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Why Turkey launched a major offensive against the Syrian government

Ankara has escalated its response after Syrian regime attacks on Turkish forces in Idlib.

A Turkish military convoy is seen parked near the town of Batabu on the highway linking Idlib to the Syrian Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, on March 2, 2020.
Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Turkey has launched a military offensive against the Syrian regime in direct retaliation for the killing of about three dozen of its troops last week in Idlib, Syria.

As part of Operation Spring Shield, as the offensive is being called, Turkey has already shot down two Syrian warplanes and killed more than 2,000 Syrian regime troops, according to Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar. Akar also said Turkey destroyed 103 tanks, 72 artillery and rocket launchers, and three air defense systems.

Turkey escalated its operations in northeastern Syria last week amid the Syrian regime’s push to reclaim the last rebel-held territory in the country, in Idlib province.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, is trying to retake the territory through a brutal military offensive that has, according to United Nations estimates, already displaced about 1 million people since December 1, 2019.

About 3 million people live in Idlib province, and about half of them came from other parts of Syria after being displaced by fighting over the nine-year civil war. Those civilians, many of them women and children, are now being pushed into an ever-shrinking area close to the border with Turkey in dangerous and freezing conditions that are increasing the humanitarian toll.

Turkey, which backs the anti-regime rebels, has sealed its borders to additional refugees. The country already hosts nearly 4 million refugees, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is under increasing domestic pressure to prevent more people from crossing the border.

This has left millions of Syrians essentially trapped in Idlib — unable to find refuge in Turkey and being closed in by Assad who, with Russia’s help, is raining down bombs and recapturing territory.

And now, Turkey and the Syrian regime are directly attacking each other in Idlib, making the crisis even more precarious.

Erdogan had threatened action. Now he’s following through.

Erdoğan had intensified his rhetoric against the Syrian regime as Assad advanced into Idlib, threatening to intervene if Assad did not curtail his offensive. He has also tried to reengage Moscow to revive the outlines of a 2018 ceasefire deal in Idlib that has since imploded.

Then, last week, Syrian regime airstrikes killed at least 36 Turkish soldiers and wounded more than two dozen more in a dangerous escalation between the two sides. The strike put pressure on Erdoğan to respond, and increased the chances of a confrontation between Turkey — a US NATO ally — and Assad’s benefactor, Russia.

Turkey has insisted that its “only aim is to stop the Syrian regime’s massacres” as well as “radical groups [and] the displacement of civilians,” Akar, the Turkish defense minister, said Sunday. He also said Turkey had no “desire or intention to clash with Russia.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan have confirmed that they will meet for talks this week, on March 5, to try to find a solution to the crisis in Idlib. This may be a chance for both Ankara and Moscow to pause the fighting and avert some of the humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib. But it will likely only be a temporary fix.

What Turkey really wants — and what it means for Idlib

Syria’s attack on Turkish forces last week drove it to respond with force. But this is less about taking down Assad and more about Erdoğan’s domestic political considerations, experts told me.

In Erdoğan’s view, Turkey cannot take in any more refugees. There has already been a massive backlash against refugees, especially as Turkey’s economy struggles. And Assad’s attacks on Idlib are increasing the chances of mass slaughter and displacement at Turkey’s doorstep, something Turkey absolutely cannot afford.

“Turkey’s capacity is at a breaking point,” Lisel Hintz, assistant professor of international relations and European studies at Johns Hopkins University, told me.

Syria’s attack on Turkish forces gave Erdoğan a rallying point for his domestic audience, who otherwise might not have been eager to commit troops to the fight in Syria. Turkey has also told refugees that its borders with Europe are open, allowing refugees to travel by land or sea to Greece or Bulgaria.

But those European borders remain sealed, with refugees being turned away by force. There have been reports of refugees shot by border guards and groups being dispersed with tear gas.

Ankara is trying to put pressure on both European and NATO allies to come to its aid in Idlib (Turkey is a member of NATO). As part of a deal in 2016, the European Union paid Turkey to stop the flow of migrants into the EU from Turkey after the continent was overwhelmed by asylum seekers fleeing Syria, Iraq, and other places in the Middle East and Africa.

Now Turkey is raising the specter of that crisis again, loosening those restrictions and allowing migrants and refugees to travel to Europe. It’s a pretty blatant attempt to bully NATO forces into backing Turkey in Idlib, Hintz said. “Note this bullying is only possible because, again, the US and European actors largely if incorrectly see Syrians fleeing conflict as a threat.”

It’s not clear how effective this strategy will be, though. NATO has called for an end to the fighting in Idlib but has reiterated its “full solidarity” with Turkey. The United States has publicly come to Turkey’s defense, and there are some signs that the Trump administration may want to do a bit more to back up Turkey.

“The United States is engaging with our Turkish Allies and reviewing options to assist Turkey against this aggression as we seek to prevent further Assad regime and Russian brutality and alleviate the humanitarian suffering in Idlib,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement last week.

James Jeffrey, the US Syria envoy, is also reportedly pushing the Pentagon to deploy Patriot surface-to-air missiles to help Turkey fend off Assad’s air force. Jeffrey, along with US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft, is meeting with Turkish officials Monday, according to pro-Turkish media.

Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East, told me he thinks the public support from the United States has already had some impact on Turkey’s calculations.

The US and Turkey have had frosty relations of late, and a big reason has been Erdoğan’s increasingly friendly relations with Putin and recent decision to purchase Russian-made weapons.

But the Syrian crisis is proving to Turkey that Russia may not be as reliable a partner as it would like. “The crisis in Idlib with Putin reminded Turkey that Russia is Turkey’s nemesis, and that even when they have bargains with the Turks, they will ultimately undermine Turkey,” Çağaptay said. On the other hand, “the US did come to Turkey’s assistance.”

Still, Turkey does not want to provoke Russia in this conflict, and Russia doesn’t want to squander its rapprochement with Turkey. That’s likely why Russia has largely stepped aside in this latest fight between Syrian and Turkish forces.

If Putin and Erdoğan can come to some sort of ceasefire or deescalation agreement, Turkey can save some face, and Putin can avoid a dangerous provocation of both Turkey and its NATO allies.

That could spare millions of Syrian people in Idlib from being displaced or killed by immediate fighting — but it may be much harder to find a long-term solution to the crisis.