Ankara at crossroads to protect its borders

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The international community has again turned its back as it watches the conflict in Syria escalate. Waves of refugees fleeing towards the Turkish border, entire towns emptying as the Syrian army, backed by Russia is systematically bombing the Idlib province for days on end in line with Bashar al-Assad’s wish to recapture “every inch of Syria”. Idlib is one of the last rebel populated strongholds remaining in Syria, attributing a great strategic significance to the latest events happening in the north-western region.

The conflict is seeing direct clashes between NATO member Turkey and Assad’s regime with its top backer Russia, which raises the fear of a full-scale war between these three forces. On Monday, forces loyal to Assad fired shells at an observation post manned by Turkish troops in Taftanaz, to the north of Saraqib, killing eight Turkish citizens, one of them being a civilian. These observation posts were set by the 2017 de-escalation agreements between Turkey, Russia and Iran, but the agreements have clearly been sidelined by self-interested rival efforts by the involving parties.

So as the de-escalation agreements, part of the peace process, are being violated, the Syrian army supported by Iranian militiamen and Russian air strikes are making advances on the ground and have been capturing dozens of towns and villages in Idlib since December.

In hopes of repelling attacks, Turkey had been providing artillery and support to rebel defensive positions in the city of Saraqib, which briefly prevented the Syrian army’s takeover of the city. However, the Syrian regime succeeded in capturing the town. This capture is a major strategic territorial move as the city is located in the intersection of the M4 and M5 highways, linking the east with the west and the north with the south of Syria, giving the regime broader manoeuvre possibilities, making it even more difficult for Turkey to contain Idlib.

The Turkish army responded to the attacks on Monday allegedly hitting 54 regime targets and killing 76 Syrian soldiers. Turkey will continue to retaliate while its observation posts are being targeted and has threatened to drive back all Syrian troops behind their twelve observation posts in Idlib if the Syrian army doesn’t withdraw, claiming that they are willing to do this no matter what the consequences are. But what Turkey does not seem to be aware of is what they are up against.

Turkey cannot afford a rupture with Moscow because of  joint interests including energy pipelines, or the prospect of purchasing Russia S-400 Missile Defense Systems in defiance of fellow NATO member, the US. But more importantly, Turkey should not undermine the capabilities of the Russia-backed Syrian army and should be aware that it cannot afford to engage in a full-scale war with Syria and Russia when it is already struggling to protect its borders.

Ankara is alone in this so its first order of business should be finding a balance in its foreign policy by regaining Western support in Idlib. Further inaction from the West along with reckless retaliatory operations will be too costly for everyone – if Assad forces continue to advance, not only it will be a humanitarian disaster, but the mass exodus will spill over to Turkey, the region and Europe by pushing Islamist militants beyond Syria’s borders.

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