Are Turkey and Syria Close to Starting a War?

 In China, GDI, Defense, Air, France

On February 11, a Syrian Air Force Mi-17 heli­copter trans­port heli­copter was flying high on a bomb­ing three miles south of Idlib city when team oper­at­ing man-portable air defense system opened fire. The mis­sile arced upward into the over­cast sky and struck the heli­copter, which erupt­ed in flames and spun down to the Earth before dis­in­te­grat­ing entire­ly as you can see in this video.

Another video depicts the mis­sile launch from the ground. Amongst the rebel fight­ers observ­ing the attack can be seen a sol­dier wear­ing a helmet and body armor of a Turkish Land Forces sol­dier.

It’s not clear whether the mis­sile that downed the Mi-17 was a Syria-sourced Strela or Igla mis­sile, or a Stinger mis­sile of Turkish origin. But the shoot down was per­ceived as merely the most dra­mat­ic Turkish retal­i­a­tion in a series of esca­lat­ing, deadly clash­es as Turkish ground forces attempt to block the Syrian gov­ern­ment from wiping out the last major rebel strong­hold in Syria’s Idlib province. 

The gov­ern­ment advance into Idlib has already dis­placed over eight hun­dred thou­sand refugees to makeshift shel­ters, where chil­dren are report­ed­ly dying from expo­sure to freez­ing weath­er.

Over the last eight years, Ankara has been both sym­pa­thet­ic to anti-Assad rebels and dis­pleased by the influx of refugees pro­duced by Syria’s long and bloody civil war. In 2018, it struck a cease­fire deal with Moscow and Damascus in which rebels were accord­ed a de facto “safe zone” in Idlib province, to be mon­i­tored with over a dozen obser­va­tion posts estab­lished by the Turkish mil­i­tary. 

During that time, Turkey’s rela­tions with Russia warmed con­sid­er­ably even though it was obvi­ous that Damascus and Moscow would move to crush the rebels in Idlib once they had mopped up resis­tance in other parts of Syria. 

After a rel­a­tive lull in fight­ing in 2018, the inevitable offen­sive began in 2019. Assad’s back­ers argue the rebels are ter­ror­ists unpro­tect­ed by a cease­fire, as the largest rebel groups, Hayat-Tahrir-al-Sham (HTS, or “Levant Liberaiton Committee”) was formed from a merger of the Al Qaeda al-Nusra group in Syria and sev­er­al less rad­i­cal fac­tions.

Turkey had already begun arming the rebels with anti-tank guided mis­siles — sophis­ti­cat­ed weapons which can be used to ambush armored vehi­cles from miles away. Back in 2013, the United States began sup­ply­ing TOW mis­siles to Syrian rebels which result­ed in the destruc­tion of hun­dreds of tanks and armored vehi­cles. But after the United States cut of sup­port, rebel ATGM attacks petered off until the Turkish resup­ply.

Jakub Janovsky, who has main­tained a video archive doc­u­ment­ing the Syrian Civil War for years, posted sta­tis­tics show­ing visu­al­ly con­firmed ATGM attacks surged from a low of sixty-three in 2018 to 162 in 2019 — and already fifty-three in just the first five weeks of 2020.

Finally, the Syrian Arab Army cap­tured Maarat al-Numan in January 2020, allow­ing gov­ern­ment forces to advance up the M5 high­way towards the rebel-held city of Saraqeb.

An ear­li­er arti­cle describes a series of clash­es that fol­lowed on February 3 as Syrian artillery killed eight Turkish mil­i­tary and civil­ian sup­port per­son­nel, result­ing in heavy retal­ia­to­ry strikes by the Turkish artillery that killed at least thir­teen Syrian gov­ern­ment sol­diers.

Turkey’s pres­i­dent Recep Erdogan then threat­ened that Turkey would forcibly expel Syrian gov­ern­ment forces that had advanced beyond the line demar­cat­ed by the obser­va­tion posts if they didn’t with­draw by the end of February.

On February 6 Saraqeb fell to the Syrian gov­ern­ment, mean­ing that a direct supply line along M5 between Damascus and gov­ern­ment-held Aleppo is close to being estab­lished if it hasn’t already.

