After nine long years, Turkey has finally punished the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, with the dictator ignoring Ankara’s ultimatum to withdraw his troops Idlib province by the end of February. A confrontation between the two was largely unsurprising: the only tangible factors obstructing it were first the civil war itself and the various opposition groups – notwithstanding Daesh – which served as a buffer between Turkey and Al-Assad, then came the issue of the Kurdish militias posing a threat by forming a statelet on the Turkish-Syrian border.
Now, the regime and its Russian ally’s year-long campaign to capture the last opposition stronghold of Idlib province has thinned the opposition-held territory, and Turkey’s military operations have largely eliminated the Kurdish threat from its border. This has left Turkey face to face with the regime with no further obstacles and with both having entirely different aims – the former to protect the millions of displaced Syrians and prevent them from spilling into its territory, and the latter to capture the province using any means available.
On Thursday last week, Turkey overturned the chessboard by opening the Idlib-Turkey border to Syrian refugees and declaring that it would no longer stop them from making their way to Europe. This showed Europe that the continent has sewn the seeds of its own destruction by neither helping Turkey protect Syrians from the Assad regime, nor granting Turkey the remaining billions of euros to house the refugees that it promised it would. Turkey has done exactly what it said it would and the exodus of refugees from Idlib has provided further opportunities for a direct conflict between the Assad regime and Turkey.
Militarily speaking, Turkey does have the material and logistical capability of even going as far as Damascus in its pushback against the Assad regime, which would fulfil the decades-long dream of many in the Syrian revolution. On almost all fronts – land, naval, aerial, logistical and military hardware – Turkey far outnumbers and outranks Syria in its capabilities. Statistics for 2020 show that Turkey possesses nearly twice the amount of aircraft and armoured vehicles that Syria does, has more than twice as many active personnel and reserve troops numbering 380,000; Syria has virtually none. This is not even counting the opposition groups which Turkey backs and their military equipment and capabilities.
It would definitely be naive, however, to discount Al-Assad’s ally Russia from the situation. While Turkey’s armoury consists of 2,622 tanks, Russia has 12,950. While Turkey has 1,055 aircrafts, Russia has 4,163. To go into the details of the Federation’s troops and reserves – as well as its mercenary capabilities – is unnecessary: Turkey is dwarfed in comparison to the Russian giant. This is also discounting other Axis members such as Iran and Hezbollah.
Putting aside the usual hysterics of World War Three being espoused whenever the tables are turned in such a manner, if Turkey was to declare war on the Assad regime with the stated goal of directly pushing the dictator’s forces beyond Idlib, there is no telling the moves that Moscow could make as a counterstrike. Russia has so far made no such inclination and has instead allowed Turkey to carry out its retaliation on regime forces without intervening. This will most likely remain the case until Turkey has debilitated and grounded the regime’s campaign in Idlib.
This has worked well for Turkey and the opposition. Over the past week, Turkey has proven its devastating capabilities in drone warfare, reportedly killing at least 2,212 Syrian regime troops and destroying one drone, eight helicopters, 103 tanks, 72 howitzer artillery weapons and rocket launchers, three air defence systems, and numerous military facilities including a chemical warfare facility near Aleppo.
Such a blow has been hailed as possibly the first large-scale drone operation on a single entity in a short amount of time in modern military history, demonstrating Turkey’s indigenous technological innovation and aerial prowess as a leading state conducting drone warfare.
As for Russia, it has effectively already achieved its economic aims in Syria by securing its access to the country’s phosphate industry as well as its access to the port of Tartus with the signing of a 49-year pact. That being said, it will likely only tolerate Turkey’s justice so far as it does not overstep the unwritten boundaries by striking Russian targets or soldiers. Neither Russia nor Turkey wants a direct confrontation, however, and both are trying to save face until they continue with the Sochi agreement in regards to the province and its initial status as a de-escalation zone.
A direct and stated military conflict with the regime and Russia is exactly what Turkey has been trying to avoid since the start of the Syrian civil war. By only leading a first military incursion into northern Syria in 2016, Turkey was reluctant to dip its feet into the conflict due to fears of becoming entangled and having it spill into its own borders. Over the past few days, it has done more for Idlib and its people than the international community has in the entire nine years of the war, but should Turkey continue beyond Idlib it will likely find itself in the exact situation it was initially trying to avoid. It could be leading itself into a trap that would have far higher risks and be more costly than any benefits Turkey can achieve.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.