Tensions mount in Syria after strike on Turkish troops

An airstrike killed at least thirty-three Turkish soldiers in Syria late on February 27, according to Turkish government officials, escalating tensions between Ankara and the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its ally Russia. The attack occurred in Idlib province, where pro-government Syrian forces have been attempting to push out rebel forces aligned with Turkey.

Turkey has accused Russia and Syrian government forces of violating a 2018 agreement which established a “demilitarized” zone in Idlib, enforced by Turkish and Russian troops. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demanded on February 26 that pro-government Syrian troops withdraw from the areas around Turkish observation posts, threatening that “active intervention” by Turkey was on the table should Assad’s troops not back down. Erdoğan held an emergency meeting with government officials in Ankara past midnight to discuss options.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told US lawmakers on February 26 that there has not been “discussion about reengaging in the civil war” in Syria and that he doesn’t “see any likelihood that [the United States] would be back along the border” of Syria, where US troops had previously been fighting the Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham (ISIS), before mostly withdrawing from the area last fall. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on February 25 that the United States is “working together with Turkey” to achieve “a permanent cease-fire” in Idlib and “UN-led negotiations” to end the conflict. He blasted Moscow for “cynically back[ing]” the “brutal new aggression” of Assad’s troops in Idlib, where more than 3 million people could be displaced.

Turkey and Russia are also managing an escalating situation in Libya, where Turkey has sent troops to help the UN-backed government in Tripoli against the advance of forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, supported by Moscow. Erdoğan confirmed the deaths of two Turkish servicemembers in clashes in Tripoli on February 25. An attempt to reach a ceasefire failed in Moscow in January, but there have been regular meetings between Turkish and Russian officials to attempt to manage tensions in both Libya and Syria, including a Russian delegation visit to Ankara on February 26.

Atlantic Council experts react to the airstrike in Idlib on February 27 and the implications for Syria and Turkey-Russia relations:

William F. Wechsler, director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council:

“When the moderators of the last Democratic debate decided to discuss foreign policy, the first question they asked of the candidates was whether they wanted to withdraw from the Middle East.  Those who advocate for withdrawal need look no further than Idlib to see the easily foreseeable results of the abdication of US leadership in this part of the world. 

“It has taken repeated mistakes over two administrations to get us here, but we have arrived at a humanitarian catastrophe in which millions of innocent civilians are caught in a war between a cruel dictator and opposition factions dominated by terrorist groups, a dynamic empowered by the no-longer-latent imperial aspirations of Russia, Iran, and Turkey. It wasn’t too long ago when an alleged air strike by Russia against the military forces of a NATO ally would threaten to move the doomsday clock close to midnight.  Today, however, the most likely response from Washington will be a well-practiced diplomatic performance art of unconvincing public statements followed by a feeble threat of sanctions that will go largely unenforced. And, of course, a victory in Idlib by the forces that support the Assad regime will not usher in peace as is quietly hoped by so many who would rather look the other way, but it will merely open the door to the next phase in the Syria crisis.

“It would be grotesque to look for a bright side to this long-predicted tragedy. But perhaps the killing of Turkish soldiers will encourage Ankara to reconsider its mistaken and damaging decision to rely on Russian air defense systems. And perhaps this will finally rouse Europe to demonstrate some leadership for the crisis on its borders, if for no other reason than to prevent a new wave of Syrian refugees that will further destabilize its own domestic politics. And perhaps those who remain committed to US withdrawal and who presently argue that there are no lessons from the specific experience in Syria that might be applied more generally to the Middle East, might now take this opportunity to pay greater attention to what is likely to unfold in Libya.”

Defne Arslan, Atlantic Council resident representative & director of the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY Program.

“What is happening in Idlib is a huge tragedy. Our hearts are with thirty-three Turkish soldiers who lost their lives in an attack today. Now it is time to put everything aside and remember that Turkey, which is already hosting over 3.5 million refugees on its own land and with mostly with its own resources, is also fighting against Russian-backed regime forces in Syria alone. Without any further delay, quick action from the United States/NATO can have the chance to change the picture entirely. This is a time to remember the norms and values of NATO.” 

Ambassador John Herbst, director at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former US ambassador to Ukraine

The strike on Turkish forces in Syria illuminates many issues. First, in Syria itself, the real struggle for power has been between the Assad regime and various Islamist extremist factions. Putin’s policies have been successful because Russian military power augmented a Syrian player with at least some staying power. This contrasts with US policy under the Obama Administration and in the first years of the Trump Administration that, Kurds aside, relied on groups acceptable in Western salons, but with no strength on the ground. This attack has sharply reduced the possibility that Turkish forces would get in the way of Assad’s advance in Idlib.