Since then, reports indi­cate the Turkish Army has moved more aggres­sive­ly to shield the rebels and effec­tive­ly create a narrow cor­ri­dor in which rebel forces are under pro­tec­tion. That move­ment appears to include hun­dreds of armored vehi­cles enter­ing Idlib province. A map posted by the analy­sis web­site T‑Intelligence depicts an appar­ent ‘secu­ri­ty belt’ of Turkish for­ti­fi­ca­tions in Taftanaz (estab­lished Feb. 6), Idlib City (Feb.7) and al-Mastumah (Feb. 8).

The Syrian Arab Army respond­ed with deadly force on February 10, blast­ing the new Turkish out­post at Taftanaz Airbase (eight miles north of Saraqeb) with artillery, killing five Turkish sol­diers and four Syrian rebels. Photos attrib­uted to the strike depict an incin­er­at­ed M60T Sabra tank on a trans­porter and destroyed supply vehi­cles.

In response, the Turkish Army launched a new round of retal­ia­to­ry strikes which Ankara claims struck 115 Syrian posi­tions and “neu­tral­ized” one hun­dred Syrian per­son­nel, three tanks, a heli­copter and two artillery sys­tems, though these losses haven’t been con­firmed. A video shows a Turkish T‑122 Sakarya mul­ti­ple rocket-launch­er system (MRLS) with twenty launch tubes unload­ing a sus­tained salvo at Syrian gov­ern­ment forces in Saraqeb.

The ques­tion looms: how far is Turkey will­ing to go to sup­port the Idlib rebels? And to what extent will that pos­si­bil­i­ty deter Damascus from con­sol­i­dat­ing its vic­to­ry? 

While Turkish artillery has ample deadly fire­pow­er to sup­port rebel forces and retal­i­ate against attacks, halt­ing the momen­tum of Assad’s forces would likely require direct inter­ven­tion of infantry and armor that can actu­al­ly defend ground.

Turkey appears to have massed such forces in the the­ater and could likely pre­vail in the short term con­fronta­tion. But defend­ing Idlib indef­i­nite­ly would surely be a quag­mire with con­tin­u­al losses of troops and equip­ment. That’s already true of other ter­ri­to­ries Turkey has occu­pied in Syria in its cam­paign against Syrian Kurdish fight­ers. For exam­ple, on February 10 a sui­cide bomb­ing in the Turkish-occu­pied zone, for exam­ple, a car bomb in Afrina (a for­mer­ly Kurdish-held town occu­pied by Turkish-backed fight­ers) killing four.

Furthermore, Russian air defens­es may pre­vent the Turkish mil­i­tary from call­ing on air sup­port. While Turkey claimed F‑16s jets were involved in the first series of retal­ia­to­ry strikes ear­li­er in February, evi­dence has yet to emerge of their involve­ment.

Turkey’s cur­rent actions in Idlib are occur­ring with­out sup­port from NATO or the U.S. anti-ISIS coali­tion, though Washington has thrown its rhetor­i­cal approval behind Ankara. Simultaneously, Ankara and Moscow have exchanged accu­sa­tions amidst attempts to nego­ti­ate a res­o­lu­tion to the cur­rent fight­ing. However, Moscow might feel com­fort­able ins call­ing Turkey’s bluff and not exert­ing much pres­sure on Syria to ramp down its offen­sive in Idlib province (and its atten­dant human­i­tar­i­an cat­a­stro­phe) as Turkey remains com­mit­ted to pur­chas­ing S‑400 air defense sys­tems from Russia.

For now, Turkish and Syrian ground forces appear bound on a col­li­sion course, though what endgame Ankara sees in the con­flict remains unclear.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in con­flict res­o­lu­tion from Georgetown University and served as a uni­ver­si­ty instruc­tor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in edu­ca­tion, edit­ing, and refugee reset­tle­ment in France and the United States. He cur­rent­ly writes on secu­ri­ty and mil­i­tary his­to­ry for War Is Boring.

Image: Reuters.

Source: National Interest

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