Battle for Idlib (Syria): Escalation in the de-escalation zone

Syrian army advances on Idlib - and comes into conflict with the Turkish army. President Erdogan intensifies the threats. How can a direct confrontation be avoided?

Turkey is invading Syria.
Turkey is invading Syria.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatens Syria with war if the Syrian army continues to try to gain control of the Idlib province. He had recently issued an ultimatum: that the Syrian army would withdraw from the recently conquered territories by the end of February.

How could the conflict in northern Syria escalate in such a way? Looking back: Turkish troops have been in the Idlib province for years. In May 2017, Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed in a memorandum on a de-escalation zone and a ceasefire.

Turkey Reinforces Troops in Syria, Idlib.

Iran and Russia support the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey is arming and training groups militarily, which it describes as moderate. In fact, however, jihadists are among them. Under the 2017 agreement, Turkey was allowed to establish numerous military bases in Syria to monitor the ceasefire.

A contradiction that was never resolved

In the agreement of May 2017 as well as in the follow-up agreement of October 2019, Turkey and Russia agreed to preserve Syria's political unity and territorial integrity. Erdogan agreed with the memoranda that sooner or later Turkish military will have no place in Syria - a contradiction that has never been resolved and is now being powerfully exposed with the recent conflict.

According to the memorandums, it was never disputed that the Syrian Government should regain control of every square centimetre of the country and that it would be supported in this by the Russian Government. The war in Idlib never came to a standstill, so the de-escalation zone is not worthy of the name. Despite the agreements, the fighting continued.

Recently, the Syrian army, with the help of the Russian military, gained enormous terrain gains in the Idlib province. As Syrian units advanced, Turkish bases were encircled, isolated and cut off from supplies. Turkish soldiers were killed. As a result, the Turkish Government has sent some 5000 soldiers to Syria in recent days. Columns of several hundred tanks moved from Turkey towards Syria.

Erdogan threatens

In the event of further attacks on Turkish soldiers in Syria, Erdogan threatened retaliatory strikes even beyond the disputed Idlib region. 

What can Erdogan be offered to defuse the situation? The original goal of the Turkish intervention was to overthrow President Assad with the beginning of the "Arab Spring" in 2011. With the intervention of Russia and Iran in favour of the Assad government, this plan became unrealistic. 

⬜ The second major goal of the Turkish government is to curb the influence of the Kurds in northern Syria. 

Above all, it has its sights set on the Kurdish militia YPG, which the Turkish government classifies as a terrorist organisation. In fact, there has been military cooperation between the Syrian YPG and the Turkish PKK. 

⬜ The PKK is also a terrorist organisation according to the EU.

⬜ Since 2016, Turkish units have been openly fighting the YPG on Syrian territory. 

This has pushed the Kurdish militia YPG out of the northwest of the country and also forced many Kurdish civilians to flee to eastern Syria. 

Thousands kurds flee turkish airstrikes in Syria.
Thousands kurds flee turkish airstrikes in Syria.

The buffer zone on the border with Turkey in the north-east further limited the Kurds' military options. With various military interventions, Turkey was thus able to drive the Kurds in Syria to the east of the country.

Thousands kurds flee turkish airstrikes in Syria 2.

Extended buffer zone as a way out?

Presumably Erdogan wants to stick to this result and demand guarantees to prevent the influence of the Kurds in northern Syria from growing again. This could be a starting point for Russia and Turkey to look for a solution.

⬜ It would therefore be conceivable to extend the existing buffer zone.

In any case, Erdogan's recent massive intervention, including the threat of waging open war against Syria, has pushed up the price of renouncing violence. Another point that could possibly play a role in talks between the Russian and Turkish Governments as a bargaining chip is the Turkish Government's plan to settle at least one million Syrian refugees from Turkey in northern Syria.

But this project is not just a humanitarian approach. President Erdogan wants to change the demography in northern Syria at the expense of the Kurds. Most Syrian refugees in Turkey are Arabs.

⬜ Once settled, the Arabs are to reduce the influence of the Kurds in large numbers.

A Turkish delegation is currently negotiating with the Russian government on how to defuse the crisis. One thing is certain: neither Turkey nor Russia has any interest in a confrontation between the Russian and Turkish military on Syrian territory.