Turks and Syrians heading towards a major conflict

Turkey and Syria are now directly involved in the military confrontation and this time not through proxies but through their regular troops since the start of this month. This all started when on February 3 Syrian artillery killed eight Turkish military and civilian support personnel, which resulted in heavy retaliatory strikes by the Turkish forces that resulted in at least dozens of casualties on Syrian side. Then again on February 10 Syrian army killed five Turkish soldiers through its heavy shelling when Turkish observation post at Taftanaz airbase was hit. Turkey   also responded to this provocation strongly by targeting number of Syrian military targets. Moreover, Turks have moved their 5,000 troops and deployed tanks and armor in Syria’s Idlib province. There have been skirmishes between Syrian and Turkish troops at the observation posts in Idlib before, but direct confrontation between the two militaries of this scale was never seen in nine years old Syrian conflict. Longstanding animosity between Turkey and Syria grew to new heights as President Assad launched a major offensive to retake Idlib, the Turkey backed rebels last bastion since November last year. Turkey desperately wants to stop this intense campaign of the Syrian regime as Turks know very well in the heat of this offensive their proxy militias would melt away leaving them with no major force on Syrian soil. In addition to this Turkey also doesn’t want that a new wave of Syrian refugees because of this offensive comes to its border as they already hosting around 3.6 million Syrian refugees. But the Syrian government is determined to press with this operation to complete its victory in the civil war.

This recent escalation is just a start of a major confrontation between Syrians and Turks as Assad’s and Erdogan’s goals in North Eastern Syria overlap. There is lot of bitterness in Syrian-Turkish relations hence it will be hard for both the countries to disengage from a military confrontation. Recent direct clashes can be best described as eruption of a volcano in which lava was getting collected since the start of Syrian conflict. Turkey was a firm opponent of the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protests in 2011 and later an armed uprising in Syria, which was in part supported by Ankara. While Turkey was not the only external power to intervene in Syria but was the first and the most prominent and provided access to others. Turkish President Erdogan’s intervention began in May 2011 just two months after protests erupted in Syria. He convened a meeting in Istanbul of Syrian opposition factions to discuss how to effect regime change. In July, 2011 Turkey started recruiting Syrian army deserters for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with the aim of using force to topple Assad who, Ankara believed would “fall within weeks”. Syrian regime of President Bashar Al Assad believe that Syria would have escaped almost nine years of war. If Turkey had not intervened militarily and politically when Arab Spring anti-government protests erupted in March, 2011. Without Turkey’s early involvement, Damascus’s crackdown would have ended the protests and the government would have initiated promised reforms. Both Syria and Turkey perceive each other as devils if we look from Turkey point of view a hostile Syrian state is a national security threat and if we take Syria’s view, they believe that Turkey is their biggest enemy as Turks are responsible for destruction of their country.

Another major area of disagreement between Turkey and Syria is the future political settlement. Turkey wants the Syrian rebel forces which it supports to retain control of a sizable territory in Syria to strengthen its hand in negotiations for a new constitution and a political settlement. But Syrian President has vowed again and again that his regime is committed to reclaim every inch of Syrian territory. Moreover, Syrian government has demanded the immediate disarmament of Turkish backed rebel groups but Turkey says any disarmament should come only after a political settlement. With so much disagreements and resentment against each other and with no area of mutual interest to cooperate it will be very hard even for Russia to keep Syria and Turkey away from each other. Even if in near future Russia is able to manage some sort of ceasefire between Turks and Syrians definitely, they won’t be able to sustain that for long. As both the countries have conflicting interests and see the current situation very differently.

Only way forward for peace is to develop confidence between Turkey and Syria. For that top leadership of both the countries has to communicate directly and understand each other perspective and concerns. As lack of communication at top level will only contribute towards trust deficits between these two neighbours. Russia can work as interlocutor as it maintains relation with both. It has to be understood by everyone that Turkey and Syria are two pivotal states in the region any conflict between them will destabilise the whole region. Hence both have to behave very carefully and maturely.

About the Author
Manish Rai is a columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region; Editor of a geo-political news agency Views Around (VA)
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