Tensions in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province have been escalating as the latest offensive of the Syrian government forces backed by Russia draw near the city of Idlib. Several Turkish soldiers were killed and wounded during the air raids carried out by the Syrian government and in response, 50 Syrian personnel were killed. Sustained casualties might trigger a more robust response on both sides and even result in an open military confrontation between Turkey on one side and Russia and Syria on the other.
According to the latest information, Ankara insists on a complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from the Idlib de-escalation zone and rejected the Russian proposal implying Turkish control of a 15km buffer zone along the border, Russian checkpoints between Afrin, a part of Idlib controlled by Turkey, and joint Russian-Turkish control of the M4 and M5 highways.
Continuation of the advance of the Syrian army in the region would worsen already dreary living conditions of civilians in the area and would set more people on the move seeking refuge abroad or internally. Turkey is afraid of another influx of Syrian refugees as it already hosts over 3.5 million of them. Another massive increase in their number might pose a significant problem for the current ruling party, both as an economic burden and a political liability stemming from the overly negative perception of the refugees among the Turkish public. Moreover, if the Syrian forces managed to capture the province, other Turkish-held territories in the north of Syria would be in danger.
If Ankara does not want to risk the possibility of a direct confrontation with the Syrian forces and Russia, it must seek a ceasefire agreement with Russia, which serves the interests of both sides. Both Moscow and Ankara do not want to sever their ties over Idlib, as their common interests are far more important than the Syrian province. However, the Turkish decision to reinforce its military presence in the region suggests that Ankara was pushed into the corner and does not have much space for a manoeuvre. Although Turkey is still open to diplomatic negotiations that are supposed to continue next week at a joint summit with European leaders, it is sending more and more of its military forces and equipment to the region.
Ankara’s request to the USA to deploy Patriot surface-to-air missile system batteries along its southern border with Syria and rumours about the willingness to activate Article 21 of the Montreaux Convention illustrates a desperate attempt to stop Assad in Idlib.
However, in the current state of Turkey‘s relations with the West, it is not possible to expect any significant help from the USA or NATO and Ankara will have no other option than to negotiate (with Russia). The most probable scenario seems to be a ceasefire based on the current positions of both sides. In the long term, that would, however, be only a short term solution with another wave of escalation possible anytime.
STRATPOL Memos is a project which on a weekly basis provides a short overview of the most important selected moments of Euro-Atlantic security and related areas. Our goal is to provide brief and informative comments with short analysis putting news into a broader context.
Responsible editor Matúš Jevčák.
Author: Dominik Zachar
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