This military clash also reveals the limits of Kremlin wooing of Ankara. While Putin has over a decade skillfully created a fissure between Turkey and NATO, he has once again made clear that he prioritizes Russian gains in Syria over the relationship with Erdogan. Moscow’s repeated military overflights of Turkish territory in the fall of 2015 – which led to the Turkish shootdown of a Kremlin warplane – made this point earlier. Putin likely calculated that his strike will not rally NATO to Turkey’s defense because Erdogan’s policy in Syria is properly seen as problematic in Western capitals.

Finally, the strike underscores Turkey’s isolation resulting from Erdogan’s mercurial policies. He should have understood that Moscow would move against him in Syria if Turkish forces were an impediment to Assad’s gains. And he should have understood that NATO would not back him in Syria if his rogue policy led to a confrontation. And he should have understood that his purchase of Moscow’s S-400 missile system would discourage Washington from offering support in this crisis.

What does all this mean for US policy? First, this latest development should not lead us to heed the siren call of going back into Syria to depose or even oppose the Assad regime. Aside from the Kurds operating in their own space, we have no suitable partners who can effectively oppose Assad. Syria has witnessed humanitarian disasters with and without US engagement. In general, President Trump’s instincts on Syria are sound. Second, we should reach out to Erdogan both publicly and privately with a general show of support. Not for his Syria policy. But we should express our desire to consult with our Turkish NATO ally to help shore up its security. This is a perfect opportunity to remind the Turkish chief that we have been reliable allies for decades and his dalliance with the Kremlin has proved at least counterproductive, if not catastrophic.

Frederic C. Hof, distinguished fellow and former director of the Rafik Hariri Center and a former US special envoy to Syria:

“The reported killing of Turkish soldiers by hostile aircraft punctuates an ongoing ceasefire violation by the Assad regime and Russia in northwestern Syria. Indeed, these needless, uncalled for deaths of uniformed Turks is dwarfed by a humanitarian catastrophe brought about by deliberate regime and Russian air assaults on civilian hospitals and schools. 

“Regime and Russian war crimes are the principal causes of the unspeakable civilian suffering taking place in northwestern Syria. Sadly, and quite gratuitously, official US statements to the effect that United States has no plan or intent to strike militarily in northwestern Syria—either to protect innocent civilians or a NATO ally—have promoted a sense of absolute impunity among adversaries who have no sense of decency and no known limits when it comes to mass civilian homicide or targeting US allies. These statements accomplish nothing beyond making US diplomacy aimed at saving lives and supporting an ally impotent and useless. They are uncalled for and profoundly damaging. 

“Close and immediate political-military consultations between Ankara and Washington are a must. If Turkey decides to respond to this unprovoked assault by clearing Assad’s forces and his Iranian auxiliaries from much or all of northwestern Syria, the United States should be prepared to offer combat air support if Turkish forces come under air assault from any quarter. 

“Several weeks ago, US President Donald J. Trump ended a forty-year Iranian sense of escalatory dominance over the United States by taking out Major General Qasem Soleimani. Now may be the time to end Assad regime and Russian reliance on escalatory dominance in Syria. There should be no surprises. Russia should be warned that US combat aviation intervention may be imminent absent an immediate, enforced ceasefire. Such a warning might not have been necessary, had Washington not signaled indifference. But now it is mandatory. Nothing that happens in Syria stays there. Perceptions of US weakness and indifference in Syria threaten, as they have previously, to unleash a contagion of instability far beyond the killing fields of Syria’s Idlib province.”

Nabeel Khoury, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

“For weeks now, Turkish president Erdoğan has been railing against Damascus. His bravado was not justified by the balance of power on the ground. Assad’s forces alone would be no match for Erdoğan’s—but Assad is not alone. Putting aside Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, Russian forces control the skies and Putin has not given the green light for a Turkish intervention in Idlib.  

The Sochi Agreement, which Erdoğan willingly signed in 2019, allows Turkey to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria, primarily east of the Euphrates but not to stop the Russian/Syrian forces’ intention of subduing Idlib. Nor has Putin completely forgiven the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian jet in 2015. Having burned his bridges with NATO, and with Donald Trump lacking any incentive to come to his defense, Erdoğan has put Turkey in this position and must deal with the consequences. None of these tensions is over anyone’s moral obligation to save the civilians of Idlib; on this count all parties are guilty. As a power play, this will not end well for Turkey.”

