Worst-case scenarios Russia and Turkey are on the brink of open warfare in Syria. Here’s where each side miscalculated and why a hot war is still unlikely.
On February 18, Turkish and Russian diplomats held talks in Moscow that were supposed to resolve the latest in a series of Syrian crises. Not only were the two countries unable to strike up a compromise; they ended up on the brink of war. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on February 19 that a Turkish operation against Syrian government forces was “unavoidable.” In response, Russia vowed to support the Syrian military while expressing hope that it might still be possible to deescalate the conflict. By the morning of February 20, shots had been fired, though the immediate future of Russian-Turkish tensions remains uncertain. Dmitry Kuznets analyzes the likelihood of open conflict.
How has the Syrian conflict escalated in recent weeks?
In January 2020, the Syrian Army embarked on what seemed like a decisive mission in a nearly decade-long war: With Russian support, Syrian forces intended to wipe out the country’s last remaining opposition enclave in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. Initially, the situation looked like yet another ‘escalation in a ceasefire zone,’ far from the first in recent years. It seemed that after a few slight gains by the Syrian government, Turkey would step in as usual to mediate a ceasefire. However, this time, the defenses of al-Qaeda’s Islamist forces crumbled, and Syrian troops began advancing quickly along Highway M5, moving deep into the opposition enclave. Syrian Islamist commander Abu Mohammad al-Julani announced that his troops were struggling to resist the government’s attacks thanks to renewed involvement from Russian aviation and artillery units.
Despite their long record of deescalating similar crises, phone negotiations between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan failed to stop the Syrian advance. The two heads of state only managed to agree on the continuation of military and diplomatic negotiations. Those negotiations took place on February 18, but even they only exacerbated the crisis.
What do Russia and Turkey want?
Russia and Turkey have both pointed repeatedly to an agreement signed in Sochi in the fall of 2018. That deal dictates that a ceasefire must be maintained in the Idlib enclave on the following conditions:
- As allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran were obligated to keep Syrian forces from advancing on the enclave in Idlib.
- As an ally to some of the groups opposing Assad from inside the enclave, Turkey promised to move all fighters 20 km (12.4 miles) away from the front lines and separate the “moderate” anti-Assad opposition from terrorist fighters close to al-Qaeda.
- Turkish, Russian, and Iranian observation posts were established in the no man’s land on the front lines, with a few dozen soldiers stationed at each post.
- The opposition groups stationed in the enclave were also obligated to maintain freedom of movement (including for government-owned vehicles) along Idlib Province’s two primary highways: route M5 from Damascus to Aleppo and route M4 from Latakia to Aleppo.
Turkey, Syria, and Russia have all violated the Sochi agreement. By this point, the demands issued by the Turkish government on one hand and Russian leaders on the other have become mutually exclusive:
- Turkey has demanded that all sides fulfill the Sochi agreement, no strings attached. This would mean Syrian forces retreating to the lines defined in the Sochi memorandum by the end of February, yielding all the territory they have seized since May 2019. In the absence of such a withdrawal, the Turkish military would ‘induce’ a retreat by force.
- Russia has also demanded that the Sochi memorandum be fulfilled, meaning that the Idlib enclave should be liberated from al-Qaeda-aligned Islamists and the two major highways should be reopened. If Turkey does not fulfill those two elements of the agreement, Moscow has promised to force it to do so by supporting a Syrian military attack.
What happened on the ground while Russia and Turkey were negotiating?
Turkey made the decision to support retreating Islamist troops, introducing its own artillery units into the conflict along with Syrian proxy troops equipped with Turkish armored vehicles, antitank rockets, and antiaircraft missiles. Those proxy units shot down two Syrian helicopters, destroyed multiple tanks, and attempted several counterattacks against the advancing Syrian forces. However, the counterattacks were unsuccessful and resulted in the loss of multiple Turkish armored vehicles.
Meanwhile, with negotiations ongoing, Russia chose to accelerate the Syrian government advance. While moving along Highway M5 on February 14 and 15, Assad’s forces attacked a unit composed primarily of pro-Julani Islamists from the rear. The attack took place in the suburbs of Aleppo, where the decisive battle in the entire Syrian Civil War has stretched on for years (local troops call it “the mother of all battles”). The front lines came to a halt at Aleppo in 2012 and stayed there; opposition fighters erected a powerful line of defense that took pro-government forces years to overcome. This time, however, the fighters surrendered within a few days under the threat of being surrounded from the rear.
