Escalating to Deescalate? Why Turkey Is Targeting Syria’s Army

Escalating to Deescalate? Why Turkey Is Targeting Syria’s Army
People inspect damaged buildings following three airstrikes allegedly carried out by Russian warplanes targeting the Shami Hospital in rebel-held Idlib province, Syria, Jan. 30, 2020 (DPA photo by Anas Alkharboutli via AP Images).

For the first time in Syria’s nine-year war, the Turkish military this week launched direct attacks on the Syrian army. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that he ordered howitzers and F-16 fighter jets to hit President Bashar al-Assad’s forces near the Turkish border in response to the killing of eight Turkish soldiers in Idlib province in northwestern Syria.

“We are determined to continue our operations to ensure the safety of our country, our nation and our brothers in Idlib,” Erdogan warned. Turkey’s defense minister, Gen. Hulusi Akar, later claimed 76 Syrian soldiers were “neutralized” in attacks on more than 50 different targets in the area. The Assad government has not offered its own casualty figure, but the clashes have raised the stakes in a long and brutal battle over Idlib.

The Syrian civil war has calmed down considerably since the height of the violence from 2012 to 2016, with Assad’s government now back in control of most of the country. But not in Idlib, which remains controlled by Turkish-backed Islamists led by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front. Intermittent negotiations between Russia, Turkey and Iran—all of which have forces in Syria—have contained the fighting in Idlib but never fully stopped it. After a period of relative calm in 2018, Assad’s Russian- and Iranian-backed forces went back on the offensive in Idlib last April. Turkish-Russian mediation secured another truce over the summer, but by the end of the year, the fighting was as bad as ever.

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