ANKARA: As part of measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the Turkish Defense Ministry announced on Sunday that it would decrease troop movements in Syria.
As Turkey’s death toll from COVID-19 rose to 574 over the weekend, the entry and exit of Turkish troops and staff into operation zones in Syria will now be subject to permission from the head of the army. All Turkish borders with neighboring states have also been sealed.
“As Turkey takes the risk of contagion more seriously in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, this will inevitably dampen Turkish combat operations, especially in Syria, where Ankara has a large number of troops deployed,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Program at the Washington Institute, told Arab News.
Before the outbreak of the virus, Turkish forces had bolstered their deployment in northern Syria earlier this year in rebel-held Idlib.
With constant clashes between regime forces and rebels in Idlib, despite the announcement of a ceasefire on March 6, a total withdrawal of Turkish troops is unlikely, especially considering the exit costs that such a withdrawal would have on domestic politics.
However, the overpopulation of displacement camps and weak health infrastructure in Idlib has sparked concerns about a potential and serious pandemic in the area. Turkey has as a result sent medical teams to the area to test potential cases of respiratory problems among its troops.
Last month, Turkey increased its military observation points in Idlib to 50 with the establishment of a new outpost near Jisr Al-Shughur in the western countryside of Idlib. The deployment of Turkish forces in Idlib aims to prevent the advance of regime forces, and to secure the strategically vital M4 highway.
Meanwhile, regime forces and armed opposition factions have clashed throughout northwest Syria, flouting the March 6 ceasefire.
Karol Wasilewski, a Turkey analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said that there were three levels on which Turkish operations in Syria could be tested.
“The first one is tied to the limited mobility of the Turkish military, which will be imposed by the coronavirus precaution. The Turks will have to find a solution to continue to impose control over the territory with limited ability to move troops,” he told Arab News.
The second, according to Wasilewski, is a domestic challenge of an epidemic in Turkey — if the pace of COVID-19 in Turkey continues to spread along its current trend, and the state of Turkey’s economy worsens, military operations abroad could prove too costly.
“The third is connected to Russia and Syria’s reactions. If they, for example, re-start (their)
Idlib offensive, Turkey will be under even more pressure, as the coronavirus will be spreading widely among the refugees,” Wasilewski noted.
Turkish armed forces patrolled the M4 highway linking Aleppo and Latakia on Monday in conjunction with Russian troops, but the patrol was limited in its range on account of Turkey’s new security measures.
Navvar Saban, a military expert from the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies, said the precautions Turkey had imposed were belated because the area was already at risk of COVID-19 due to the movements of regime troops and Iranian-backed militias.
“They should prevent (Turkish troops) from moving around the area and have some portable medical stations around their bases to help civilians too. These are the only precautions they can do now. Pulling out troops will weaken the defense of the area, and the Iranian militias can take advantage,” he told Arab News.