Members of the Turkish-backed "Syrian National Army" ride in an armored personnel carrier in the town of Sarmin, southeast of the city of Idlib, 24/2/2020 (AFP)
AMMAN — On Sunday, March 1, Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar announced that his country was launching “Operation Spring Shield” in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, adding that Turkey had already killed over 2,200 “Syrian regime soldiers.”
The latest military operation comes after weeks of a steadily escalating standoff between Turkey and its allied Syrian factions on one side, and advancing Syrian government forces and its allied militias on the other. The latter’s advance has pushed about a million Syrians towards the Turkish border since mid-December.
The impasse between the two sides was finally broken on Thursday, February 27, when an airstrike killed 34 Turkish soldiers, in response to Turkish-backed forces taking the city of Saraqeb earlier in the day. Saraqeb lies at the intersection of the M4 and M5, two vitally important highways that link Aleppo-Latakia and Aleppo-Damascus, respectively.
Turkey immediately retaliated, targeting government forces and their allied militias, in addition to Syrian artillery and missile defense systems. Turkish forces have destroyed “a drone, eight helicopters, 103 tanks, tens of howitzers and three air defense systems,” Akar said on Sunday.
Turkish Ministry of Defense footage of Turkish aircraft striking Syrian government positions, 29/02/2020
Since Akar’s statement, conditions on the ground have only escalated further, with Syrian government forces downing a Turkish Anka-S drone, while Turkish F-16s downed two Syrian SU-24 jets on Sunday.
Though Damascus has imposed a nominal no-fly zone in northwest Syria, Syrian government forces seemed unable to stop Turkish aircraft from carrying out airstrikes. With no other options, Syrian soldiers were seen burning tires in western Aleppo province to hide from Turkish planes and drones under the cover of the dense, black smoke that billowed from the burning rubber.
Syrian military sources told Syria Direct that government forces retook the entire city of Saraqeb; however, those reports remain unverified. At the same time, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkish-backed factions have captured 31 areas in Idlib and Hama provinces since Thursday.
Where is Russia?
Russia has been conspicuously absent during Turkey’s offensive in Idlib, leaving its client-state to fend for itself in the northwest province. Russian jets—which have patrolled Idlib’s skies almost daily since April—have not conducted a bombing in the province since Thursday night.
Both Turkey and Russia seem unwilling to risk a confrontation in Syria. On Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan urged Russian forces to “get out of the way” of Turkish forces and is slated to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 5 to discuss Idlib.
“For Russia, relations with Turkey are more important than Syria,” Aydin Sezer, an independent researcher based in Ankara, told Syria Direct. “There is a high level of interdependence between Turkey and Russia; neither of them can risk deteriorating relations,” he added.
It remains unclear to what extent Moscow is willing to tolerate Turkey’s military actions against its ally in Damascus, but as of the time of publishing, it has not acted to prevent any Turkish advances in northwest Syria.
In what seems to be an indication that Ankara is also looking to limit the possibility of confrontation with Moscow, Turkey accused the Syrian government of carrying out the airstrike on Thursday—even though there is credible evidence that Russian planes carried out the strike.
Without Russian backing, Syrian government forces are struggling to compete with Turkish-backed Syrian factions, who enjoy the support of the much more capable Turkish air force. The aging Syrian air force has a limited capacity to operate at night, leaving them unable to defend themselves if the Turkish air force decides to conduct any raids after sunset.
Besides the economic and political cost of a confrontation between Russia and Turkey—which would be “high,” according to Sezer—Russia is poorly positioned for any military confrontation with Turkey.
Russia has relatively low numbers of soldiers deployed in Syria, around 5,000 according to the 2020 Military Balance annual report, and has largely relied on its air power to assist Syrian government forces. Given the geographical separation between Russia and Syria, Russia would be hard-pressed to transfer any significant amount of soldiers to Syria.
Soldiers or any military equipment that needs to be transferred by sea would have to pass through the Bosphorus strait, which is controlled by Turkey. However, on Friday, amid Turkish shelling of Syrian government positions, two Russian warships passed through the strait unhindered, presumably heading towards Syria.
Where is the West?
On February 14, James Jeffrey, the US special envoy to Syria, expressed the US and NATO support for Turkish forces “right to defend themselves” in Idlib. However, it is still unclear to what degree either the US or NATO is willing to assist Turkey in its Operation Spring Shield.
Turkey requested two Patriot missile battery detachments on its southern border, but the US has declined to answer its request, only stating that it would allow European countries to transfer their Patriot missile systems to Turkey if they should decide to do so.
In an attempt to ratchet up the pressure on the EU and NATO countries, Erdogan “opened the floodgates” for Syrian refugees living in Turkey, providing transportation for them to the Greek land border. Turkey reported that over 76,000 people had left Turkey headed towards Greece; however, the UN estimates the number to be around 13,000.
Falsely promised free passage by Turkish authorities, thousands of people have been stranded in the no-man’s land between Turkey and Greece, prevented from entering Greece by border police and from returning by the Turkish army. Humanitarian conditions are poor and Greek border police have fired tear gas to quell the growing anger among the thousands who have gathered in search of better living conditions.
It remains to be seen what, if any, western support will materialize for Turkey’s Operation Spring Shield. On Sunday night, the High Representative of the EU, Josep Borell, called for a ceasefire in Syria and re-emphasized that there is “only a political solution to the crisis,” but gave no indication of further support for Turkey’s actions in Idlib.
This article reflects minor changes made on 3/3/2020 at 11:42 am.