At least 33 Turkish soldiers who were illegally operating in Syria’s Idlib province were killed and another 35 injured by a Syrian military attack on Thursday night. The attack came just days before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s end of month deadline for the Syrian Army to forfeit the large swathes of area it has liberated from Turkish-backed jihadists and to return to positions it held at the beginning of the year. The powerful assault suggests that the Syrian Army has no intentions to withdraw from any positions it holds on its own land and is willing to engage the Turkish military, even under threat of a full-scale war.
Although Russia has denied any involvement in the attack, hundreds of Turks congregated at the Russian consulate in the middle of the night chanting “Russian Killers, Putin Killer.” Despite this, Ankara has ignored the emotions of the people and thus far has only blamed the Syrian government for the “nefarious attack against heroic soldiers in Idlib who were there to ensure our national security,” as described by Turkish director of communications Fahrettin Altun in a statement.
Of course, this is a long stretch to claim that Turkey is in Idlib to ensure natural security as they are the main backers of terrorist organizations like ISIS and the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra and Turkistan Islamic Party. Although they claim the Kurdish People’s Protection Units are a threat to Turkey’s national security, they have no presence in Idlib, meaning the notion that Turkey’s national security is under threat in Idlib has to be rejected and rather this is part of a project for a neo-Ottoman Empire.
Although Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the Syrian attack in the hope of invoking Article 5 and forcing NATO members into Erdoğan’s adventurism in Idlib, Article 6 explicitly excludes Article 5 being invoked in areas outside of NATO members territory. As Article 5 cannot be invoked, Stoltenberg made a weak condemnation against both Syria and Russia and said “defusing the tension, all sides should prevent this terrible situation and humanitarian conditions in the region from getting worse.”
Despite cold relations over the past few years, the U.S. has continued taking advantage of tense relations between Moscow and Ankara with a State Department representative saying “We stand by our NATO Ally Turkey and continue to call for an immediate end to this despicable offensive by the Assad regime, Russia, and Iranian-backed forces.” This was followed up by U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, saying that Turkey should see “who is their reliable partner and who isn’t” and expressed her “hope that President Erdoğan will see that we are the ally of their past and their future and they need to drop the S-400.” Washington is taking every opportunity to firmly put Turkey back into the NATO sphere even if it is acting independent of NATO and after Ankara’s short-lived flirtation with multipolarity.
Even though Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, repeated his call for a ceasefire in Idlib following the attack, the Syrian Army are unlikely to halt their operation to clear the northwest province of Turkish-backed terrorist forces. Rather, as Erdoğan’s deadline approaches, the Turkish president is likely to weaponize the high casualty rate of Turkish soldiers in Idlib to justify a direct war with Syria and get the general population into an emotional frenzy, bypassing any calls for a ceasefire that will likely be rejected by Syria anyway.
Although NATO made a weak response to Turkey, the EU also responded weakly by offering condolences as Erdoğan opens his country’s borders for 72 hours, allowing tens of thousands of illegal immigrants to flood to the borders of Greece and Bulgaria, violating the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal. Effectively Erdoğan has once again weaponized refugees to blackmail the EU despite the latter having no involvement in Idlib. Spearheading this migrant flow into Europe in response to the Syrian attack on Turkish soldiers is the Turkish Intelligence Agency MIT who were directly transporting illegal immigrants with buses to the border regions. Erdoğan hopes that by flooding Europe with illegal immigrants it will force the EU to become more involved in Idlib against the Syrian government and Russia.
However, as many EU members are also NATO members, it is unlikely to work as frontline EU states like Greece and Bulgaria will only have more hostile relations with Turkey and are not wanting to get involved in Syria for the sake of Erdoğan’s dreams. Close ally of Erdoğan, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Chairman Devlet Bahçeli, and Justice and Development (AK) Party Spokesman Omer Çelik, demanded overnight that NATO become involved. But as Turkey is going to flood two NATO members with illegal migrants and violates Greek airspace on a daily basis, it is unlikely to find widespread support.
Although Washington is taking every advantage of Turkey’s spat with Russia to mend relations, it also unlikely that the U.S. will want to risk a potential conflict with Russia over Idlib and Erdoğan, and will probably limit its support to intelligence, weapons and diplomacy if Turkey is to go to war with Syria. But what is for certain, Turkey will not find massive support for any adventurism in Syria from NATO as it hopes to achieve and rather it will make many NATO members criticize Turkey’s one-sided and aggressive policy towards Syria.