TIC Analysis l
Turkey is signaling its willingness to use proxies to secure its interests in Syria’s Idlib Province, but the positioning of Russian and Syrian forces will limit the likelihood of deeper Turkish military engagement. In an address to legislators on Oct. 28, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that a recent attack against Turkish-backed rebel fighters in Idlib was proof that Russia was not interested in peace, as it deliberately undermined the tenuous cease-fire Ankara and Moscow reached in March. Erdogan also reiterated his government’s interventionist policy in Syria designed to clear Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) militants from Turkey’s border.
- On Oct. 26, suspected Russian airstrikes targeted a camp in northwest Syria run by Failaq al-Sham, one of the main Turkey-backed rebel factions, which has reportedly also sent forces to Azerbaijan to help fight against Russia-allied Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
- Turkey has long targeted Kurdish militants in Syria in an attempt to weaken the decades-long PKK insurgency inside Turkey itself. Turkey also seeks to create a buffer zone on the border with Syria in Idlib, where it can limit engagement between Syria and Turkey-based Kurdish militants.
Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may be amplifying tensions in Syria in an effort to stem the further erosion of Turkish influence in Idlib, as well as divert domestic attention away from Turkey’s deteriorating economy. Turkey’s economy is struggling with a declining currency that recently hit record lows, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and declining financial reserves. In Syria, Turkey’s withdrawal from military posts designed to secure its position in Idlib has undermined its sphere of influence in northern Syria.
- Security is a major plank of the AKP’s platform, and crackdowns on the PKK are typically popular with the nationalist Turks that the party counts on for support.
- Syrian and Russian forces have ramped up their presence in Idlib since Turkey last invaded the region in October 2019.
Turkey will likely use its Syrian proxy forces to retaliate against the latest attack in Idlib, but further provocations by Syrian and Russian forces may eventually prompt Turkey to use its own military. Turkey maintains a network of proxies and militias able to harass Russian and Syrian positions along the frontlines, and Ankara may be willing to back more widespread attacks that strain its cease-fire with Moscow. However, Russian displeasure with Turkish behavior in other foreign theaters — namely, in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict — may embolden Moscow’s allies in Syria to undermine the cease-fire themselves, with attacks that could draw Turkish forces back into another major confrontation in the province.
- Syrian forces have been previously constrained by Moscow’s desire to maintain a cease-fire with Turkey in Syria after a confrontation in March led to a series of direct clashes between the two countries. However, Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan against Russian ally Armenia in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (which has reportedly included using Syrian militias) is further straining Moscow and Ankara’s ties.