Tensions Escalate Between Russia And Turkey Over Syria

On the 29th February, Turkey’s President Erdogan asked Putin to back down and give Turkey a free path to combat the Syrian government, without Russian interference. The announcement follows news that on Friday 28th, Russia dispatched two state-of-the-art warships to the Syrian coast after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in the country. Although it is not clear who launched the missile attack on Turkish troops, governments worldwide suspect Russia had a hand in assisting Assad: a U.S. State Department official commented that, “at every level, every military action, seemingly however minor, is coordinated by Russian commanders.” Crucially, the actions of Turkey and Russia are dictating the course of the Syrian war, and will determine the fate of an estimated 3 million people seeking refuge in the last rebel-held territory of Idlib.

The age-old rivalry between Ankara and Moscow has recently become embedded in the Syrian conflict, and the attack on Turkish soldiers is the latest development. Whilst both sides have called for de-escalation, neither seems willing to back down, raising fears that conflict could break out between them in a region already devastated by war. Governments and international organisations are reluctant to step in: as Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, remarked, “no one wants to get militarily entangled with Russia,” and “Erdogan will have to fix this with Putin.”

Russia and Turkey, both protecting their own interests in the region, have found themselves on opposing sides. Turkey, motivated to protect its border with Syria and check Assad’s power, is backing rebel forces. Russia, on the other hand, determined to prove its military might, has supported the regime through lucrative arms deals. Both are more broadly vying for a position as the pre-eminent power in the resource rich region, as the U.S. scales back operations in the Middle East. 

In recent months tensions have come to a head in Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold in the northwest of the country, which has been subjected to relentless attacks by regime forces. Turkey is determined not to let the province fall to the regime, whilst Russia is resolute that Assad defeat the rebels and claim victory. Idlib is home to more than 3 million people, many of whom are displaced citizens. Experts fear that if Idlib falls we will see the indiscriminate execution of all military-aged men in the region. More than 1,700 citizens have been killed in the attacks so far, and as Assad’s forces close in, the bombardment is forcing citizens closer to the Turkish border. Turkish authorities have stated that since the 28th February, 18,000 Syrian migrants have collected on the border. There are already an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey: President Erdogan warns that they “are not in a situation to handle another [migration] wave,” amid increasingly vocal discontent at their presence. Moreover, the problem extends beyond Turkey – Europe is most certainly not prepared for another influx of refugees, the arrival of which would take a toll on already strained political dynamics. The mass exodus of citizens has been called the largest since the 2017 Rohingya Muslim Crisis, and threatens to become a humanitarian crisis on an unimaginable scale. 

International actors have, for too long, been fuelling a conflict which has already devastated millions of lives for their own political gain. It is vital that Turkey and Russia put the welfare of Syrian citizens above their political grudges and come to a ceasefire agreement. This would prevent a catastrophic escalation of the situation in Idlib. The lives of countless civilians hang in the balance, and European political relations, already under immense pressure from the migration crisis, might also be destabilised.