Turkey Launches Attacks against Syria, Killing 35 Syrian Soldiers

In December 2019 President Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey aims to settle one million Syrian war refugees – currently in tent cities in Turkey — in Idlib. Turkey has established its observation posts, deployed its military, and offered support to anti-regime rebels as part of two separate efforts: the first was to fight Kurdish forces in the area, the second was to prepare the ground for moving some of the Syrian refugees currently in Turkey back into Syria. Turkey has been carrying out military operation in northwest Syria since last October.

The Turkish military operation in northern Syria began on 8 October 2019, two days after President Donald Trump announced that he was withdrawing U.S. forces from the area, in effect giving Turkey the green light to escalate its attacks against the Kurds. Erdogan said at the time that the deployment of Turkish troops inside Syria was essential to “prevent the creation of a terror corridor” on the Syrian-Turkish border, but he was forced to suspend the heavy-handed operation after international criticism.

Turkey and Russia agreed to stop acts of aggression and turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone, but the Syrian regime has routinely violated the cease-fire, launching frequent attacks inside the de-escalation zone. The main goal of the Assad regime since 2011 has been to empty Syria of as many Sunnis as possible in order to make the country’s demographic balance more favorable to the ruling Alawite minority. Since 2011, when the civil war began, the Assad regime has conducted the largest ethnic cleansing campaign since similar campaigns by the Nazis in the Second World War.

Since 2011, the Assad regime killed about 480,000 Sunni civilians (the war’s 560,000 death toll includes about 80,000 combatants on all sides), and systematically destroyed the infrastructure of Sunni towns, villages, and neighborhoods, forcing more than 11 million Sunnis out of their homes (5.6 million Syrians have fled the country, and 6.1 million have been internally displaced).

Turkey and Russia may have agreed on a plan which would see the return of about a million Sunni refugees from Turkey into Idlib Province, but Assad has not forced millions of Sunnis out of Syria only to see them come back.

To prevent the return of Syrian Sunnis to Syria, his forces, as they have done through Syria during the civil war, have been aiming to make Idlib province uninhabitable by systematically destroying the province’s infrastructure: water systems, water and sewage treatment facilities, roads, bridges, schools, and provincial government buildings. Aided by Russia and Iran, the Syrian forces have specifically targeted hospitals and clinics, and killing doctors and nurses, in order to facilitate the spread of deadly diseases.

The attack on Turkish forces on Monday was meant to send a signal to Turkey that Assad may tolerate Turkish operations against the Kurds, but will not accept million Sunni refugees in Idlib.

Analysts say that the big question involves Russia’s reaction to the growing tensions between Syria and Turkey. Russia was the biggest winner from Trump’s impulsive decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the country, and Russia already must deal with the on-going war between Israel and Iran which takes place on Syrian soil. How Russia responds to the recent escalation will be key as to whether both sides agree to a new arrangement in Idlib or further escalate  their direct military conflict.