After nine bloody years of conflict in Syria, dictator Bashar Assad is still in power thanks to the ignorance of the U.S.-led coalition countries and the help he got from Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, etc. Not only that, but Syria has been divided into several zones under different forces' control. In the meantime, during the civil war, other terrorist organizations like Daesh have joined the Assad regime to create even more terror in Syria. We have seen various battles between different groups backed by different states during the seemingly endless civil war.
Sharing a 911-kilometer border with Syria, Turkey has inevitably been one of the most affected and most engaged countries in its neighbor's civil war, as it hosts more than 3.5 million refugees who have fled their war-torn homeland. Despite all the threats, Turkey has never backed away from its humanitarian policy on Syria.
There was a heroic beauty in it, but it came with a price. Many of Turkey's internal matters which led to unrest were directly or indirectly related to Syria. As Syria's displaced population became a victim of the Arab Spring, Turkey, which was previously shown as a model for Middle Eastern countries, turned into a scapegoat as well. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was prime minister during the first three years of the Syrian civil war, was the primary target of global powers and regional players, as he refused to change Turkey's humanitarian policy toward Syria while a new anti-Erdoğan way of doing politics, a new form of opposition, emerged in Turkey, too. Opposition parties and figures have criticized Erdoğan for allowing Syrian refugees to settle in the country. They even presented their xenophobic arguments as their promises during the elections. The opposition leaders vowed to send Syrians back to war-torn Syria. They kept saying that Erdoğan is an authoritarian leader, but many of them chose to ignore Syrian butcher Assad's crimes.
The side effects
As the Syria problem remains far from a solution, it has also started to affect Turkey's relations with other countries. Having all-around relations from the West to the East before that, Turkey has been left alone by its Western allies and pushed into a position that the president's spokesperson İbrahim Kalın once referred to as "precious loneliness." Changing its Syria policy in 2013, the Barack Obama administration created distance between itself and Ankara, which resisted Washington's pressure for a policy shift, unlike the Western and coalition countries that quickly adopted the U.S. policies. Turkey has many times warned its Western allies about the extremism in Syria and said that no one can get rid of monsters unless the swamp is drained. Turkey was right, but no one listened.
As a result of a lack of intervention, inter-conflicts and wars within the civil war, the primary issue in Syria has been forgotten. Most importantly, Daesh found a niche to dwell in while the PKK started to seek opportunities to bring the war to Turkey. For a long time, no one talked about Assad's massacres. Taking precedence over the basic matter, Daesh became a catalyst leaving Assad's crimes in the shade and fueling the desires of the PKK, which is listed as an armed terror organization by Turkey, the U.S. and EU, to form an independent state. The PKK's Syrian offshoot YPG gained the support of the U.S. and the EU despite warnings from Ankara. Gaining power in Syria, the PKK started to threaten Turkey again, ending the two-and-a-half-year cease-fire in 2015, this time more aggressively.
In the early stages of the crisis, Ankara's priority was to stop Assad, who is primarily responsible for turning Syria into hell, but afterward, the YPG started to gain an autonomous region along the Turkish border with the help of the U.S.-led alliance while the Daesh threat continued to worsen. In fact, Daesh paved the way for the PKK. At that time, Daesh was fighting against the Syrian opposition fighters and taking the lands from them; then the U.S.-backed PKK was coming and putting those lands in its pocket. That was how the Syrian map's green zones turned black first; then they became yellow.
And they did not stay only on Syrian soil. The terror groups targeted Turkey as well. Emerging threats toward the country through the Syrian border accompanied by deadly terror campaigns inside. Both the PKK and Daesh carried dozens of deadly terror attacks in Turkey, in which many Turkish civilians and soldiers lost their lives. Once again, Turkey was the most affected country from the rising terror in Syria. All those deadly developments were pushing Ankara to change its priorities to part ways with its initial Syria policy, which was mostly based on humanitarian grounds. Turkey's priority shifted from focusing on the humanitarian side of the war in Syria to securing its own borders. The PKK's attacks in Turkey were ignored by the U.S. and the EU, and Daesh became an unpredictable danger to everyone in the world thanks to the miscalculated Middle East policies of the West. Turkey has seen that the road to hell is really paved with good intentions.
In fact, Ankara's priorities concerning Syria changed a couple of times in nine years based on the increasing threats. Ankara first asked Assad to make reforms until it understood that he would never stop killing his own people. The Assad regime was the primary threat to Turkey in 2012-13; then Daesh took its place in 2014 and then, the PKK/YPG in 2015-16. Ankara's statements showed these priorities change every time.
Changing strategies due to changing conditions and making priority adjustments became inevitable in such a long-term complex conflict. However, not even one of the choices was permanent for Turkey as all the threats were national security problems for the country. Turkey was locked in a labyrinth.
Everyone was asking: Would Ankara choose to fight Assad or the PKK? Would it continue to run around in the labyrinth, or would it say enough is enough, or would it pay heed to the accusations with no credible grounds such as that "Turkey supports Daesh"?
Turkey did something else and surprised everyone. It started to run the show. It was still patiently trying to convince others that the PKK was a terror organization and a threat as much as Daesh. But also, it put its fights with the trio in a row.
