Turkey’s surprise campaign in Syria against the Assad regime has produced a number of mixed signals.
For Syrians who support the revolution, it holds the potential to be a long-delayed deliverance. Turkey has shot down up to three regime aircraft and destroyed a number of fighting vehicles. All of these moves have hurt the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and diminished – even if temporarily – the scope of the regime’s continuing campaign against the civilian population of rebel areas.
For all the good Turkey’s actions mean, the worst does not disappear. Turkey has accompanied its offensive against Assad with further threats to the European Union: it has stated once more its intention to shift the burden of its refugee population onto others. And this time, Turkey has given explicit leave to a small number of refugees to travel through its territories and from its shores into the European Union.
These emblematic people have faced extraordinary hostility from the Greek and European governments. The borders, never undermanned, have been strengthened; and one child has drowned trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos.
This new refugee crisis, as Europe sees it, is less a problem in itself than a symbol and a symptom. It is a product of the Syrian war, Turkey’s new attack, and broader Turkish desperation.
This offensive, and these other Turkish policies, still present problems. If the gains of Turkey’s campaign are not pursued, the refugee crisis will remain as severe. There are still traps into which the old patterns, of seeking ceasefires and agreements with unreliable partners, could lead Turkey and the world.
From the Mediterranean sea to the battlefield. Turkey’s offensive has been remarkable in its scope and its effects.
After fifty Turkish soldiers were killed in a single attack – the deadliest day in its military’s recent history, for which Turkey firmly blamed the regime – the Turkish response was pointed and sharp.
In a couple of days, the Turkish air force destroyed dozens, possibly hundreds, of regime vehicles. It shot down three regime aircraft, and attacked the regime’s purportedly ‘formidable’ air defences.
All this was achieved at the cost of a few Turkish drones. And it was filmed and released by Turkey’s ministry of defence, to rapture among many Syrians.
Temporarily, this attack stunned the whole battlefield. The regime was afraid to move its forces and to fly its aircraft. And into that gap the rebels supported by Turkey streamed. For a time, the offensive allowed for a recapture by rebels of Saraqeb – a town which was lost last week.
Again for a brief moment, Turkish efforts led to the effective creation of a no-fly zone in northern Syria. Regime bombs briefly ceased to fall. Fewer civilians were killed as long as regime aircraft were afraid to fly; and Russian planes – whose pilots have once more this week been accused of war crimes by the United Nations – stayed away, or on the ground.
All this was not only practically good; it was and remains morally commendable. The shooting down of aircraft whose targets are civilian can only be right.
Fewer regime aircraft means fewer marketplaces and hospitals bombed. It means fewer civilians dead or maimed. The million people who pressed north at the beginning of this year, desperate to avoid the regime’s oncoming war machine, may temporarily be spared assault.
But there is much to worry about, even so.
The excitement over the first piece of ‘good news’ in years soon got to Syrian rebels’ heads.
Rebels talked for a moment as if they would soon recapture not only parts of Idlib lost in the past few weeks, but possibly even Aleppo – whose capture by the regime in 2016 was seen then as the beginning of the end of Syria’s revolution. They believed that, in concert with new resistance movements in the south, they could soon reduce the regime in strength and dramatically reshape the board.
This may have been possible, and could still be possible; but would be an unlikely result. The greatest chance for the stopping of the regime’s advance into Idlib still rests on Turkey pushing the regime back to a pre-arranged ceasefire line, of the sort previously agreed. Turkey may well then decide to re-engage the farce of ceasefires and ‘deconfliction’, and continue patrolling with Russian forces as if nothing had happened.
Meanwhile, the subject of refugees continues to simmer. Those allowed through Turkey have not been met with kindness. Their boats have been buzzed, and the arrival of any more of them has been rejected by EU nations; and those trying to cross Greece and Bulgaria’s militarised borders have been threatened with force.
A new crisis on Europe’s edge, of the sort seen in 2015, could arise. But it could only be a crisis, and not a solution – so hostile Europe remains to Syrians.
And those Syrians, still present and trapped in their hundreds of thousands in Idlib, owe their precarious survival to a Turkish offensive which cannot be counted upon, and may not – in all likelihood – be sustained.
Another ceasefire, another agreement, merely postpones the date of the next regime push. Any no-fly zone which is temporary will one day leave the skies clear for regime and Russian bombers to resume their butchers’ work.
Although there is real, palpable relief at the grounding of the regime’s air force, and the destruction of its armour, unless something fundamental changes in Turkey’s and the world’s approach, the worst aspects of the war and its corollaries could well eagerly re-emerge.
Those keen to fight and to win are more than prepared to do more damage, and to take more life.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.