The Syrian government's offensive against rebel forces in Idlib province carries significant risks for Turkey and Russia. Ankara supports many of the rebel groups in Idlib and wants to prevent another flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey. Moscow backs the Syrian offensive. Each wants to avoid a direct confrontation while deterring the other's intervention. The stakes are high. And standing by is the United States, ready to exploit the rift to try to bring Turkey back into its fold.
Situated in northwestern Syria, Idlib province is the last major rebel-held area that isn't directly protected by Turkey or the United States. Throughout the Syrian civil war, the province has become a place where Syrian rebels and refugees retreated as other resistance pockets were overrun by Syrian government forces. Now, however, the Syrian government, in part in reaction to a burgeoning economic crisis behind the front lines, is driving quickly to retake as much of the province as possible, having recently captured the key M5 highway that links Damascus to the city of Aleppo.
Breaking Through Old Russian-Turkish Agreements
So far, Turkey's responses have not stemmed from these assaults. They have set up new military observation points to deter Syrian advances (on top of the original 12 agreed to between Russia and Turkey in September 2018), but Syrian forces have simply gone around them. They have deployed additional hardware and troops to the province, but these forces have largely stayed away from the front lines, and Syria, with Russian and Iranian support, has continued its push toward Idlib city. As its previous attempts to deter Syria have failed, Ankara is now trying to find a way to limit the damage the offensives can do to Turkey's interests — and is finding few answers it likes.
To that end, Turkey has now officially requested the United States deploy Patriot missile batteries to help discourage Russian airpower near Idlib — a clear ploy to warn the Russians that Ankara will try to draw in the Americans should the offensives continue. Turkey has also played up rebel attacks and Turkish support for them in state media, and, on Feb. 20, announced the deaths of two Turkish soldiers in what Ankara claimed were Syrian airstrikes. Though this kind of rhetoric is escalating, Turkey is also keeping doors to the Russians open: It continued to carry out patrols with Russia in the northeast of the country and continues to wrangle with Moscow over the terms of a March 5 summit designed to jumpstart de-confliction.
Before such deconfliction can take effect, Syria, with Russian and Iranian aid, is gambling that it can maximize government advances in Idlib province, and push Turkey and the rebels much closer to the Turkish border. Even as Turkey has built up its forces, Russia has continued to fly air sorties to support Syrian advances and suppress Turkish-supported rebel counterattacks, while Moscow has been offering Turkey new terms for Idlib that seem to indicate that Ankara will have a much-reduced role there.
The United States — Turkey's NATO ally so recently on the outs with Ankara over its invasion of northeastern Syria in October 2019 (as well as Turkey's purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system) — is for now deploying its diplomats to exploit tensions between Russia and Turkey, with U.S. State Department officials from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to James Jeffries, the special representative for Syria engagement, providing rhetorical support to Turkey over its Idlib policy. That appears to have born some fruit in the form of the request for the Patriot missiles — an indication that Turkey wants closer coordination with Washington over the future of at least northwest Syria. But America's answer to that request is far from certain.
What Turkey, the United States, Syria and Russia do next will determine the outcome of the Idlib situation. But few signs right now seem to indicate Turkey will get what it needs to stop the Syrian offensive and preserve its influence in Idlib.
Turkey and Russia. The Turkey-Russia relationship is likely to deteriorate in the short term, but how far and how deep remains to be seen. Some compartmentalization of the fallout has already taken place, suggesting a limit in how far Turkey wants to go against Russia, even in Syria itself: Turkish and Russian troops began joint patrols again in the northeast on Feb. 17, even as fighting in Idlib took place. But such compartmentalization could become more and more difficult for both sides as time goes on.
For now, there is little to indicate that Ankara will get what it needs to stop the Russian-supported Syrian government's offensive in Idlib province and preserve its influence there.
Meanwhile, Turkey will try to slow the Syrian offensive without sparking a military crisis. But as Turkey signals it will send in troops to deter Syrian advances, Russia will try to signal that such troops are a weak deterrence by supporting further offensives. All such tit-for-tat exchanges could readily escalate into a more serious crisis between the two countries, as each side attempts to maintain some measure of leverage over the other. Even the S-400, which symbolized a new level of ties between Russia and Turkey, may at one point become a football used by the two.
Turkey and the United States. The U.S.-Turkey relationship is the next area to watch — specifically, how much the United States tries to use the Idlib situation as a way to reduce Russian influence in Turkey. The United States wants to minimize budding Russian-Turkish ties, especially in the military sphere, but how far it's willing to go in terms of providing tangible support to Turkey in that pursuit is unknown.
The United States is showing signs it will throw its diplomatic heft behind Turkey, but that is low risk since it's unlikely to spread to other parts of the U.S.-Russian relationship — like the tense U.S.-Russia situation in Syria's northeast. Moreover, Turkey will want the United States to show stronger measures than just diplomatic ones if it's about to start reducing ties with Moscow in favor of Washington. The Patriot missile system request is just one potential area where Washington might win favor in Ankara, in particular because the last time Turkey faced a crisis with Russia in 2015, the United States was not willing to provide the same system for Turkey's defense needs (a German unit eventually rotated into Turkey). The United States may also go with less public measures to support Turkey, including considering new defense deals, a notable change in their relationship after Russia's delivery of the S-400 left the future of U.S.-Turkish military relations uncertain.
Turkey and Europe. Finally, there is the Turkish-European relationship, and in particular Turkey's ties with France and Germany. Turkey is signaling that it wants diplomatic support against Russia, and potentially material support for another refugee flow, should Idlib worsen enough to see another Syrian exodus from the province. So far, it's unclear how far Paris and Berlin will go beyond words of support for the humanitarian situation — let alone if they would readily take part in another line of support for a new refugee wave from Syria, as they did in 2016. If France and Germany disappoint Turkey yet again, there remains the potential that Ankara repeats history and threatens to send refugees to Europe again.
Should the United States show more substantial support to Turkey beyond rhetoric, it would embolden Turkey to remain in Idlib. But if the United States doesn't follow through, Ankara will be faced with the tough choice of facing down Russian-supported Syrian offensives alone, something it's unlikely to be successful doing — leaving the future of Turkey's Syria strategy in need of a serious adjustment, and potentially presaging an unraveling of Turkey's influence in other parts of Syria.