The current conflict between Turkey and Russia in northern Syria has added an unprecedented layer of complexity to an already complicated conflict. The ferocity of the fighting and the losses incurred by all parties are signs that the crisis in Syria has reached a peak. The rules of engagement, and the rules of the game in general, need to be rewritten. Both Turkey and Russia are seeking to do this against the backdrop of tensions and pressure. The question is: will they succeed, or is the conflict likely to escalate further?

Changes on the ground

Recently, the Syrian forces, which support Russia, made progress on the ground, gaining control over an area estimated to cover over half of the territory of Idlib Governorate, including strategic sites such as the roads, hills, and towns at key locations across the governorate. The Syrian forces have entered certain areas, such as Jabal al-Shashbo, Jabal al-Zawiyah, and the incursion into Al-Ghab Plain, in order to retake control and end the conflict on their terms. In response, Turkey has raised the level of alert and has deployed additional troops, bringing the total number to more than 10,000 soldiers and more than 3000 vehicles and tanks across dozens of Turkish-held sites in Idlib and Aleppo.

Tensions have escalated after more than 30 Turkish soldiers were killed and a dozen more wounded in a direct confrontation with Russia. This coincided with the end of the deadline set by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for Syrian forces to withdraw back to the borders defined in the Sochi Agreement. Turkish-backed factions launched a counter-attack, taking advantage of Turkish artillery cover and the use of drones, which disrupted the effectiveness of Syrian air capacities, including the downing of two Syrian Su-24 aircraft, following the withdrawal of Russian air coverage and the inability of Syria's air defense systems to combat Turkish drones. This allowed opposition forces to recapture a number of villages and sites under Syrian control as part of the Turkish “Spring Shield” operation. Military observers have noted, however, that Turkey has been happy simply to announce the launch of the operation and has yet to take any action towards it, as was the case with similar interventions in the eastern Euphrates. Turkey is keen not to pass the point of no return with Russia and is waiting to see what the negotiations between the two countries’ leaders will achieve.

A view of both sides of the conflict

For both Russia and Turkey, the conflict in Idlib is at the heart of their efforts to establish themselves as key players in regional and international affairs. Both sides have declared it a crisis situation as a result of stressful conditions born from their geopolitical activities and from friction with competitors and opponents seeking to prevent them reaching their aims.

Russian launched its most recent campaign in Idlib on the belief that the time had come to resolve this part of the Syrian conflict, which would allow it can focus instead on other areas, especially eastern Syria, where new complications have emerged following the return of US activity. Russia sees Idlib as a major stumbling block to its geopolitical project in Syria, which will have a greater chance of succeeding once control has been regained over the governorate, as this would strengthen the position of president Bashir al-Assad as the strongest legitimate party, according to Russian definitions. This would pave the way for Syria’s return to the Arab League, put an end to its isolation, and attract regional and international investment in the reconstruction process. In the view of Russian policymakers, this will not be achieved until Russia controls Syria as a whole, unless Turkey in the north, and the United States in the east, change their tune.

For Turkey, the conflict in Idlib is one of many conflicts in the region in which it is involved, in particular Libya and the Mediterranean. Turkish decision-makers believe that retreating from the governorate would affect the country's position in all these conflicts, as they are convinced that regional and international parties involved in the area have an undeclared alliance against it. In response, Turkey is insisting on maintaining its position and preserving its regional gains in Syria in order to bolster it own role in the wider region.

Strategies to achieve their goals

Russia is pursuing a strategy of maximum pressure on the ground, while keeping the door open to diplomacy. It is betting on Turkey and the forces supporting experiencing a shortage of resources during what has become a long and complicated conflict, and on the fact that none of Turkey’s NATO allies are keen to support it in the conflict. Russia has enormous potential to make ground in the conflict in Idlib, having engaged elite Syrian forces and Iranian militias, placed Russian officers in charge of operations, and provided combat forces with the latest Russian weaponry. Russia has announced that two military vessels loaded with Kalibr missiles have reached the Syrian shore, and it pushed the Syrian regime to declare the closure of Syrian airspace, thereby hindering Turkey’s ability to use its combat aircraft, which could make a qualitative difference in the conflict.

As part of its strategy, Russia has swiftly annexed areas held by Syrian opposition factions and has stacked up victories in this regard, which will give it more room to maneuver in any future negotiations between the two parties and will make it harder for Turkey to return the region to the previous status quo.

Turkey, meanwhile, has pursued a multidimensional strategy. At the same time as making efforts to strengthen its military presence in Idlib and deploying the latest Turkish weaponry from within its own territory, including Bayraktar drones, armored vehicles, missiles, and F-16 aircraft, Turkey has also been conducting a widespread diplomatic campaign against Russia in Europe and the United States and has been attempting to use the issues of refugees to pressure Europe into pushing the Western powers to either accelerate the provision of weapons to Turkey, especially Patriot missile systems, or help it pressurize Russia into ending the conflict in Idlib.

Russia seems to have the better strategy, however. Moscow has already achieved an important part of its aims, namely seizing control of the M5 highway and sowing instability in the remaining areas under opposition control. These successes come as the result of significant changes on the ground in favor of Russia, which have undermined Turkey’s ability to impose changes of its own, despite Turkey’s counter-attack in which it regained control over a limited number of areas.

Positions of Europe and the United States

The current crisis in Idlib has thrown light on the weakness of Europe’s position and its inability to exert any pressure. Europe played the last of its cards when it imposed economic sanctions on Russia; however, these failed to make any real impact. Although the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have expressed sympathy for Turkey, Europe has refused to shoulder any responsibility for the war and has rejected Turkey’s efforts to pressure it over the refugee situation.

The US position in the current conflict remains unclear. While the United States began by simply expressing its sympathies, it ended with the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey stating that the United States was prepared to supply Turkey with the ammunition required to bolster its military position in Idlib, adding that Turkey is a NATO ally which uses significant amounts of US military equipment. This contradicts earlier statements by the US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, in which he insisted that the United States would not provide Turkey with any air support in Idlib.

These somewhat conflicting statements by the United States point to a hidden struggle between the Pentagon and the US State Department. According to statements by a US official made to the website Politico, the Department of Defense believes that the deployment of Patriot missiles would only further complicate the various conflicts in Syria and would have no effect on Russia. While US military officials refuse to take such reckless action, which would have a real global fallout, the State Department sees the conflict in Syria as an opportunity to weaken Russia’s position and to drive a wedge between Russia and Turkey.

Is an end to the crisis in sight?

The latest round of conflict has shown that the two parties to the fight — Russia and Turkey — are not keen to engage in direct conflict, in order to protect their strong economic relations. They are still heavily reliant on one another; while Turkey needs a safe zone to prevent millions of Syrians from flooding into Turkish territory, Russia needs Turkey to remain a part of the Astana process so that it does not become merely a Russian–Iranian forum to which no one pays any heed.

Analysts see the possibility of an end to the current conflict and the achievement of a compromise agreement on the safe zone which Turkey wants to establish in northern Syria. Russia is attempting to adapt this zone to the framework of the Adana Agreement and to narrow the zone down to a depth of 10–15 km; Turkey, however, is insisting on a depth of 35 km.

This does not remove the possibility that the two parties may yet clash, however, given the complexity of the situation. Russia is demanding that Turkey invest troops in Idlib to eradicate Jabhat al-Nusrah, while Turkey wants the agreement on the safe zone to be final, rather than a temporary agreement lasting only until a comprehensive political solution is reached in Syria.

 

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