The on-ground operations
Turkey has carried three ground operations in Syria. Following Operation Euphrates Shield against Daesh in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch against the YPG in Afrin in 2018, it launched Operation Peace Spring in 2019 to cleanse northern Syria of the YPG elements no matter what the consequences.
To recap – a deal was reached by Turkey and the U.S on Aug. 7. 2019. Both states were going to implement initial measures immediately to address Turkey's security concerns, establish joint operations against threats and coordinate and manage the establishment of a safe zone together. Both countries maintained that the safe zone in question would become a "peace corridor" and every effort would be made to help displaced Syrians return home. Keeping in mind Washington's track record of not living up to promises, Ankara decided to act alone putting the U.S. in a tough spot: Either they would reach a deal with Turkey or they would end up rubbing a NATO ally the wrong way, affecting the future of the alliance. Trump chose to make a deal. Accordingly, the YPG was going to pull back from Turkey's proposed 32-kilometer-deep safe zone on Turkey's border. They would wait 120 hours after which Turkey would resume its operation if the YPG terrorists did not withdraw.
This was the first success of Turkey as it initiated a de facto shift on the ground, which brought the U.S. to the table once again, but this time the U.S. had to be serious. At that moment, Russia, the other superpower, appeared in the play zone.
Another agreement was reached by President Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin with regard to northern Syria. According to the memorandum signed by Turkey and Russia, Russian military police and Syrian border guards would enter the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border, outside the area of Operation Peace Spring, to facilitate the removal of YPG elements and their weapons 30 kilometers from the Turkish-Syrian border, which should be finalized in 150 hours. After that, joint Russian-Turkish patrols would start in the west and the east of the area of Operation Peace Spring within a depth of 10 kilometers, excluding Qamishli city.
In less than two weeks, a new phase commenced in Syria as Turkey shifted the balance to the northeast of the war-torn country. The map of territorial control changed once again.
The Daesh threat was eliminated, and Operation Peace Spring against the YPG is still going on successfully. As Ankara put its priorities in a row, it successfully stopped the first two national security threats. However, the Assad problem is still there. Despite agreements between Russia and Turkey to prevent more aggression, the Syrian regime hasn't stopped attacking Idlib, escalating violence gradually since 2018.
Civilians in these areas had to flee to cities close to the Turkish border, especially those in Idlib province. Continued violations by the Assad regime and its allies and radical groups inside Idlib are major risks in Idlib, and there is a huge possibility of a new refugee crisis, which makes the situation in the province a crucial national security problem for Turkey. Currently, there are more than a million Syrians waiting at the Turkish border. Since the end of 2018, the Assad regime backed by Russia and Iran killed more than 1,800 civilians in Idlib.
Russian, Iranian and Turkish observation points around Idlib, which were decided under the Astana deal, were the main guarantee of the cease-fire. Other than that, Erdoğan and Putin agreed to establish a demilitarized zone along the border of Idlib that would be around 15-20 kilometers wide on Sept. 18, 2018.
But Turkish observation points have been under attack by the Syrian regime since last summer. Recently, the Assad regime deliberately killed 13 Turkish soldiers in Idlib. This is the most crucial and direct attack on Turkish forces in Idlib by the regime forces. The last escalation to control Idlib marks a rare confrontation between Turkish and the regime forces. It means a new era has begun in Syria. Before this, the regime had been targeting civilians and bombing cities while getting help from Russian forces, and it had been trying to advance in Idlib. But now, we are in a new period as the regime attacked Turkish forces. This is a big breaking point that signals that the structure of clashes in Idlib will change.
For a long time, we have known that Idlib is where the fighting escalated. Turkey and Russia have been trying to delay the unavoidable. In addition to the huge refugee influx risk, the killing of Turkish forces now means that Turkey's national security has been directly threatened. If the status quo in Idlib that was reached under the Sochi agreement between Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin is not protected, Turkey, the country that is extremely affected by the fighting in Syria, will have to protect its interests by any means. The Assad forces' disruptive attack has clearly violated the terms of the Astana and Sochi agreements, which are also committed to ensuring the national security of Turkey.
Erdoğan said on Wednesday that Turkey will strike Syrian regime forces "anywhere" if one more Turkish soldier is hurt and could use airpower if need be." Addressing Parliament in Ankara, he stated that Turkey is determined to push Syrian regime forces beyond Turkish observation posts in the northwestern Idlib region by the end of February. "We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground," he added.
More than that, when journalists asked him if a new era was starting and if there would be a new ground operation in Syria, he said the situation is moving in that direction.
That means Turkey will not hesitate to act alone in Idlib if the Assad regime continues to violate the ongoing agreements. Turkey acted toward other threats in Turkey and Syria, even though the other states, even the superpowers, were against it; it will do the same to protect Turkish soldiers and Syrian civilians as well as its interests. Ankara was forced to change its priorities before as the emerging threats evolved. It dealt with two of them successfully. And it will be successful if this last threat forces its hands. Russia has to leash Assad forces if it wants to control the situation in Idlib.