Following the end of the battle, Aleppo residents began celebrating in the streets. On February 19, the local airport was opened for flights for the first time since 2013. Meanwhile, large numbers of refugees fled the city’s previously opposition-controlled suburbs, fearful of falling under Assad’s control. According to UN data, more than a million people fled combat zones in Idlib and Aleppo Provinces during the course of the final government advance alone. The majority of the refugees congregated at the Turkish border.
Why couldn’t Moscow and Ankara reach another stopgap agreement?
Moscow clearly saw Turkey’s threats of taking back the Idlib enclave as an elaborate bluff. The Turkish military’s inaction during crucial clashes near Aleppo appeared to affirmed that assumption, but just in case, Moscow sent Russian military police units into those newly recaptured suburban neighborhoods. The mere presence of those troops was evidently supposed to deter any further action on the part of the Turkish military.
By February 17, Assad’s army was about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) away from the only border crossing between the opposition enclave and Turkish territory. That development created a genuine risk that anti-Assad fighters in Syria would be cut off from their Turkish allies.
The Syrian advance stopped only when government troops began approaching Turkish military positions that had been hastily deployed into the enclave the night before. This led Bashar al-Assad to proclaim that the Turkish military will be unable to stop “the liberation of Idlib” and, by extension, that the war as a whole will only end when the Assad government recaptures all of Syria. Concurrent developments on the front lines seemed to confirm that Assad was quite serious: At least twice in the first three weeks of February, Syrian troops shot at Turkish bases, killing several soldiers. Meanwhile, Syrian units simply ignored the Turkish observation points in their path, leaving the soldiers manning them surrounded as the pro-Assad advance continued.
In Moscow, meanwhile, the Russian-Turkish talks reached their decisive stages on February 18. Russian negotiators proposed a new interpretation of ‘fulfilling the Sochi agreement’ under which the Syrian government would control all the land along Highway M5 (which its troops had actually conquered) as well as the territory stretching all the way to Highway M4 (which is still under Islamist control). Meanwhile, Russian and Turkish forces would hold patrols along both highways. In the rest of the enclave (about 40 percent of its initial territory), Turkey would eliminate al-Qaeda Islamist units and maintain control of the area itself. It could also choose to build camps for the hundreds of thousands of refugees staying in the region to avoid recapture by Assad’s forces.
As negotiations proceeded, it became clear that Turkey did not find this new Russian proposal to be an acceptable compromise. On February 19, Erdogan announced that his troops had not interfered in the battles near Aleppo because they had been preparing instead for a massive attack on Assad and the “foreign powers” that had “encouraged” him (i.e., Russia). The Turkish president also said an advance from his troops was now “unavoidable” and completely ready to launch. He vowed that the attack would continue until Syrian troops were pushed back behind the lines demarcated in the Sochi agreement.
Sources within the Syrian opposition told Reuters that 15,000 Turkish soldiers and thousands of armored units are already stationed inside the Idlib enclave. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Turkish border, tens of thousands of additional fighters and local proxy troops are currently awaiting orders to advance.
Is Erdogan bluffing, or is there an actual risk of open warfare between Russia and Turkey?
By the time negotiations came to a close on February 18, it was clear that the two sides would be unable to reach the kind of compromise they had developed so many times in the past.
Turkey was clearly unwilling and unable to yield the majority of the Idlib enclave to Assad: Such an admission would have amounted to an acknowledgement of failure for Erdogan’s entire foreign policy approach. Meanwhile, Moscow also couldn’t allow Syrian troops to yield territory they had captured over the course of several violent months. That would have caused a drop in Russia’s military authority and practically signaled that Moscow was abandoning its central objective in the Syrian Civil War: A complete victory for the Assad regime.
Meanwhile, it seemed that both Russia and Turkey were underestimating each other’s willingness to pursue their objectives at any price. Moscow still refused to believe that Ankara is truly willing and able to carry out a decisive blow against the Syrian army. Meanwhile, Turkey continued believing that the real bluff was Russia’s vow to support Syria in case of an open conflict with the Turkish Army, even if that conflict is limited to the relatively small Idlib front. Both of those stances are based on the perfectly well-founded assumption that neither side can afford a war between two superpowers like Russia and Turkey. So far, the two governments have only engaged in a proxy war in hopes of demonstrating that their side would come out on top in any full-scale conflict.
