Turkey and Syria are on the verge of open conflict over the control of the strategic Idlib province. Can the world avert an all-out war?
Turkey and Syria – A History of Animosity
As part of the Sykes-Picot plan after World War I, the Ottoman Empire was partitioned by Great Britain and France without any thought for the ethnic makeup of the region. This created the genesis of all that ails the Middle East– the sectarian divide between the Shias and the Sunnis by not allowing them distinct, independent homelands. Syria is an artificial creation of this partition, being 70 per cent Sunni and rest a mix of other Muslim sects and a sprinkling of Christians. The ruling regime in Syria is Alawites, a minority Muslim sect who are only 12 per cent of the population.
Though not sharing the common religious values of Shia Islam, Syria and Iran have been close since the 1970s. It is more of a strategic partnership. In the 1980s, it was the mutual fear and hatred of Saddam, which forged their relationship, and now it is the United States and Israel. Without Iranian military aid and financial support, al-Assad could not have survived for so long. For Iran, Syria is critical as it is the conduit for Iranian military supply to the Lebanese Shia militia, Hizb Allah, its main combatant against Israel. Iran also fears that if al-Assad falls, the Sunni Arab majority will align Syria with Saudi Arabia and the United States.
In 2011 a peaceful uprising, inspired by Arab Spring, against the authoritarian al-Assad government began in major cities. The protestors were demanding an end to the high unemployment rates, corruption and lack of political freedom. They were crushed through brute force, thus starting a bloody civil war. The conflict left a power vacuum in the north. ISIS, then gathering momentum in the region, occupied that space. A significant proportion of the northern region is home to Syria’s largest ethnic minority called the Kurds. This area was initially conquered by ISIS but the Kurdish militia, backed by American air support and on-the-ground training, crushed ISIS by 2017.
Ranged against al -Assad’s Syrian National Army is the Sunni Free Syrian Army, Salafi Jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front), the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). These groups were directly or indirectly supported by the U.S, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and UAE in a complex and byzantine network of connections.
Russia has been an ally to al-Assad since the 1970s. Post the Arab Spring, Russian support increased as with the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, Russia was worried that its influence in the region would end under an American resurgence. The only country which could anchor Russian influence against the American onslaught was Syria.
Turkey’s role in the Syrian conflict changed from diplomatic to military involvement, eventually leading to military assistance for the Free Syrian Army fighting against the regime.
Factors Exacerbating Syria -Turkey Tensions
The current situation is deep-rooted in political, economic and social turmoil that is perceived differently by each of the country involved.
The Kurds are a major factor for Turkish involvement in Syria. About 20 million Kurds are spread over Turkey, Iraq, Iran and northern Syria. At the end of World War I, they were promised an independent Kurd nation, which is yet to materialise. They have been reliable allies to the United States from the war on Saddam to the crushing of ISIS. However, for Turkey, all Kurds are "terrorists", and the Turkish intervention in North-East Syria is linked to the creation of a safe zone stretching 20 miles into Syria against the Kurds. This zone could also be used to settle Syrian refugees currently in crowded camps in Turkey.
3.6 million Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey. The Turkish economy, like the rest of the world, is going through trying times with galloping unemployment. The Turks disapprove of President Erdogan and resent the influx of refugees. President Erdogan is, therefore, under intense domestic pressure to take a strong stand on the Syrian refugee issue.
Russia is doing its share in fuelling the conflict. While it supports Turkey on many issues where Turkish interests clash with American/ NATO interests, it is at the same time risking a direct confrontation with the Turkish military. The Russian Ambassador to the UNSC was unambiguous in his rejection of the call made by Germany and Belgium to stop all military support to al Assad in order to avert the looming humanitarian crisis. Russia has no intention to allow the offensive to be delayed or deferred till all the ‘“terrorists” have been neutralised and the strategic highways connecting Northern Syria with Damascus secured.
Is Syria-Turkey war imminent?
The failure of maintaining the de-escalation zone in northern Syria agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran in Astana has led to the current crisis situation. Idlib is a strategic communication hub, and both sides cannot afford to lose control over it.
Attacks on Idlib and surrounding regions have continued and have caused millions to flee towards Turkey. Russian/ Syrian airstrikes are taking a heavy toll with reports of over 300 civilians killed and as per UN, over one million displaced. The fighting is escalating at a rapid pace with both Syria and Turkey directly targeting each other’s forces, inflicting heavy military casualties. Syria has declared the air space over Idlib as "no-fly zone" while Turkey claims to have shot down two Syrian fighter jets. In a significant move, the M5 highway that runs from Aleppo to Damascus was seized by Turkish troops for the first time since 2012.
The unstable dynamics of the region has global repercussions. The probable resurgence of ISIS has sparked anxieties around the world. The global threat is not just in terms of their attacks, but the very fact that thousands of people across borders are willing to join the terror group is a common cause of concern.
The volatility of the situation between the two countries could pave the way for the resurgence of ISIS in the region and across Asia, which ultimately would impact India's security. ISIS considers India as one of its main adversaries earmarked for inclusion in the Caliphate. More importantly, any major conflict in the Middle East sends its ripples across the entire region and may trigger an exodus of expatriates. Combined with a spike in energy prices and disruption of trade with the region, a war in the Middle East is not in India's interests.
Assad is on the brink of taking back the strategic Idlib belt and reopening the strategic roads to the area. He is unlikely to back down till these strategic objectives are met. Towards this end, he has the unstinted support of Russia.
Militarily and economically, Turkey can take on Syria. However, it is Russia that changes the odds in any Turkish -Syrian encounter. Therefore, it appears that in the next few weeks, once the Syrians (and their Russian military advisers) feel that the strategic North-South communications have been secured and the Syrian opposition forced to vacate its stronghold in Idlib province, we may see some de-escalation.
While the stage is set for an imminent all-out open war between Turkey and Syria, there remains some hope that good sense will prevail and both sides, along with their respective backers will step back from the precipice. This can only happen if Moscow, sets some limit for Syrian Army’s incursion into the “de-escalation zone” allowing same territory for housing the refugees in Northern Syria under Turkish control.
The international community is rendered helpless by the Russian veto in the UNSC. Turkey is trying to drag its NATO partners into the imbroglio by threatening to open its land and maritime borders for the Syrian refugees to flood into Europe. The refugees have now become a pawn in the larger geopolitical game but will not force Syria or Russia to relent.
Image Courtesy: Bohatala