There have been several clashes between Syrian and Turkish military forces in the last two weeks, as Syria attempts to retake Idlib province from rebel forces. Turkey has carved out a demilitarized zone in Idlib, which is supposed to be a safe zone for Syrian civilians. Their goal is to prevent a flood of refugees from crossing the Syrian border.
But Syria is ignoring the Moscow-negotiated cease-fire and driving hundreds of thousands of refugees toward Turkey, most of them in desperate straits.
The UN is warning of a humanitarian catastrophe as 700,000 Syrians are on the move with nowhere to go. But there are likely to be more refugees as Syria and Turkey have now come to blows, with President Erdogan promising to “punish” Syria for attacking Turkish positions in Idlib.
Analysts say the reignited Syrian crisis threatens to engulf Turkey and force Ankara to greatly expand its military mission inside the country. The winner, they say, could ultimately be Russia, as President Vladimir Putin may emerge as the only player powerful enough to prevent a full-blown war.
“Erdogan went into Syria for entirely selfish and cynical reasons, and now finds that it was a lot easier to go in than get out,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who tracks the region extensively.
Turkey originally went into Syria to fight Kurdish “terrorists” after Donald Trump’s withdrawal of most American forces in Syria. Taking even the token force of Americans off the board was clearly a mistake. It not only enabled Erdogan to act with impunity in Syria but also gave a green light to President Assad to up the brutality factor in trying to win the 9-year-old civil war.
Certainly, there are other factors that led to the current situation, so blaming Trump wouldn’t be entirely accurate. But neither can you hold the president blameless.
“We have dealt a resounding blow to the Syrian [regime]. They have been seriously punished, especially in Idlib, but this is not enough, there is more to come,” the Turkish president said Tuesday, according to the country’s Anadolu News Agency.
Turkish and Russian delegations met this week in Ankara in the hopes of reaching a new deal to halt the fighting. The Kremlin urged Ankara to cease all attacks in Idlib, though the strain between the two countries continues to grow as fighting continues.
What does Putin have to gain with the fighting?
“Turkey could get sucked into Syria far more, and that’s just [what] Russia wants,” he said. “If Russia can be the sole broker between Turkey and Syria in a low-intensity conflict, it only enhances Moscow’s power and allows it to keep Syria and Turkey under control. Simply put, Putin outplayed Erdogan.”
The problem, of course, is that once conflict starts, it sometimes escalates and gets out of control. Putin may be smiling now, but the prospect of Syria-Russia going against NATO member Turkey should make everyone nervous. Throw in the Hezbollah wild card, which could bring the Shia nations of Iran and Iraq into the fight, and you have the fine makings of a regional war in the Middle East.