Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the country's Parliament on Feb. 19 that a military operation against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Idlib Governorate was only a matter of time. Ankara has given the Syrian government forces until the end of February before it initiates its military operation. Erdogan's statement came after talks with Russia - al-Assad's key ally - on establishing a safe military zone failed to yield results. Erdogan has also said that Ankara was committed to transforming areas along the Syrian-Turkish border into a safe zone at any cost.
The recent developments in Idlib Governorate come after Syrian government forces intensified their military campaign to take control of the last rebel bastion in Syria. The Syrian offensive, which is backed by Iranian-aligned Shi'a militias and Russian aerial bombardment has displaced nearly 1 million Syrians, creating the largest displacement of civilians since the Civil War began in 2011. The offensive has also killed nearly 300 civilians since the beginning of January and has prompted the Turkish government to deploy at least 5,000 troops to Idlib Governorate to reinforce its military positions in the region. Absent an agreement between Ankara and Moscow sometime before the end of February, direct confrontation between Turkish and Syrian government forces remains likely and will result in additional displacement and killing of civilians.
Since the offensive by Damascus intensified in late January, clashes have regularly erupted between Turkish and Syrian government forces, with over a dozen Turkish soldiers killed in the confrontations. Recent tensions in the region mark a significant escalation in the Syrian Civil War. While Turkish forces and Turkish-backed rebels have conducted three major operations in northern Syria since 2016, this is the first time that Ankara has come to blows with the Syrian forces and threatened to engage in a direct military action. The Syrian government has seized control of several key areas in Idlib Governorate, including the strategic M5 Highway linking Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo.
Ankara's main concern and motive behind the intended military operation is to stem the flow of additional refugees into Turkey. There are already over 3 million refugees residing in Turkey. Ankara has stated that it can ill afford taking additional Syrian refugees. Turkey, which already maintains control over Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn areas in northeastern Syria, wants to establish a safe military zone in northwestern Syria. Turkey maintains at least 10 observation posts and has established additional military posts at Taftanaz Airfield and in al-Mastumah in Idlib's eastern and southern areas. However, given that the Russians retain air superiority in Idlib, Turkey's military options may remain limited without more effective air and air defense support.
Militant and Rebel Groups in Idlib
Idlib has been under the control of several rebel and militant groups since the Syrian government withdrew from the governorate in 2015. The most prominent militant groups include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is a conglomerate of numerous jihadi groups; Hurras al-Din, which has links to Al-Qaeda and is an offshoot of HTS; the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), whose fighters predominately come from China’s Xinjiang Province; and al-Nusra Front, which was an Al-Qaeda affiliated group till 2016 when it severed ties with Al-Qaeda and renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
Opposition and rebel groups backed by Ankara include the National Liberation Front (NLF), which formed in 2018 with the intention of countering HTS' influence in northern Syria. The NLF includes Islamist groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, and a number of other factions that fight under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). According to the US Department of Defense, there are 22,000 to 50,000 Turkish-aligned fighters in Idlib Governorate.
Ankara remains deeply invested in northern Syria and has regularly launched military operations to offset threats from militant organizations and Kurdish groups that maintain ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is based in Turkey. The PKK has been leading an insurgency against the Turkish government for decades and is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union, and the US.
Outlook for the Idlib Governorate
While it remains to be seen whether Ankara will launch a full-scale operation against Syrian government forces in Idlib Governorate, Turkey appears determined to engage in any action to protect its interests in Syria. While additional clashes, particularly in the form of artillery shelling between Turkish and Syrian government forces, cannot be ruled out, Ankara is highly unlikely to engage in direct military action against Russian forces in Syria. Nevertheless, a full Turkish offensive against al-Assad’s forces would significantly damage relations between Moscow and Ankara. Moscow could impose economic sanctions on Turkey and limit its cooperation with Ankara in Libya and other parts of the world.
While Turkey's key demand is that the Syrian government pull out of the areas it has captured in recent days, including the strategic M5 Highway, and return to the ceasefire lines agreed with Russia in 2018, it is likely to settle for a small Turkish-controlled safe zone in the region – particularly one that provides better security for Syria’s border with Turkey’s Hatay Province. Ultimately, however, Ankara is seeking to position itself to have some influence over any political settlement that may occur once al-Assad consolidates control over the entire country.