For several months now, the Syrian army and its ally Russia have been making advances in the last major rebel-held region of Idlib, recapturing what has been estimated a 45% of the territory so far. These advances are clashing with the main rebellion sponsor Turkey’s policy and strategy on the conflict.
The battle of Idlib is especially significant for Turkey as Erdogan faces a refugee crisis spilling into his country. This spillover is causing serious implications for Erdogan such as the socio-economic burden of hosting an ever-increasing number of refugees and consequently turning the Turkish population against the refugee crisis; the prospect of Turkey inheriting Syrian rebel groups for which Turkey does not seem to have a future plan for; and of course the prospect of further escalation of the conflict in the attempt to prevent the above-mentioned implications.
In efforts to protect its borders, Turkey is trying to build leverage and show Syria and Russia that its army can inflict enough damage by destroying Syrian capabilities. But the Syrian army with the strong help of Russia is maintaining dominance over the dispute, which Ankara cannot afford to undermine if it is trying to reduce the refugee flow into Turkish territory.
On 28 February, 33 Turkish soldiers were killed after an air-strike manned by Russia and dozens Syrian more were injured. The Turkish army then retaliated with artillery fire on ‘all known’ Syrian government targets. These back and forth retaliatory attacks are not only raising the risk of conflict escalation but causing a devastating humanitarian crisis. Ankara’s first order of business should be to maintain a balance between its foreign and military policies and regaining Western support in Idlib.
However, with social services over-stretching and the fear of draining the country’s resources due to areas being densely populated by refugees – Erdogan made a decision, putting back the Syrian conflict and consequent refugee crisis back in the West’s agenda. Erdogan lifted the restrictions on the sea and land borders with Greece agreed in the March 2016 migration agreement. This decision prompted thousands of refugees to head to the border in hope of reaching Europe.
Greek authorities greeted the new influx of refugees with inhumane practices such as using tear gas and water cannons in the attempt to push them back out of their border, seeing a child drowned off the island of Lesbos on 2 March. Greece has obstructed the entry of 42,000 refugees and rejected all allegations of mistreatment, creating tensions between Athens and Ankara. Ankara’s unexpected decision came with the wish of putting pressure on European countries to support its presence in Idlib and secure the funding for the refugee crisis in Turkey, as promised under the March 2016 agreement.
The agreement included a provision on EU-Turkey cooperation scheme to improve humanitarian conditions in Turkey and Syria. But promises have been broken on both sides. The escalation of the conflict in Idlib triggers the urgency of maintaining these promises to preserve cooperation on migration. Therefore, the EU and Turkey should renew their diplomatic engagement by revisiting the March 2016 migration agreement, while Turkey halts its reckless retaliatory operation in Syria.