Syria’s latest escalation could draw all players into an all out conflict
The battles in the Syrian North between the Syrian regime and its allies and the opposition forces, backed by Turkey, have entered a new stage since the collapse of the Sochi Agreement and the regime started its military campaign to restore the areas currently under the control of the opposition, as Turkey has, for the first time, publicly declared war on the Syrian regime on March 1st. Turkey has announced that it was launching a massive offensive against Bashar Al-Assad’s forces following an airstrike that killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers and injured 30 in Idlib on Feb. 27th. The death toll represented the largest number of Turkish military personnel killed in one day since Turkey first interfered with the Syrian War in 2016.
Turkish officials held the Syrian regime responsible for the attack, and announced on Feb. 28th, following a meeting with a Russian delegation, that Turkey has emphasized to the Russian side the need for a ceasefire in Idlib to be established, and for the Syrian regime forces to withdraw back to the borders agreed upon in the Sochi agreement.
Spring Shield Operation
On March 1st, the Turkish armed forces launched multiple attacks against the Syrian regime forces, inflicting heavy losses as part of the previously-announced military offensive which was named “Spring Shield”, following the end of the deadline given by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Bashar al-Assad's forces to return to the borders of the Sochi Agreement.
The Turkish Ministry of Defense announced in a statement, that two Syrian regime fighter jets, Sukhoi Su-24, were downed after they attacked Turkish fighters. The statement also clarified that the Turkish forces destroyed three air defense systems of the Syrian regime, including one that caused the downing of a Turkish UAV in Idlib.
The Syrian regime’s affiliated-media outlets reported that the Syrian forces shot down a Turkish drone in the vicinity of Saraqeb in Idlib countryside, and the official Syrian News Agency announced that the Turkish forces targeted two Syrian warplanes in Idlib and that the pilots landed safely.
Hulusi Akar, Turkish Defence Minister announced that the results of the offensive so far have been "neutralizing 2212 regime-allied fighters, destroying a UAV, eight helicopters, 103 tanks, 72 artillery and rocket launchers, and three air defense systems", in addition to the Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jets.
According to the Anadolu Agency, Al-Nayrab military airport in Aleppo went out of service after being targeted by the Turkish army. Akar also stressed that his country has no intention of clashing with Russia, and that its aim is to "end the massacres of the regime and end radicalism and displacement".
The Syrian regime announced the closing of the airspace for aircraft flights on March 1st, and for any planes flying over the northwestern region of Syria, especially over Idlib governorate, and stated that "any aircraft that violates our airspace will be treated as hostile flights that must be shot down and prevented from achieving its aggressive goals”. Amidst the heightened escalation, the Kremlin announced on March 2nd that the Russian Ministry of Defense warned Turkey that Moscow "cannot guarantee the safety of Turkish aircraft over the Syrian Idlib region," after Damascus announced the closure of airspace over the area.
The Russian warning to Ankara comes at a time when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to visit Moscow next Thursday and hold a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, stated “we maintain our commitment to the Sochi agreements, the territorial integrity of Syria, and support the fight against radicalism, and of course we attribute great importance to cooperation with our Turkish partners."
The importance of taking control of Idlib largely lies in its strategic significance, as it is the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition forces. With the support of Russian forces, Assad has carried out a massive military operation aimed at regaining control over the territories previously dominated by opposition groups. Analysts believe that Assad has deliberately led all who remained from these groups to flee to Idlib, therefore rounding all opposition in one place. Taking control of Idlib, with the support of Russia, and ridding it of the presence of any opposition group, would enable Assad to claim victory and end the civil war.
According to The Conversation Network, through his involvement in Syria, Erdogan had three main goals; to prevent the creation of a Kurdish autonomous region in Northern Syria, intervening in Syria through a proxy war to bring down the Assad regime and form an Islamic government, and to uphold his rule in Turkey. On the other hand, Russia’s goals include the backing of the Syrian regime until it takes control of all Syrian provinces and territories, the demise of all opposition groups, and preventing a war between Assad and Turkey while protecting its interests in Syria and in the Middle East. Russia will continue its support for Assad until his forces take control of Idlib, and will not accept anything short of a complete victory, even if it will lead to a full-blown conflict with Turkey. Despite launching the latest offensive, Erdogan is expected to resort to diplomatic efforts to achieve his goals without militarily escalating the situation further. Observers have stated that Erdogan might succeed in expanding the safe zone and maintain the presence of his armed forces there, which he would consider a victory. Nonetheless, Russia will only allow this if all opposition groups in Idlib are terminated.