Turkey Exploits Seams of Russo-Iranian Coalition in Idlib

Key Takeaway: Turkey is succeeding in its campaign of imposing cost on pro-regime forces in northwestern Syria. Turkey’s recent deployment to reinforce the de-escalation zone in Idlib Province capitalizes on the divergent tactical prioritizations between Russia and Iran in Syria. Turkey will continue to prioritize this campaign in order to preserve a safe haven for the Syrian opposition in al Qaeda-dominated Idlib Province.

Turkey successfully established a blocking position against pro-regime forces south of Aleppo City. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) deployed a convoy of up to 100 armored vehicles to establish an observation post near the town of al Eis - a key position on frontlines between opposition groups and pro-regime forces south of Aleppo City - on February 5. The TSK also confirmed ongoing efforts to establish two additional “observation points” at unspecified locations in northern Syria. Turkey conducted the deployment under the framework of the reported de-escalation zone across Idlib Province and parts of Aleppo Province brokered by Russia, Iran, and Turkey at the Astana Talks. Turkey withdrew from a previous attempt to establish a base near al Eis on January 29 after its forces were targeted by shelling from Iranian-backed proxy forces and a suspected VBIED from unidentified militants.

Turkey likely sought renewed guarantees from Russia to ensure the safety of the Turkish Armed Forces in Idlib Province; however, these guarantees remain insufficient. Pro-regime forces reportedly shelled the new observation post following its establishment at al Eis on February 5, killing at least one Turkish soldier. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran likely intend to disrupt any deal that enshrines a long-term presence from Turkey in Syria. Iran likely also views the deployment as an attempt to block a future pro-regime offensive to lift a siege of the majority-Shi’a towns of Fu’ah and Kefraya near Idlib City. Turkey could attempt to exploit these tensions to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran over the de-escalation zone in Greater Idlib Province. Russian media has positively framed the recent deployment as an effort to “sustain” the de-escalation zone – a message consistent with Russia’s diplomatic efforts to expedite the “end” of the Syrian Civil War.

Turkey likely seeks to raise the cost of pro-regime operations to seize terrain in Idlib Province. Turkey likely escalated its engagement in Idlib Province partly as a response to continued pro-regime advances towards the key opposition-held town of Saraqib in Idlib Province. Saraqib sits along the strategic M5 Highway between Hama City and Aleppo City and provides an ideal staging ground for further operations towards Fu’ah and Kefraya or Idlib City. Turkey deployed into Idlib Province after Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) - al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria - claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian Su-25 “Frogfoot” in eastern Idlib Province on February 3. Turkey may have provided HTS with the man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) to signal its dissatisfaction with Russia’s ongoing air campaign in support of pro-regime forces in Idlib Province. Turkey previously provided military equipment to opposition forces in an attempt to block the ongoing pro-regime offensive towards Abu al Dhuhur Airbase in eastern Idlib Province in early January 2018. This military support included armored vehicles as well as the potential provision of MANPADS. Turkey will continue to prioritize its efforts to protect a durable safe haven for opposition forces in al Qaeda-dominated Idlib Province alongside its ongoing operations against the Syrian Kurdish YPG in northern Syria.

This is an update to ISW’s series on Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria, most recently to include “Turkey Escalates against Pro-Assad Forces to Protect Afrin Operation.”