ANKARA: As Turkey is poised to send additional troops to Syria’s rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, there is speculation of a large-scale war if the deadline given to Damascus to withdraw its forces by the end of the month is ignored.
Turkey’s military continued on Friday to move armored vehicles and bulldozers to Idlib. This has angered Russia, which recently said the crisis in the province is being worsened by the inflow of weapons from Turkey.
Any military operation by Ankara would aim to push Syrian regime forces back. The possibility of this has led to a nadir in Turkish-Russian relations not seen since 2016.
Seth J. Frantzman, executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, said Turkey’s preference is to use the regime’s offensive as an excuse to exercise more control over Idlib and get rebel groups there to be more dependent on Ankara for support.
“Turkey benefits from US support in Idlib, but isn’t interested in the US prodding it into an offensive,” he told Arab News.
“A conflict puts at risk too much for Ankara, such as its S-400 (missile system) deal (with Moscow), TurkStream (a natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Turkey) and Libya operations.”
So far, no deal has been reached between Turkey and the US regarding Idlib, following days-long meetings in Ankara.
Turkey backs some rebel groups, which it has used against Kurdish forces in Syria over the last two years.
Frantzman said Ankara wants to cement control of the provinces of Afrin and Tel Abyad, which it seized from Kurdish forces, as part of a deal with Russia that sees fewer refugees fleeing to Turkey from Idlib, which is home to 3 million civilians.
Ankara recently gave Damascus an ultimatum to withdraw from seized territory in Idlib by the end of this month or face military action.
In the span of one week, 13 Turkish soldiers were killed by shelling from forces loyal to Damascus. There are 10 Turkish observation posts entirely surrounded by regime forces.
“The consolidation of Russian and Iranian power in Syria threatens Turkey’s positions in, and its goals for, northern Syria,” Prof. Michael Tanchum, senior associate fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, told Arab News.
“The importance of Idlib must also be understood in light of Turkey’s agenda for the region of northern Syria along Turkey’s border.”
He said any further refugee influx into Turkey would be detrimental to the country’s economy and the popularity of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party.
“Thus, making a defiant stand against Russia in Idlib wouldn’t harm the ruling party’s support in Turkey and serves the AK Party’s needs,” Tanchum added.
But he said the question is one of calibration: “Can Turkey raise the cost to Russia to bring Moscow back to the table, or will escalation simply impel Russia to forcefully seek an endgame in Syria without concern for its impact on Russia-Turkey relations? If the former possibility exists, it will be a very narrow window of opportunity.”