At dawn on Monday, Syrian regime forces targeted a Turkish observation post in the Idlib governorate, killing eight Turkish citizens, one of them a civilian. The Turkish army responded immediately to the attack, explained Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, and bombed 54 targets belonging to the regime, killing 76 Syrian soldiers.
This escalation against Syrian regime forces operating under a Russian umbrella to control Idlib province was expected. Officials have announced repeatedly that the Turkish army will not hesitate to respond to any attack by the Syrian regime forces on their soldiers stationed in observation posts in the de-escalation zone.
Throughout history, relations between Turkey and Russia have witnessed ups and downs, and the better the relations between Ankara and Moscow are, the more that their respective goals, aspirations and readings of events and developments tend to differ. In the recent rapprochement, for example, Turkey wanted to strike a balance between its relations with the US and its relations with Russia, to ensure a degree of independence and protect its national interests. Russia sought to push Turkey away from its Western allies so that Ankara would eventually be forced to ally itself with Moscow, or at least grow as close as possible to it over particular issues.
In Syria, Russia’s goal is different to that of Turkey, and just because the two sides reached agreement in both Astana and Sochi, this does not mean that their aspirations are identical. Recent developments indicate that Moscow’s interpretation of the agreements differs from that of Ankara, and that the former seeks to restore the Syrian regime’s control over the liberated areas, including the Idlib governorate. After the recent escalation, each party called on the other to adhere to the provisions of the Astana and Sochi agreements and pledges. This suggests that different interpretations of the two agreements still exist.
Forces loyal to the Syrian regime are attacking Idlib, but everyone knows that Damascus cannot advance one inch without Moscow’s approval. To thwart the game of pushing the regime forces to the forefront and hiding behind them, Turkey has started to respond to their attacks; it says that its troops are targeting the regime forces, not Russia’s.
In statements made after the Turkish army’s response to Monday’s attack, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that there is no need at this stage to enter into a conflict with Russia; he indicated that Ankara and Moscow have very serious strategic initiatives. However, he also stressed that the Turkish army will continue to respond to attacks by Syrian regime forces whenever the latter target Turkey’s troops stationed in observation posts.
Erdogan’s statements put the ball in the Russian court, leaving the door open for several possibilities. The first is that diplomatic efforts will succeed, with Russia reining-in the Syrian regime and its troops. It is also possible that the Turkish army will continue to respond to those forces whenever they target the observation posts. It is also possible that Russian forces will clash with Turkish troops to protect the Syrian regime army and allied militias, so that Turkey is forced into a conflict with Russia.
The Syrian attack on the Turkish observation post came before Erdogan’s visit to Ukraine. During his reception in Kiev, he greeted the Special Honour Guard Battalion by saying, “Glory to Ukraine”, and stressed that Turkey will continue to support its Black Sea neighbour’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and will not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy used a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart to announce that his country’s army would get help from Turkey under the military cooperation agreement between the two countries. Erdogan’s visit has implications, not least that any conflict between Turkey and Russia in Syria will not remain confined to that issue, but will extend to others, such as Ukraine and Crimea.
Turkey’s response on Monday is thus a message from Ankara to Moscow that it participated in the Astana and Sochi talks in order to agree on points that all parties must adhere to, and that trying to impose a new reality after reaching an agreement is unacceptable. It also lets Moscow know that Turkey will not withdraw from the observation posts, and will not, under any circumstance, give up protecting the city of Saraqib and Idlib governorate.
This article first appeared in Arabi21 on 5 February 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.