Turkey began sending troops and armored vehicles into Syria's northern Idlib province in early February in response to a Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive that has killed hundreds and displaced half a million people. Turkey's moves were sparked by the deaths of eight Turkish soldiers and civilians in Syria on Feb. 3. They were killed in Syrian shelling and Turkey said it responded with artillery and airstrikes. This could have been an avoidable crisis. For years, Turkey largely managed its exploitation of the Syrian rebellion for its own needs.
Nine years ago in February 2011, Syrians rose up in protest against President Bashar al-Assad's government. Assad, whose family has been in power for decades, met the calls for reform with violence, preferring to crush the protesters and then allow a change of power, as happened in Egypt in 2011. At the time, Turkey's foreign policy was "zero problems with our neighbors," and Ahmet Davutoglu was foreign minister under then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
When the Syrian civil war broke out, Turkey found itself a refuge for millions of Syrians who fled the fighting. Ankara managed the refugee crisis well, but didn't manage the volunteers streaming into Syria to fight the regime so well. Instead, at the time, Ankara allowed tens of thousands to cross the border. Some of those who crossed joined extremist groups such as ISIS. But even as ISIS grew in strength in June 2014, taking over parts of Iraq and Syria and committing genocide, Turkey didn't do enough to close the border.
Turkey has systematically miscalculated its moves in Syria, and its cynical policies have led its Syrian rebel allies to defeat. A look at the history may help to understand the current crisis.
Ankara's indecision led to not only more refugees but also ISIS fighting the Syrian rebels and undermining the Syrian opposition. The U.S. shifted resources in 2014, from aiding the Syrian rebels via Turkey to fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. began working with Kurdish forces in eastern Syria who were effective fighters against ISIS. Turkey also changed its policies, sending forces into Syria for the first time to remove an Ottoman-era tomb in 2015.
It was only in 2016 that Turkey finally decided to act in Syria — and it decided to do so not against the Syrian regime but to stop U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters from advancing past the Euphrates river. Operation Euphrates shield pushed ISIS back from the border and stopped the Syrian Democratic Forces advance.
Turkey's view of Syria shifted again in 2017 as it signed on to buy the S-400 air defense system from Russia. It also joined the Russian-backed Astana peace process, working with Iran and Russia to de-escalate tensions in Syria. This was odd because Turkey ostensibly was supporting the Syrian rebels. Turkey was recruiting them to a new Syrian National Army it unveiled in January 2018. It used this army to attack the Kurds in Afrin in 2018, asserting that Afrin was controlled by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Turkey's state media said the Syrian National Army had been created to fight ISIS and the PKK, not the Syrian regime.
Turkey's role in Syria after Afrin has followed this logic. In December 2018, and then in August 2019, it stoked a crises with the U.S., threatening to invade eastern Syria. In October, it made good on its promise when the U.S. withdrew from the Syrian border. It once again used Syrian rebels to fight Kurds. U.S. diplomat William Roebuck accused Turkey of backing ethnic cleansing against Kurds.
So what of Turkey's role in Idlib, the last area that Syrian opposition continues to hold? Fearing that a Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive in Idlib in 2018 would drive a million Syrian refugees into Turkey, Ankara signed a deal with Russia for a ceasefire in Idlib. But in Idlib itself, Turkey never used the rebels it supports to control the area, as it did in Kurdish areas such as Afrin. Instead, it set up observation points and its vehicles had to drive through countryside run by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Syria's version of al Qaeda. This approach meant the Syrian regime continued to chip away at Idlib in 2019 and early 2020. Turkey sent up to 2,000 Syrian rebels to Libya, to further its policies there, rather than keeping them in Idlib to fight the regime.
The end result is Idlib's current crises. The U.S. has condemned the Syrian regime and supported Turkey. It's too little, too late. Turkey is working with Russia on air defense and energy deals. It turned the Syrian rebels into mercenaries to fight in other parts of Syria but not against their main enemy, the Syrian regime. This sidetracked the Syrian rebellion and co-opted it. Now all that Ankara can do is manage the defeat of the Syrians and hope that it can hold a sliver of the border as Russia, Iran and Assad together decide the future of Syria.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.