Russia vs. Turkey in Syria?

A confrontation in Idlib becomes a real possibility.

Israel’s daily Haaretz reported on March 3, 2020, that “Escalating military action by Russia and Turkey in Idlib risks a direct confrontation between the two major foreign powers in Syria’s war, days ahead of a summit of their leaders to hammer out a deal to halt the fighting.” The risk of a Russian-Turkish confrontation has become an acute possibility, and if such hostilities were to commence, Turkey, as a NATO member, could invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, which calls for mutual defense. Article 5 stipulates collective defense among NATO members. It means that if one member of NATO is attacked, it is considered an attack on all members.

Syrian-Turkish hostilities have already begun. Syrian and Russian forces carried out airstrikes last Thursday, which killed 33 Turkish soldiers and wounded many more. Turkey reacted by vowing to escalate its military action against the Assad regime troops in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province.

Syria’s dictator and butcher, Bashar Assad, and his Russian and Iranian protectors, have had a great deal of success in recapturing large swaths of territory in Syria. That success is due primarily to the aerial bombing campaigns that featured Russian jetfighters and bombers arrayed against rebels and Sunni-Muslim civilians unable to protect themselves from aerial attacks. 

Prior to the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015, the Assad regime suffered from troops and officers defecting to the rebels side. The Assad regime lost ground to the rebels, and were it not for the Russian airpower, it is doubtful that the Assad regime would have survived. In addition, Assad imported into Syria the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Al-Quds force and its subordinated Shiite militias, especially the Lebanese terrorist Hezbollah as well as Afghani, Iraqi, Pakistani and Yemeni Shiite militias that came to his rescue.

The result of the indiscriminate bombing by the Assad regime and their Russian ally, has been grim for the Syrian civilian population, especially for Sunni-Arabs. More than 585,000 have been killed (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights), and millions fled to neighboring states and Europe. Millions of additional Syrians were internally displaced. In his effort to recapture the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, Assad is encountering something new, an obstacle previously absent: Turkish potential air power, and anti-aircraft missiles. Ankara is using its military to support the rebels. Turkish military specialists are using shoulder-carried anti-air missiles. The previously unopposed Syrian and Russian planes may now encounter a challenge.

Turkey retaliated against the Assad forces killing 33 of its soldiers and the wounding of an additional 33 in the Idlib province by destroying Syrian helicopters, tanks, air-defense systems, and other hardware, as well as killing more than 309 Syrian troops (as reported by the Middle East Monitor 2/28/2020). Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, rejected Russia’s contention that Turkey failed to disclose its troops location. Fahrettin Altun, a spokesman for Turkey’s President Erdogan, stated that Turkey’s retaliatory strikes against the Assad regime forces are not over. Erdogan is committed to avenge the killing of the Turkish soldiers. 

The Syrian regime’s offensive in the Idlib province has caused another major humanitarian crisis. Turkey has deployed thousands of troops in Syria to prevent the Assad regime from defeating the Islamist rebel groups Erdogan is protecting. The move by Ankara also intends to prevent additional flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey. Erdogan has demanded that Assad forces retreat to previous lines. He threatened to escalate his military attacks if the Assad regime continues with its push to capture the entire Idlib province and thus consolidate the regime’s control over virtually all of Syria.

The Idlib province contains between 3-4 million residents, who now depend on Turkey’s ability to deter further advances by the Assad forces. Ankara is worried that an influx of more refugees from Syria into Turkey would be politically destabilizing. This is one of the reasons Turkey has reinforced its troop presence in Idlib and expanded its observation posts.

Moscow, for its part, has accused Turkey of breaching the 2018 cease-fire agreement reached in Sochi. Russia and Assad’s Syria have accused Ankara of protecting terrorist organizations.  While it is true that Idlib province has become a base for extremist Islamist terrorist groups, including some with ties to Al-Qaeda, the indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians in Idlib by Syrian and Russian forces has turned the entire civilian population into so called “extremists.”

The Sochi agreement allowed the Turkish army to deploy observation posts to prevent attacks by Islamist militias in the region. It also called on the Assad regime to stay put, and not attack the province. Yet, Assad has used his Iranian Al-Quds forces controlling the terrorist Lebanese Hezbollah and Shiite militias from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen, to operate in the region. Turkey has contended that it is seeking to prevent a bloodbath in Idlib. As most people holed up in Idlib are Sunni-Muslims, Erdogan fancies himself as their protector against the Assad Alawite (Alawites are a splinter of Shiite Islam) regime, and their infidel Russian allies.

Since the end of the 17th century, when Romanov Russia’s Tsar Peter the Great, launched his imperial quest to reach the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea through Turkey, Russia and the Ottoman Turkey have been in perpetual conflict. Throughout the 19th century, Tsarist Russia encroached upon the Ottoman Turkish empire. The Crimean War (1853-1856), where British and French arms slowed the Russian onslaught on the Turks, ultimately prevented Russia from dismantling the Ottoman Turkish empire and reaching the Mediterranean Sea. The Assad regime has fulfilled Russia’s age-old dream of having a base on the warm waters of the Mediterranean - the port of Tartus.

The situation in Idlib province could easily get out of hand and turn into a major confrontation between Russia and Turkey - a NATO ally. Although Erdogan and Russia’s President Putin have met several times to settle things in Syria, and are scheduled to meet this week, all previous talks have failed to resolve the issues that concern both sides. An incidental downing of a Russian aircraft, or Turkish retaliation, could drag the U.S. into action should Turkey invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter. While it is unlikely that the Trump administration would consider war with Russia, it is not inconceivable that the U.S. might impose a “no fly zone” in the Idlib province as well as in the Kurdish controlled areas in northeastern Syria. With Russia committed to preserving the Assad regime, and the U.S. and its NATO allies in Europe compelled to abide by the NATO charter, a dangerous situation is evolving in the Idlib province.