In the last few weeks, there’s been a serious escalation of the northwestern Syria conflict, with Syria and Russia intensifying their offensive in the Idlib province, culminating with the death of 33 Turkish soldiers. As Syrian government forces and Russian forces proceed with their operation to retake Idlib, the Turkish military is not just standing by. Turkey clearly intends to remain in Syria for the long term, having established schools and postal offices in the area around Afrin. The surprising development, however, is the Turkish response to the Syrian-Russian offensive.
In September 2018, Turkey and Russia had come to the Astana agreement, creating a demilitarized zone around Idlib secured by Turkish and Russian outposts. A year later, Syria broke the agreement by launching an offensive against the rebels in Idlib. When the first Turkish outpost was encircled by Syrian forces, Turkey just let it happen. The siege cut off supplies from Turkish troops. Turkey either could negotiate the withdrawal of those troops or push back against the Syrian military by force. This seemed to be an indicator of what was to come: The Syrian army advances to Idlib while the Turkish army backs off. It was the sensible thing to do, the other option being a conflict, albeit limited, between Turkey and Russia.
Instead, as the Syrian government’s offensive escalated, and Turkish outposts were surrounded by the advancing Syrian and Russian army, Turkey tossed the Astana agreement as Syria had done before—and reinforced its position in the Idlib province. Turkey had a limited presence there before, with the area being controlled mostly Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the successor of al-Qaeda in Syria. Forcefully defending an area controlled by a radical Sunni Islamist militant group doesn’t bode well for Turkey. But that’s exactly what it did, building 15 additional outposts beyond the official 12 that Turkey and Russia had agreed upon.
HTS and the 50,000 fighters under its command are going to fight for the last inch of territory in Idlib and Assad isn’t going to rest until he has reclaimed it and reunited his country. The partial U.S. withdrawal in the Northeast means that Assad might have a non-military way to regain that part of his country. What is left is the area in the Northwest, and the only possible resolution to Assad’s problem is a military one.
Assad has managed to retake rebel strongholds before. He regained Dar`a, the city where the Syrian uprising started, and he retook Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, after a four-year conflict that saw over 30,000 people die and hundreds of thousands displaced. In both cases, rebel forces negotiated evacuation agreements that moved them and their families to Idlib. Now that they have nowhere else to go, surrendering isn’t an option. The only scenario left, if the offensive continues, is a devastating massacre where deaths will likely exceed 100,000 pushing the total number of casualties in the Syrian war close to 1 million.
Turkey’s commitment to support the rebels in Idlib indicates that the rebels will make their last stand in Idlib. As such, either Russia will decide that the stakes are too high and back off from the offensive, effectively ending it, or Turkey will pull back its troops. Alternatively, a conflict that would pit the Turkish and Russian militaries against one another will take place, an occurrence that hasn’t happened since World War I. Turkey has already targeted air bases operated by Russian forces. However, neither side wants to fight the other because the costs would outweigh the benefits for both sides. Only Assad sees this fight from an existential lens, willing to pay any price to secure his homeland. But for two leaders of countries struggling economically, wherein their domestic popularity is boosted by asserting themselves overseas, none of them want to back off either.
Idlib is a catastrophe waiting to happen. The question that remains is, “how bad of a catastrophe are we willing to tolerate?”
Idlib is a catastrophe waiting to happen. The question that remains is, “How bad of a catastrophe are we willing to tolerate?” We are already witnessing the prelude to this disaster, as thousands of refugees are left stranded in the cold as they flee Turkey towards the EU. The United States has vowed to not intervene in Idlib to protect its NATO ally. Nevertheless, the implementation of a no-fly zone can stave off a confrontation between Turkey and Russia while simultaneously incapacitating the regime’s advance. If bold action isn’t taken soon, the best-case scenario is that this crisis will go down in history as another moment when the United States could have prevented an epic onslaught from occurring in the first place. The worst-case scenario is a direct confrontation between a NATO state and Russia, which will eventually drag the United States into it—whether it likes it or not.
Jad Alexander Zeitouni is a graduate student at New York University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and is currently the Editor-in-Chief of JPI. He is working toward earning a masters in International Relations. His interests are security, grand strategy, and the Middle East. In 2016, he graduated from MIT with a Bachelors of Science in Physics and Economics.