Lessons from Turkey’s military campaign in Syria’s Idlib

The first direct clashes between the Turkish military and Syrian government forces in late February and early March demonstrated the formidability of Turkey’s armed forces. So long as Russia does not intervene to help its Syrian ally, Turkey would continue to have the upper hand if the ceasefire were broken and more fighting broke out, military analysts say.

Following the killing of at least 34 Turkish soldiers in an air strike on the rebel-held northwestern Syrian province of Idlib on Feb 27, Turkey shot down three Syrian warplanes and used its armed drones to wreak havoc on Syrian ground forces. But Russia’s decision not to close the airspace was vital to Turkey’s success.

“I think Turkey has demonstrated some impressive precision-strike capabilities in Idlib in the past month, but we cannot draw major conclusions from this,”said Shashank Joshi, the defence editor of The Economist. “Russia made a deliberate choice to avoid challenging Turkish incursions or to attack assets in Turkish air space,” he said.

But if Russia opted to close the airspace over Idlib, where Turkish troops are stationed as part of a 2018 ceasefire deal, Turkey would have less room to manoeuvre.

“Whether Russia would do so is an open question, but I think they would have a strong incentive to deter further Turkish attrition of Syrian units and assert dominance,” Joshi said.

Unless it is confident of support from fellow NATO countries, Turkey is unlikely going to risk going toe-to-toe with Russia, especially at a time when the United States and European countries are preoccupied with combating the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Levent Özgül, a Turkish defence analyst and founder of BlueMelange Consultancy, said Turkey could “easily wipe out Syrian forces” if they did not have Russian air support.

Without support from Russian air defences, Syrian forces had little protection against Turkish drone strikes. This is because most of Syria’s limited long-range air defence missiles – notably its Russian S-300s – are concentrated on defending the airspace over Damascus. Most of Syria’s other air defences are less-sophisticated medium-range Russian Pantsir and Buk systems.

Consequently, Syrian forces were only able to shoot down about five Turkish drones, while suffering heavy losses in troops and equipment.

During the operation, Turkish F-16 jet fighters also proved capable of shooting down Syrian warplanes over Idlib without leaving Turkish airspace by using long-range AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. This capability suggests that Turkey might still be able to target Syrian warplanes in future clashes, even if Russia closed Idlib’s airspace.

Tom Cooper, a military analyst and historian, noted that the Idlib clashes demonstrated how Russia was “extremely keen to avoid any kind of a direct confrontation with Turkey”.

“Similarly, Turkey is extremely cautious to avoid attacking the Russian armed forces in Syria,” he said.

This, coupled with Turkey’s ability to hit Syrian targets over Idlib from a safe distance with AMRAAMs, as well as on the ground, with stand-off missiles that have a range of more than 200 km, means the situation will remain under control.

Özgül said Russia might have supplied Syrian forces with upgraded air defence systems to cope with any future clash over Idlib.

“I have predicted that Russia has supplied additional and more modern medium-altitude air defence systems to Syrian forces around Idlib against possible follow-on clashes with the Turkish Armed Forces,” he said.

On the ground in Idlib, both Turkey and the Syrian government have deployed tens of thousands of militiamen. Turkey’s proxies consist of various militias fighting under the banner of the Syrian National Army (SNA), while Syria’s are mainly Iranian-commanded paramilitaries.

After nine years of civil war, what is left of the government’s Syrian Arab Army is now primarily supplemented by militiamen who are commanded mainly by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), which Syrian President Bashar Assad heavily relies on for his survival.

“On the frontlines, the IRGC-run formations are holding more than 50 percent of the frontlines, and providing crucially important infantry for what is left of Maher al-Assad’s 4th Division, just for example,” Cooper said.

The Syrian government is unable to pay for more than 50,000 troops in all sectors of its armed forces. Conversely, the IRGC has no problem paying about 90,000 Syrians fighting under its command, along with the 50,000 foreigners it has brought into the country.

While Turkey is using tens of thousands of SNA fighters as proxies, it does not rely on them for ground offensives in the same way Syria relies on IRGC-led fighters. Were Turkey to use the full might of its regular forces it could “overrun everything and everybody in Syria”, Cooper said.

But Turkey wants to avoid casualties among its troops, so prefers to use its proxies as cannon fodder. Despite outfitting the SNA in Idlib with armoured fighting vehicles, it proved unable to hold its own against Syrian government forces. Özgül said that even when given large amounts of ammunition and air support by Turkish drones, SNA fighters lost the strategically important city of Saraqeb.

It is hard to precisely predict what might happen if fighting once again flares-up in Idlib, but the last round of fighting demonstrated that one cannot realistically underestimate Turkey’s military might.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.