Idlib’s ticking time bomb goes off

Updated with fourth paragraph on refugees streaming toward Turkey's European borders.

As the clock ticked down to the end-of-February deadline set by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for Syrian President Bashar Assad to pull back his forces in Idlib province, the Syrian government unleashed a torrent of air strikes on Turkish positions late Thursday, killing 34 Turkish soldiers and wounding scores more. 

The Syrian attack marked the largest one-day loss of life for Turkey’s military in years, and spurred Erdoğan to block all social media and call an emergency security meeting, after which Turkey announced that it had begun strikes against all known Assad government targets. 

Turkey has in recent weeks sent some 12,000 additional troops to reinforce its positions in Syria’s last rebel-held province, where a Russian-backed Syrian offensive has now killed more than 50 Turkish military personnel and left some 2 million displaced people struggling to survive in ad hoc encampments near the Turkish border.

By early Friday reports emerged on social media of Syrian and Afghan migrants being bussed from Istanbul toward the borders with Greece and Bulgaria, as Turkey apparently began to fulfill Erdoğan's threat to send a new wave of refugees to Europe to pressure European states to act.

United Nations officials have warned of an unfolding humanitarian crisis in Idlib, where Turkey has kept its borders closed out of fear of a domestic political backlash if it were to accept more Syrian refugees.  

“A lot of newspaper people and talking heads are going to criticise Turkey for not opening its borders,” Soli Özel, international relations professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, told Ahval in a podcast. “Quite frankly, the Europeans really have nothing to say to Turkey on this matter.”

As part of a 2016 deal, Europe agreed to pay Turkey 6 billion euros to halt the flow of asylum-seekers. As if that were not enough, Özel is convinced that during her January visit to Istanbul, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised to fund Erdoğan’s plan to resettle up to 2 million refugees along the Turkish border in Syria.

“Turkey will try to contain them in whatever sliver of territory there is between areas controlled by the Syrian military and the Turkish border,” he said.

The key question, then, is how big a sliver of territory Turkey will control in northeast and northwest Syria once the dust settles. As Turkish strikes began raining down on Syrian positions - and possibly on Russian jets - in Idlib early on Friday, analysts offered their views on social media.

“Turkey has really no choice but to continue on this path, despite such unfortunate incidents,” Hassan Hassan, director of the non-state actors programme at the Center for Global Policy, said in a tweet. “Standing down in Idlib will be the end of its presence in the more strategic areas it controls close to its borders. The refugee issue remains secondary to that.”

Also on Thursday, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels announced their first major gain in Idlib, retaking the strategic town of Saraqeb at the junction of the M-4 and M-5 highways. This came two days after rebels seized the town of Nayrab, its first gain of any kind since Syrian forces launched their offensive in December. 

Now that his side is taking territory, and with some 35 Turkish soldiers killed in the last few days, most analysts agree that Erdoğan is unlikely to back down from his deadline vow.

“Ankara understands how dangerous it is to let the perception stand that its troops can be killed with impunity,” independent Syria analyst Kyle Orton told Ahval.

Last week, Turkey proposed an Idlib summit between the leaders of France, Germany, Turkey and Russia. On Tuesday, the Kremlin said it had no plans for such a gathering, but that it was organising another Astana group summit (Turkey, Russia, Iran) to discuss Idlib.

Both Orton and Özel highlighted the one issue that gives Turkey pause in launching an all-out assault: Russia controls Idlib airspace, and would be highly unlikely to approve such military aggression against its ally. Erdogan has said Turkey is looking for a way around this concern.

Still, Özel thought recent reports of a breakdown in Turkey-Russia relations had been overblown, pointing out that it was Russia that had protected Turkish soldiers in Idlib observation posts surrounded by Assad’s forces. “I don’t think the Russians want to break relations with Turkey,” he said. “They are just basically showing Turkey what its limits are.”

Russia is expected to continue to support Syrian efforts to retake Idlib province, clearing the last bastion of anti-Assad rebels. Orton pointed out that in other parts of the country where the Syrian government and its ally Iran had made so-called reconciliation deals, this left in place hostile populations that fuelled insurgency. He said if the Syrian government were to halt its Idlib offensive by Turkey’s deadline, it would be merely temporary.

“Assad and the Iranians intend to reconquer every inch of Syria,” said Orton. “The regime wants the territory in Idlib and not the people. Whether that ends up meaning expulsion or massacre is contingent on circumstances.”

Norbert Roettgen, head of the German parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, described the situation as catastrophic and blamed Europe and the West for doing nothing as Idlib deteriorated.

NATO has taken no action because Turkey, a key member of the alliance, is technically not under attack; the military operations are taking place in Syria. Turkey has called on the United States to provide Patriot missiles in support of its positions. The United States again expressed support for Turkey early Friday, but has taken no military action because, according to Özel, that could risk a war with the Russians.

Özel was reminded of a novel by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez in which everybody in a village knows a certain man is going to be killed, but nobody does anything to stop it.

“The story of the Syrian debacle or Syrian tragedy is one big long Marquez story, “The Chronicle of a Death Foretold”,” he said. “Idlib was a disaster waiting to happen.”