Just about the last thing the world wants to ponder while grappling with a burgeoning pandemic is the threat of a military conflict between Turkey and Russian forces in Syria, but that’s where we are.
In a statement Sunday, the Turkish Defense Ministry said it not only destroyed a trio of Bashar al-Assad’s air defense systems, but also shot down a pair of Syrian SU-24 warplanes.
For those not up to speed on this situation, below is the short version.
After convincing the Trump administration to acquiesce to his long-threatened operation to push US-backed Kurdish troops away from Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now focused on “stabilizing” (and I use that term very loosely) Syria’s Idlib, the last rebel holdout in the country’s nearly decade-old civil war.
Assad’s forces (backed, of course, by Russia and Hezbollah) are engaged in what amounts to a final assault on Idlib. Once the resistance there is eradicated, the war is over.
Erdogan has long backed opposition elements in Syria, but, along with the rest of the world, he was forced to accept the inevitability of Assad’s victory once the now deceased Qassem Soleimani convinced Vladimir Putin to intervene in the summer of 2015.
But that’s about all Erdogan was willing to accept.
Among things he wasn’t (and still isn’t) prepared to go along with are 1) any kind of situation where Syrian Kurds, emboldened by their success in winning more autonomy over the course of the war, establish a proto-state that could serve as a haven for the PKK, 2) another mass influx of refugees, this time fleeing from Idlib amid Assad’s final assault on the area.
Point 1 was “addressed” (if that’s the right word) in October, when Donald Trump let the Turkish army, backed by allied militias, massacre several hundred Kurds (and displace around 200,000 civilians) in the course of establishing a “buffer zone” in the northeast. Point 2 is what Erdogan is currently attempting to address, and he ran totally out of patience with it about three weeks ago.
Early last month, after a handful of Turkish soldiers were killed along the border, Turkey unleashed the F-16s, killing (or “neutralizing”, as Ankara put it) nearly three-dozen Syrian government soldiers.
Putin controls that airspace, but the Kremlin let it slide.
Assad claimed his forces were attempting to hit jihadist positions, and a Turkish convoy en route to resupply observation outposts just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ankara said the Russian Defense Ministry was fully aware of the convoy’s position. Russia denied that.
“It should be out of discussion to block us”, Erdogan said at the time, essentially imploring Moscow to avoid any kind of action that might curtail Turkey’s ability to respond in the event Assad “accidentally” killed any more Turks. “It is not possible for us to keep silent”, Erdogan added.
Fast forward two weeks, and Erdogan said he’d “made preparations [for] an operation in Idlib”. It’s “just a matter of time”, he remarked, in comments from Ankara.
The Kremlin (again) warned him against it. “If we’re talking about an operation against the legitimate authorities and the armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic, then that of course would be the worst option”, Dmitry Peskov said, in a conference call on February 19.
Erdogan chose that “worst option” this weekend, marking the culmination of hostilities, which have steadily escalated since Thursday, when an airstrike killed 33 Turkish soldiers. Turkey has killed scores of pro-Assad troops around Idlib and Aleppo since then, and rebel factions loyal to Turkey claimed to have re-taken at least a half-dozen towns in southern Idlib.
As noted on Friday, Turkish equities plunged as much as 10% at one point, as war jitters collided with the global risk-off trade catalyzed by the COVID-19 epidemic.
On Saturday, Erdogan essentially asked Putin to leave Syria or, at the least, let the Turkish military “do what’s necessary” to send a message to Assad.
Obviously, that’s not tenable. The idea of Assad’s battered army engaging in an outright war with the Turkish military is a laughable prospect, but as long as there are Russians in the area (and in the skies) Erdogan can’t get too aggressive.
“Three rounds of talks between Russia and Turkey failed to yield a ceasefire, but the Kremlin said on Saturday that Putin and Erdogan would discuss all aspects of the Syrian conflict in planned talks in Moscow”, Reuters notes, adding that there is “no set date but officials on both sides say the talks will be on March 5 or 6”.
Meanwhile, Erdogan has decided to simply open the floodgates and allow refugees fleeing Idlib to make their way to Europe.
Turkey is already “home” (an oxymoronic term to use for those forced to flee their own country) to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Ankara insists that hosting the estimated 1 million+ Syrians fleeing Idlib simply isn’t possible.
Erdogan on Saturday claimed 18,000 migrants have already left Turkey for Europe and said the total could reach as many as 30,000 this weekend. Here’s The New York Times with a snapshot of what’s unfolding since Erdogan “opened the doors” (as he put it):
With tear gas clouding the air, thousands of migrants trying to reach Europe clashed with riot police officers on the Greek border with Turkey on Saturday morning, signaling a new and potentially volatile phase in the migration crisis.
The scene at Kastanies, a normally quiet Greek border checkpoint into Turkey, rapidly became a tense confrontation with the potential to worsen as dozens of Greek security officers and soldiers fired canisters of tear gas. Riot police officers with batons, shields and masks confronted the migrants through the wire, yelling at them to stay back.
About 4,000 migrants of various nationalities were pressed against the Turkish side of the border.
The mini-exodus was live-streamed by Turkish state television in scenes reminiscent of the 2015 migrant crisis that Europe solved only with Turkey’s help. Syrians shared information, some joking about the Turkish facilitation, suggesting they should publish the telephone numbers of people smugglers, too.
In addition to the rather harrowing prospect of an “accident” that finds Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane (à la November 2015) or vice versa, it’s not unreasonable to at least mention that this setup (i.e., thousands of migrants fleeing across borders) could complicate efforts to combat the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic.
Syria clearly has no capacity to report cases and if you know anything about the situation on the ground in places like Idlib, you know that locals face far more immediate threats than a respiratory illness. That’s not to downplay the severity of the virus, it’s just to state the obvious: When you and your family are literally dodging bullets and fleeing around-the-clock air raids, you don’t have time to worry about the flu, no matter how deadly the strain.
Finally, I’d remind you that Syria’s ongoing civil war stands as one of the most heartbreaking human tragedies in recent history. The final push on Idlib is no exception.
Russia and the Assad regime do not care who they target in the effort to bring the war to an end. Until every last vestige of resistance is wiped out, the indiscriminate bombing of rebel-held areas is considered acceptable regardless of the collateral damage. The New York Times proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Russia deliberately targeted hospitals as part of the campaign, and Assad has used chemical weapons on multiple occasions.
Erdogan, meanwhile, backs the opposition, which in some cases entails supporting jihadists. Turkish-backed militias have themselves committed war crimes in the country on too many occasions to count, with one high-profile example being the roadside execution of Hevrin Khalaf in October.