How did Turkey, Russia and the Syrian regime get to the Feb. 27 crises in Idlib
Updated: Feb 29, 2020
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Turkey suffered unprecedented losses in Idlib on Thursday February 27, 2020 with dozens of soldiers killed and injured by Syrian regime strikes. It is one of several increasingly deadly incidents for Turkish forces in Idlib in February as it sent thousands of soldiers into the northern province due to an emerging crises.
Turkey has increased its mission in Idlib at the same time that it has reached out to the US and NATO for support and expected Russia to pressure the Syrian regime to pause an offensive that has driven hundreds of thousands into new IDP camps. Turkey's role here is complex because it involves mission creep from its first decisions to enter Syria in 2016 during Euphrates Shield.
So how did Turkey, Russia and the Syrian regime get to this point. In some ways this is a new era in the Syrian conflict. What began as protests in 2011 and then armed rebellion in 2012 became increasingly a battlefield for major powers. The US entered to fight ISIS and to support the rebels clandestinely. The former program became a success and US forces and the SDF, created in 2015, came to control eastern Syria, taking Raqqa in 2017 and defeating ISIS in Baghouz in March 2019. The US judged the Syrian rebel support mostly a failure and wrapped it up after US President Donald Trump came into office in 2017.
Russia entered Syria in a major shift in 2015 and by 2016 had helped the Syrian regime retake Aleppo. Other victories followed, over ISIS in Palmyra and Deir Ezzor, for instance. The Syrian regime, after a ceasefire in the south with the US and Jordan, also retook the whole of the south in the summer of 2018. Turkey meanwhile began to take over swaths off northern Syria by backing Syrian rebels it had co-opted into the Syrian National Army (SNA) or TFSA. Operations included Jarabulus, then the setting up of observation posts in Idlib in 2017, and then Afrin in 2018 and Tel Abyad in 2019. Turkey used the SNA to fight the Kurdish YPG and then encouraged them to fight in Libya, neutralizing the very force it had helped create.
Amidst all this Iran also became increasingly involved since 2012. Iran's role gave it a seat at the table in the Russian-backed Astana process. It also meant the deployment of more than 1,000 Iranians to Syria as advisors and also the increasing role of Qasem Soleimani as well as Iraqi-based Shi'ite militias and militias from as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan, recruited by the IRGC.
Turkey's tensions with the regime and with Russia simmered over time from 2015 to 2016. Russia's ambassador to Syria was killed on December 2016. Turkey also downed a Russian warplane in 2015. Incidents like these are important because they have the potential to be game-changers when planes are shot down or new technology is injected into the Syrian conflict. It's not the only Russian plane shot down, for instance. A Russian plane was also shot down by accident by the Syrian regime in 2018 during an Israeli airstrike. Syria also lost planes to US and Israeli fire in 2017 and 2018. Since the beginning of the war many powers have been reticent to provide MANPADs to the rebels. A Syrian military helicopter was shot down on February 14, 2020, for instance.
To manage the conflict and reduce the chance for escalation between major powers, Russia pushed for talks in Astana with Iran and Turkey. Those talks continued from 2017 and changed the Syrian conflict fundamentally, enabling the Syrian regime to incrementally take back parts of the country.
As Turkey pivoted toward Russia, via an S-400 deal that progressed from 2017 to 2020, and via a TurkStream energy deal and discussions about Libya in December 2019, Turkey and Russia agreed to a Sochi agreement on Idlib in September 2018 and also joint patrols after Turkey invaded Tel Abyad and the US withdrew. Turkey, Russia and Iran all appeared to agree that the US role in eastern Syria was unwanted. Turkey accused the US of training "terrorists." That was the context by which Turkey found itself in Idlib without the backing it later claimed it wanted from the US, NATO and the EU.
