Syrian Attacks Draw Turkey Deeper Into Syrian War
ISTANBUL — Syrian government attacks on Turkish positions in northwest Syria are driving Turkey deeper into the country’s civil war, prompting it to send reinforcements to the region and press for a Turkish-controlled military zone there.
Syrian troops killed eight Turkish soldiers and a civilian contractor last week and five more soldiers on Monday. Backed by Russian bombers, Syrian forces have encircled several Turkish observation posts in the northwestern province of Idlib — posts established by agreements aimed at reducing violence.
Turkey, which supports the Syrian rebels, has pushed back, pummeling the advancing Syrian units with artillery and killing dozens of Syrian troops and allied fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based war monitor. A Syrian helicopter was shot down on Tuesday, reportedly by rebel forces.
The surge in fighting, as the Syrian government tries to retake the country’s last rebel-held province, has created the largest displacement of people in the war’s nine-year history. About 700,000 people have fled their homes in Idlib since December, the United Nations said Tuesday. Many are living in tents near the Turkish border, and there have been recent reports of children freezing to death.
The crush at the border has unnerved Turkey, which has already taken in 3.5 million Syrian refugees. The Syrian offensive could push another three million civilians into Turkey, Turkish officials fear, with 10,000 armed militants among them, some linked to Al Qaeda.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the country can take no more and has threatened military action to stop the Syrian advance.
“No one has the right to put that burden on our shoulders,” he said in a speech in Ankara last week. “If the regime does not withdraw, Turkey will have to do it on its own.”
Since then, Turkey has massed 30,000 troops and armor at the Syrian border, and sent 5,000 reinforcements to bolster troops deployed in Idlib Province. Turkey established new positions on the approaches to Idlib City, home to some 700,000 people, setting up posts at an airfield at Taftanaz, east of the city, and in Al Mastumah, to the south.
The Turkish deployments have yet to stop the Syrian government advance — Syrian troops seized control of the strategic Damascus-Aleppo highway on Tuesday — but they appear to be an attempt to carve out a zone of control in Idlib before the Syrian government advances too close to its border, analysts said.
Burhanettin Duran, director of SETA, an influential pro-government research center, indicated that Turkey was preparing to ramp up its military posture and enforce a “safe zone” across at least part of Idlib.
“This marks a transition from holding observation posts to holding territory,” he wrote, in a column in the Daily Sabah newspaper. “Turkey intends to show Assad that he cannot seize control of Idlib and send millions of Syrian refugees across the border.”
Turkey has already established a so-called safe zone along its border in northeastern Syria, which it seized in October after the United States removed its forces there.
But Turkey’s options in the northwest are limited.
Russia controls the air there and without air support Turkey is in no position to push back Syrian forces, said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations.
So while Mr. Erdogan has talked tough, he has also sought accommodation where possible. He demanded that Syrian forces pull back to their previous positions but gave them until the end of the month to do so. And he has sought talks with Russia, the Syrian government’s main backer.
A Russian delegation arrived in Ankara, the Turkish capital, for talks on Sunday, and Mr. Erdogan spoke with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, on Wednesday. James Jeffrey, the American envoy to Syria, is also in Ankara, voicing support for Turkey and condemning Russia and the Syrian government.
Russia and Turkey have backed opposing sides in Syria since the war began, but the two leaders have developed a close, personal dialogue. That channel has produced agreements between Russia, Turkey and Iran to de-escalate violence in several pockets, including 2018 accord that led to the creation of the Turkish military observation posts in Idlib, which are now under attack by the Syrian government.
Turkey is demanding a permanent cease-fire and a return to the original lines of the observation posts although, according to officials and others familiar with the talks, it would settle for a smaller Turkish-controlled safe zone along its border.
Turkey wants the Syrian rebel forces it supports to retain control of a sizable territory in Syria to strengthen its hand in negotiations for a new constitution and a political settlement, said Salih Yilmaz, head of the Russian Studies Institute in Ankara. Russia has demanded the immediate disarmament of those rebels, but Turkey says any disarmament should come only after a political settlement.
Mr. Erdogan’s relationship with Mr. Putin, despite their dialogue, has become increasingly fraught.
Mr. Erdogan recently purchased the Russian S400 missile system, declaring the relationship with Russia “strategic,” a move that cost him dearly in relations with the United States. But Turkey intervened recently in Libya on the opposite side from Russia, and signed a contract to supply military drones to Ukraine, which is fighting Russian-backed separatists.
Ms. Aydintasbas said Turkey’s faith in Russian help may be misplaced. Noting that the last cease-fire negotiated with Russia lasted three days, she said engaging with Russia was likely to gain Turkey only a delay in an eventual Russian-Syrian victory.
Within hours of the Syrian government seizing control of the Damascus-Aleppo highway on Tuesday, Mr. Putin held a telephone call with Mr. Erdogan and reaffirmed the importance of implementing the original de-escalation agreement, Mr. Putin’s spokesman said.
But even if Turkey gets what it wants, it may be drawn even deeper into a quagmire.
A safe zone in northwestern Syria would give Turkey a narrow stretch of territory with much of the displaced population of Idlib, said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“So then you have a Syrian version of the Gaza Strip — the bulk of the population in an area not much bigger than Rhode Island,” he said.
The safe zone Turkey already controls in the northeast, a 100-mile strip along Turkey’s border, is proving costly to maintain.
The zone, intended as a buffer against Kurdish forces, which Turkey considers a threat, has been plagued by car bomb attacks and I.E.D. strikes. Bomb blasts have occurred at least monthly in other areas under Turkish control, including one on Tuesday in the district of Afrin, which killed four civilians.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry has insisted that Turkey will hold its ground, and will not pull out its observation posts even though they are surrounded. And Mr. Erdogan warned Wednesday that Turkey would retaliate against further aggression.
“In the event of the tiniest harm to our soldiers at observation posts or anywhere else, starting today,” he said, “I declare that we will hit regime forces in Idlib and anywhere else.”