Turkey Escalates against Pro-Assad Forces to Protect Afrin Operation


By Elizabeth Teoman and Jennifer Cafarella with the ISW Syria Team

Key Takeaway: The Assad regime and Iran attacked Turkish forces that deployed into Syria with apparent Russian permission to establish a blocking position near a critical front line south of Aleppo City. Turkey’s goal was to deter Assad and Iran from providing military support to Kurdish forces defending Afrin against a Turkish offensive. Turkish forces stopped short of their objective after coming under fire and it is unclear whether they will resume their advance. Iran and Assad are acting as spoilers to demonstrate that Russia cannot fully control them.

Pro-Assad regime forces attacked a Turkish convoy that deployed from Turkey into Syria on January 29. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) deployed a convoy of up to 100 armored vehicles with air support from Turkish F-16 fighter jets to establish a blocking position near a key front line between pro- and anti- Assad regime forces south of Aleppo City on January 29. Turkish forces previously reconnoitered an area near the frontline village of al Eis, on January 24. Turkey coordinated its deployment with al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Unidentified pro-Assad regime forces attacked Turkey’s convoy with artillery fire as it transited through opposition and al Qaeda-held terrain, forcing the convoy to stop short of its objective. It is unclear whether Turkish forces will fortify in place, resume their advance, or withdraw. The establishment of a Turkish position near al Eis would provide Turkey leverage over Iran and Assad by blocking a future offensive to lift a siege on two Shi’a-majority towns, Fu’a and Kafraya north of Idlib City. The liberation of these towns is a priority for Iran and Assad in Syria.  

Turkey seeks to deter Assad and Iran from supporting the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin. Turkish forces and Turkish-backed opposition forces have made slow but steady progress on multiple fronts along the Syrian Turkish border amid fierce YPG resistance and adverse weather conditions. Assad has allowed YPG and allied groups to deploy reinforcements to Afrin through regime-held terrain. Assad and Iran may be providing advanced weapons systems to the YPG. Turkey seeks to keep Assad and Iran on the sidelines in order to prevent its intervention in Afrin from escalating into a large-scale conflict with pro-Assad regime forces in the near term. The YPG called for a full regime military intervention in Afrin on January 24 after initially rejecting a Russian proposal for the handover of Afrin to pro-Assad regime forces to avoid Turkey’s intervention. The YPG’s call for direct regime support likely triggered Turkey’s deployment into Aleppo. 
Russia intended to allow the Turkish deployment but could not control pro-Assad regime forces. The involvement of the Turkish Air Force indicates that Russia allowed the operation. Russia has refrained from condemning the deployment, moreover. Turkey’s deployment to south of Aleppo fulfills Russia’s request for Turkey to establish additional “observation points” along front lines in northwestern Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Russia’s desire for Turkey to deploy additional “observers” near Idlib Province on January 15. Russia most likely did not approve the attack against the Turkish convoy on January 29. Iran and Assad oppose the deployment of Turkish forces into Syria, reflecting divergent priorities among the pro-Assad regime coalition. Iran and Assad may continue to spoil deals between Russia and Turkey in northern Syria.