Turkey did not expect the Syrian regime to be as successful in its Idlib offensive in late January as the regime ended up being. Backed by Russian airport the regime took Ma'arat al-Numan on January 28. On February 4 the regime pushed into Saraqib along the important M4 highway. On February 16 it seized numerous villages near Aleppo city. The rapid advance sent around 900,000 people fleeing. Turkey sent forces into Idlib as its observation posts were overrun. 8 Turkish personnel were killed on February 3. On February 10 five more Turkish soldiers were killed. Turkey claimed that it retaliated against the regime, but some of its claims of using F-16s appeared to be boasting. Two more Turkish soldiers were killed on February 20. The worst incident came on February 27 when it is thought around 33 Turkish soldiers were killed.
Turkey reached out to Russia at Munich Security Conference where the foreign ministers met on February 15. Turkey sent a delegation to Moscow on February 17 but nothing came of it. Trump and Erdogan also spoke on the phone the same day. The defense ministers of Turkey and Russia spoke on February 22. On February 22 Turkey also said there would be a March 5 summit on Syria with Russia, France and Germany. Putin and Erdogan had discussed Libya in January and they were supposed to discuss the tensions in Idlib. But Turkey was also asking the US for Patriots and NATO for help. After the February 27 killing, Turkey said it would send refugees to Europe to get the EU to do something in Idlib.
Meanwhile Turkey sent thousands of troops and armored vehicles into Idlib and backed Syrian opposition, mostly HTS forces, to attack Nayrab and Saraqib on February 24-26. The opposition forces were successful after some losses on February 21. A Syrian regime counterattack on February 27 resulted in the Turkish casualties. Turkey claimed it struck back, destroying dozens of regime tanks and hitting numerous targets. The overall picture is chaotic. But this is how the crises developed.
March 2011 Dara'a protests in Syria met with crackdown
July 2011 Free Syrian Army founded
December 2011 Arab League visits Homs during conflict
June 2012 First Geneva talks take place
November 2012 kidnapping of journalist Steven Foley and others by Islamists in Idlib
December 2012 Rebels make advances in Aleppo
May 2013 Reyhanli car bombings
May 2013 Hezbollah enters Syria to aid regime in Qusayr battle
July 2013 YPG and Syrian rebels clash in Tel Abyad
September 2013 US begins weapons delivery to rebels ($1 billion CIA-backed program)
January 2014 ISIS seizes Raqqa
September 2014-January 2015 Battle of Kobane sees US support Kurds
February 2015 Turkey first enters Syria to withdraw historic tomb
June 2015 election in Turkey (second in November 2015)
September 2015 Russia enters Syrian conflict with bombing
October 2015 SDF founded
November 2015 Russian jet downed by Turkey
November 2015 PKK-Turkey ceasefire ends
July 2016 Coup attempt in Turkey
August 2016 Turkey launches Euphrates shield near Jarabulus
December 2016 to March 2017: Initiation of Astana talks
December 2016 Aleppo falls to regime
April 2017 Turkey presidential referendum
June 2017 Raqqa liberated
June 2017 US downs Syrian regime warplane
July 2017 US ends support for Syrian rebels
September 2017 Turkey enters Idlib, sets up observation points until may 2018
December 2017 Turkey announces creation of SNA or TFSA
February 2018 Iranian drone shot down by Israel after flying from T-4
February 2018 Syrian/Russian mercenaries attack SDF and US near Khasham
July 2018 Israel shoots down Syrian regime airplane
January-March Turkey invades Afrin to fight YPG (Olive Branch)
July 2018 Syrian regime retakes areas near Golan
September 2018 Sochi agreement between Turkey-Russia on Idlib
September 2018 Syrian regime downs Russian plane by mistake shooting at Israelis
January 2019 Israel says it has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes against Iran in Syria March 2019 ISIS loses final Baghouz stronghold
October 2019 US withdraws and Turkey invades Tel Abyad (Peace Spring)
October 2019 Russia and Turkey agree on joint patrols after Turkish invasion
February 2019 900,000 flee Idlib in face of Syrian regime offensive
February 2019 Dozens of Turkish troops killed, tensions rise with Russia