Mark N. Katz, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council:

“With increasingly deadly clashes between Turkish forces in Syria on the one hand and Russian-backed Syrian forces—or even Russian forces themselves—on the other, the ability of Putin and Erdoğan to continue to be able to “work out their differences” comes more into question. While Russia and Russian-backed forces might be able to win their battles with Turkish forces, this will come at the cost of Russia’s overall relationship with Turkey. It is highly doubtful that NATO will be willing to defend Turkish forces inside Syria. But what is happening now in Syria may lead to a greater understanding in Ankara that despite how much Putin and Erdoğan share anti-Western sentiments, Moscow is not going to accommodate Turkish interests in Syria.”

Ambassador Michel Duclos, nonresident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

“European leaders are aware of the risk of a dangerous escalation between Turkey, and Russia and Damascus. But their main concern lies in the threat articulated by Erdoğan to let refugees from Syria and Turkey into Europe. On this very last point, they anxiously wonder if the Turkish president is bluffing or not.

“Two elements do not point to a reassuring answer. First, Putin has been successful in making Erdoğan somewhat dependent on Moscow. On one hand, only Russia can provide a solution to Turkey being trapped in Syria; on the other hand, because of the S400 missile system deal, Erdoğan has distanced himself from his natural allies. Second, the Turkish leadership has been criticizing Europe for several years, blaming Europe and the United States for many of the challenges Turkey faces. Erdoğan will have the temptation to downplay Russian role in the events in Idlib and put all the blame on Damascus of course, but also on Europe for inaction. That maybe, in terms on public posturing, the only way forward for the Turkish president.

“In order to avoid such a situation, European leaders should not repeat the mistake they made after the aborted coup in the summer of 2016. This time, they should show empathy and solidarity with Turkey, whatever they think about Erdoğan. The US government has probably more options, especially in the realm of military assistance—air support for instance. At the very least, Europe should give Erdoğan some diplomatic and political space to break his fatal “one to one” with Putin. The Europeans should stop being complacent as far as Russian responsibilities are concerned Erdoğan especially now that Putin has rebuffed French and German proposal to hold a quadripartite summit (France, Germany, Russia, Turkey). Paris and Berlin should enter a deep discussion with the Turkish leadership on how they can help in terms of humanitarian, economic, and diplomatic support—not excluding consultations, through NATO or not, on the military and security dimension.”

Stephen Grand, nonresident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East:

“This moment calls for delicate US diplomacy to support our NATO ally Turkey, while trying to find ways to de-escalate the conflict. It should also remind us of the horrific humanitarian tragedy playing out right now in Idlib province and the urgent need for the international community to do more to save the civilization population there from the twin dangers of starvation and hypothermia.

“At the same time, US policymakers should step back and ask the larger question of, “How did we get here?” Not far from Europe’s borders, a highly volatile geopolitical conflict is playing out between Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the Assad regime of Syria, and we have few levers left to influence that conflict, prevent a humanitarian tragedy and potentially further refugee flows into Europe, or halt ISIS, al Qaeda, and other extremist groups from regaining influence. How could we have let this happen? It is a long story which spans two administrations, but the clear takeaway for policymakers should be that where the United States abdicates leadership, it creates a vacuum which more malign actors are all too willing to fill, with the end result often being instability and chaos.”

Mark Simakovsky, senior fellow in the Eurasia Center:

“Turkey has been dancing with the Russia snake for months, and it has now found itself bitten. The airstrike on Turkish forces is a direct result of a growing tension in Syria between Russia, Syria, and Turkey, with Syria growing increasingly confident it can leverage Russian support to extinguish once and for all the last vestige of opposition in Idlib. Turkey stands in the way and Syria believes that with Russian support it can also extinguish the Turkish obstacle to its plans in Syria. Turkey feels increasingly desperate that the situation in Idlib is spiraling away from its control yet knows it cannot take on Russia militarily and is hesitant to enter into wider conflict with Syrian backed forces.

“Russia stands over all of this and is playing all sides off each other, leveraging pressure on Erdoğan and restraining or unleashing Assad when it suits Russian interests. The removal of US forces from a majority of Syria has helped facilitate this chaos, as Syrian and Russian forces have been able to consolidate their military forces and attention away from Kurdish controlled territory to finally extinguish the Idlib pocket, which is creating another humanitarian disaster in Syria. All while the United States stands relatively on the sidelines hesitant to support Turkey or push back against Russian aggression.” 

David A. Wemer is associate director, editorial at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.

Further reading:

Related Experts: William F. Wechsler, Defne Arslan, Frederic C. Hof, Nabeel Khoury, Mark N. Katz, Michel Duclos, Stephen Grand, and Mark D. Simakovsky

Image: A general view of vehicles carrying belongings of internally displaced Syrians from western Aleppo countryside, in Hazano near Idlib, Syria, February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo