With the constant, basic framing of the nine-year conflict in Syria as being one between the "Assad regime" and "rebels" coupled with viewing it from an understandable humanitarian perspective, it is easy to forget that above all, under international law, Syria is a nation-state. One whose territorial integrity has been violated by various armed groups backed by foreign states, chief among them is neighbour and NATO-member Turkey which has repeatedly invaded and occupied parts of Syria. Its prolonged presence in the country is considered illegal by the Syrian government and its contemporary interference in Syrian affairs can be traced at least two years before the 2011 uprisings.
It has become apparent that Damascus, with Russian – and to a lesser-extent Iranian – support is rapidly reclaiming Syrian-state territory with an unfortunate human cost of its own civilian populace but also in terms of eradicating takfiri-jihadist fighters who form the bulk of the armed "opposition" and who have been holding onto much of Idlib and parts of Aleppo provinces. Most recently, the Turkish army has also steadily been on the receiving end of what it calls "aggression" by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), which is the armed force of the state. With eight soldiers killed last week, and five reportedly killed due to artillery shelling yesterday, tensions have more than escalated between Ankara, Damascus and Moscow.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (#HTS) flag on Turkish army APC in #Idlib.
Remember that HTS is the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda.
The war in Idlib is a [#Turkey + #TFSA + Al-Qaeda] VS Syrian Army #SAA + #Russia pic.twitter.com/O3duBDRWwA
— Endi Zentarmi (@EndiZentarmi) February 10, 2020
When analysing the conflict, it is important to remember that the Syrian Arab Republic is a sovereign state recognised by the UN after joining the organisation since its formation back in 24 October 1945 not too long before its independence from France. It was also part of a short-lived union with Egypt (the United Arab Republic) between 1958 and 1961 before resuming its status as an independent state.
The current Constitution adopted in 2012 describes the Syrian state as democratic, Arab and with "full sovereignty, indivisible, and may not waive any part of its territory". The extent of its democracy is rightly disputed and the country is classified as "not free" according to the US-based NGO, Freedom House. However, sovereignty is not dependent on democracy nor any other system of government for that matter.
Understood within this context, Syria is much more than the "Assad regime" or "pro-Assad forces", rather it is the Syrian state and the Syrian army (with an estimated 142,000 active personnel according to Global Fire Power), respectively. It is the SAA which is tasked with defending the state against security threats. Faced with Al-Qaeda affiliates such as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham or other terrorist outfits like Ahrar Al-Sham at one point occupying entire provinces, no state with the means of defending itself would tolerate this, and neither should Syria be expected to. There are no "moderate rebels", at least most of them are certainly not "moderate" and a great number are not even Syrian.
Furthermore, the term "regime" invokes negative connotations and is often applied selectively and not universally against nominally-democratic or authoritarian states by various media outlets. The Syrian government's harsh crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations did itself no favours but Turkey's involvement and interference in Syrian affairs and attempts at bringing down the government of President Bashar Al-Assad occurred very early on during the uprisings and army defections.
Amnesty International guy. "Assad's regime" is the legal government of Syria, empowered to defend Syria's sovereignty & territorial integrity, as spelled out in many UNSC resolutions. Turkish soldiers are an illegal invading force in Syria, and hence legitimate military targets. https://t.co/E1eaq8Z6LW
— George Szamuely (@GeorgeSzamuely) February 10, 2020
Ankara's determination in preventing Syria from reclaiming Idlib city and providing support to groups acting against Damascus is a clear violation of Syria's sovereignty. Added to this, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently warned Syria to withdraw from its own territory, beyond the demilitarised zone as negotiated during the Astana talks among Turkey, Russia and Iran. These warnings were unheeded and the SAA continues to surround Turkish military outposts – five of the "official" 12 outposts and another five of the unofficial outposts. The SAA will likely seek to unify control over the strategic M4 and M5 highways which will not only deprive aggression forces of supply routes, but also re-connect government-held cities before closing in on Idlib city itself.
— Karl E (@therussophile) February 10, 2020
This is not to say that Turkey does not have legitimate security concerns of its own such as the continued influx of refugees causing immense pressure on its own society and economy but also the threats posed by the terrorist PKK organisation, which has affiliates in Syria in the form of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (formerly YPG). Indeed the Adana Agreement of 1998 was established precisely due to the Syrian government's support of the PKK and specifically enabled Turkey to pursue PKK terrorists up to five kilometres deep into Syrian territory. In any case, Turkey has exceeded the limits of the pact. The Turkish held north-east and so-called "safe zone" are supposed to be temporal too.
What is clear however, is that the SAA no longer will tolerate Turkish occupation, nor Turkish attempts at preventing them from recapturing state territory held by terrorist factions. Claims made by Ankara that they have retaliated against the slain soldiers last week, (allegedly bombing 54 targets, killing 76 Syrian soldiers) were dismissed by both the Syrians and the Russians. The claims, which are clearly face-saving and for domestic consumption bear little reality on the ground, in part because it will leave Turkish outposts in a grave situation, but will risk direct confrontation with Russian forces, which will not be in Turkey's interests, especially as it is keen to purchase Russian missile defence systems in defiance of fellow NATO member, the US. As of present, there are unconfirmed reports from Turkey that its forces have struck 115 Syrian government targets, "destroying 101 of them". Again highly unlikely, unless Turkey wishes to initiate a full-scale war with Syria and by extension Russia.
In any remote village in Syria at any time, if a shell goes of or anything war-related it's usually on the internet either in a report or video within minutes/hours maximum, for 115 government/SAA targets to be hit without anyone knowing apart from the Turkish MOD Is impossible. https://t.co/US8Uh6X1NL
— Danny Makki (@Dannymakkisyria) February 10, 2020
Sending in more military convoys, jihadist reinforcements and establishing new observation outposts will do little to deter the impending fall of Idlib, or rather the rightful return of Idlib to the Syrian state. Another occupying force, the US, will eventually have to withdraw from the eastern oilfields and the Al-Tanf base which is for Israel's benefit more than fighting Daesh, especially as it becomes increasingly untenable after it is forced to withdraw from neighbouring Iraq. For now though, Turkey remains the main obstacle in state-level security for Syria.
Turkey has come a long way from its foreign policy of "zero problems with neighbours" plan which had served it so well in the early years of the AK Party's rise to power. Rather than improve relations with its eastern neighbours, they appear to be deteriorating in some cases. Military intervention in Libya and dispatching Syrian mercenaries there to fight is also creating rifts with neighbours. For now though, Turkey is starting to pay the price of undermining Syrian sovereignty. A price which has come at an even higher cost for Syrians.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.