themselves on opposing sides in Libya, where the former supports the Government of National Accord (GNA) as the latter backs Khalifa Hafter and the Libyan National Army (LNA).

Immediately following the strike, Erdogan convened an emergency meeting at his palace to determine Ankara’s response. In the interim, Erdogan suggested that Turkey would open its border to millions of Syrian refugees and provide them with a clear path to continue streaming toward Europe through both land and maritime routes. Turkey has ordered police, coast guard and border patrol officers to stand down and not interfere with refugee flows. This is a clear attempt to blackmail Europe. A fresh wave of Syrian refugees streaming toward Europe would cause significant political instability and could provoke a reaction from far-right groups, as occurred in Germany and elsewhere during the peak of the migrant crisis in 2015. Turkey may be hoping to use the refugee issue as leverage in continuing negotiations over access to energy reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Ankara finds itself at odds with several European countries.

The toll on Syrian civilians, including the most vulnerable populations such as children, has been staggering. Since early December, nearly 900,000 Syrians have been displaced as a result of the fighting in northwest Syria. Recent reporting has indicated Syrian children, who comprise approximately 60 percent of the 900,000 people recently displaced according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, have been freezing to death while the onslaught continues unabated. The international community has largely remained silent and the rapid spread of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, has dominated international media headlines, relegating the crisis in Syria to the back pages. Turkey does have legitimate concerns regarding the issue of taking in more refugees and the presence of armed rebel groups, including some linked to al-Qaeda, using northwest Syria as a longstanding sanctuary. The lack of American leadership is also telling, as it provided Russia with an even greater opportunity to shape events on the ground in Syria. Moscow’s scorched earth campaign in Idlib proves that Putin remains determined to help Asad seal a victory in the nearly decade-long civil war and will resort to all measures available to achieve this objective.

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