Turkey took two major decisions on Feb. 27, in the wake of a deadly airstrike on Turkish forces in Syria. The first decision was to launch Operation Peace Shield against Bashar Assad’s forces in Idlib before the Turkish president’s deadline for a regime withdrawal. At the same time, the Turkish government announced that it would no longer stop refugees seeking to reach Europe.
Both of those decisions served as a very clear message to Western governments that ignored the unfolding crisis in Idlib and mounted pressure on Turkey to keep refugees away. They are a reminder the situation in Idlib matters not just to the Turks but also to Europe and the rest of the world. By targeting the Assad regime, Ankara proved wrong observers, who believed that Turkey would have to back down as a result of its military casualties. At the same time, the Turks internationalized the crisis, compelling Europe to share the burden of refugees.
Turkey knows all too well that its potential withdrawal from Idlib would inevitably lead to a retreat from the three Turkish-enforced safe zones in northern Syria, hence Ankara’s commitment to a harsh military response, which involves showcasing its domestic capabilities.
With the help of Turkish-made armed drones, Operation Peace Shield dealt a heavy blow to the Bashar Assad regime. The number of destroyed regime targets keeps growing. Judging by the targets, Turkey is getting ready for a ground offensive to drive regime forces out of the Sochi demarcation line.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent statements signal his firm commitment to targeting the Assad regime: “If regime forces do not leave the designated area, they will be left with no heads on their shoulders. It is our duty to destroy anyone that places at risk our dear soldiers. We will crush this oppressive regime, just as we have cracked down on terrorist groups, including Daesh, the PKK and FETÖ (Gülenist Terror Group), that targeted our nation.” To be clear, those have been some of Erdoğan’s statements on the Assad regime since the civil war started in 2011. Likewise, Turkey’s current military campaign represents the strongest response to regime forces on the ground.
Operation Peace Shield has a clear objective: Turkey wants to avoid a war of attrition with Russia and the Assad regime in Idlib. If anything, the Turks support a return to the Sochi agreement. In other words, the operation aims to stop a humanitarian catastrophe, which has already displaced millions of people, and to crack down on terrorist groups. For this purpose, Turkey offers to establish a safe zone in Idlib and effectively lays the groundwork for it. Let us recall that Assad, who pushed 1.5 million civilians toward the Turkish border, is responsible for the current crisis. Ahead of his March 5 meeting with President Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin took a positive step by announcing that he did not intend to go to war with anyone. Until that meeting, Turkey will continue to strike regime targets and prepare for a ground offensive. Therefore, all eyes are fixed on the two leaders’ meeting. A new agreement will serve the interests of both nations since Russia cannot wrap up the Syrian civil war without Turkish support.
Turkey’s decision to allow refugees to leave for Europe, too, was quite significant. The Turks repeatedly urged the European Union to abide by the 2016 refugee deal and called on Europeans to do something about the humanitarian crisis in Idlib. The EU responded with inaction. Yet the prospect of 1.5 million additional refugees ending up in Turkey was the final straw. Turkey now tells Brussels that illegal immigration is a European problem, too, and that the Europeans can no longer ignore their responsibilities. Over 100,000 people have reportedly left Turkey for Greece and Bulgaria. The number is expected to reach millions shortly. The Europeans need to stop whining and come up with concrete measures, fast.
European officials who have been telling Turkey to stop complaining because Ankara was receiving EU money should never forget how Erdoğan offered Angela Merkel 100 million euros to send all the refugees to Germany. They should not offer a new deal involving several billion euros, either. The burden of refugees is heavy, and Europe is dealing with Erdoğan, not just another national leader.