In that proxy war, Turkey’s arguments seem to be at least as convincing as Russia’s. Russia’s expeditionary forces in Syria are not strong enough to block a Turkish advance. Turkey, in turn, is not only capable of ramping up its presence in Idlib; it could also interfere with supply lines to Russia’s military base in Syria. Turkey has already demonstrated its willingness to ban Russian military flights from its airspace, as it did in 2015, and Erdogan’s government has now threatened to block water-based transport as well. A 1936 treaty regulating the status of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, two key water routes between the Black and Aegean Seas, gives Turkey the right to close off both passages if it enters a conflict with any of the Black Sea powers. Finally, Russia has no ability to forcibly stop Turkey from amassing troops on the Syrian border. Turkey is a NATO member, and all NATO members are obligated to intervene if any one of them is attacked. The United States, for example, has already announced that it would defend Ankara in a hypothetical conflict with Moscow.
However, back in real life, a major war remains extremely unlikely (and extremely undesirable for the world as a whole). Given that fact, Russia already has the upper hand. Turkey can’t count on winning this fight through any operation that would avoid a direct standoff with Russia.
It is also highly unlikely that Turkey could emerge victorious in a hybrid war with anti-Assad proxy forces doing most of the actual fighting. Pro-Turkish proxy troops are already active in Idlib, but they haven’t even been able to slow down the Syrian Army’s advance there, let alone bring it to a halt.
The Turkish Army’s more powerful forces also probably can’t count on winning this war quickly. Ankara’s previous invasions of Syria (against the Islamic State in 2016 and against the Afrin Kurds in 2018) showed that even when up against small numbers of poorly-equipped opponents, Turkish ground forces are too dependent on air support to advance on their own. That’s a problem for Ankara because Russia currently has full control over Syrian airspace. Any attempt on Turkey’s part to use aviation in Idlib would mean an automatic military conflict between Ankara and Moscow.
Does that mean Putin made the winning gamble here?
Not really. Any gains Russia could make in a quick Idlib victory would probably be outweighed by the losses it would suffer in ruining its relationship with Turkey.
Even if a hot war with Ankara remains unlikely, a cold war is nearly inevitable at this point. The situation that developed in 2015, when Russia introduced destructive sanctions against the Turkish economy, could soon reemerge. This time, though, Russia itself could also suffer economically: During the country’s short-lived alliance with Turkey over the past few years, it struck up multiple major deals, from a $2.5-billion sale of S-400 Triumf missiles to the South Stream pipeline project, which is intended to bring natural gas through Turkey into Europe.
Moscow appears to have realized that it underestimated Ankara’s response to the Idlib situation. It also appears to be trying to find a new compromise that would allow both sides to save face. On February 19, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov called a Turkish military operation in Idlib a “worst-case scenario.” Erdogan responded that the real worst-case scenario would be Russian military resistance to a Turkish advance. All that said, Peskov did not rule out the possibility of a meeting between Putin and Erdogan in the near future. The two heads of state have resolved numerous conflicts in person in the past, and they could try to do the same one more time.
In the meantime, however, violence on the ground in Idlib continues to escalate. On the morning of February 20, combined forces from Turkey, pro-Turkish proxies, and Islamists close to al-Qaeda began their first attempt to “liberate Idlib.” Turkey activated infantry troops as well as several tanks; they attacked the village of Nayrab on Highway M4, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the regional capital. Officially, Ankara announced that the operation was actually being run by the “moderate opposition” rather than Islamists or Turkish forces. That stance faced some rhetorical complications when Russian bombers carried out a lethal airstrike against the anti-Assad positions. Russia’s Defense Ministry emphasized that the strike was intended to “prevent an attack on the part of the [opposition] fighters.” A tank, six armored vehicles, and five pickup trucks were reportedly destroyed, and several Turkish journalists wrote that the “opposition fighters” ultimately retreated from Nayrab as a result. Several hours later, Turkish officials reported that two of the country’s soldiers had died and five had been injured in an airstrike on Idlib’s territory. A high-ranking military source in Ankara told Bloomberg that Turkey has already asked the United States to deploy two Patriot surface-to-air missile systems to the Syrian border in hopes of protecting Turkish troops from any additional Russian airstrikes.
Translation by Hilah Kohen