Clashes between Turkish and Syrian regime forces in north west Syria are ongoing. For the first time in the Syrian civil war, the forces of two governments are engaged in prolonged clashes on the ground. The killing of at least 30 Turkish soldiers in what was almost certainly a Russian air attack in Idlib Province on February 27 was a dramatic escalation and has left the Turkish public angry and shaken.
The latest fighting – around the strategic town of Saraqib – has been intense and bloody. 75 opposition fighters and 40 regime fighters were killed in 24 hours of brutal combat around Saraqib on March 2-3.
But is an all out Turkey-Syria war now inevitable? Despite the dramatic recent events, it is not.
To understand why, it is important to grasp the interests and intentions of the various sides engaged in the fight.
The Assad regime's "Idlib Dawn 2" offensive triggered the current crisis.
The motivations of the Assad regime are easiest to grasp. The commencement of the regime's 'Idlib Dawn 2' offensive on December 19 triggered the current crisis. The offensive was entirely predictable. Having reduced and reconquered the three other 'de-escalation' zones it established with the rebels (in Deraa-Quneitra-Sweideh, Hama-Homs-Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta), the regime sees Idlib as the last remaining morsel in its devouring of the rebellion raised against it in 2011.
Assad's regime is profoundly weak on the ground, in both its military and its administrative aspects. Recent events in Deraa Province indicate that it cannot fully control all the areas on which it has already placed its flag. This has not, however, lessened its appetite for re-conquest.
The reason for the regime's rapid progress on the ground this time, when compared with previous attempts, appears to be the greater concentration of Iran-linked fighters among the regime ground forces. Lebanese Hizballah, Afghan Fatemiyun and Pakistani Zeinabiyun combatants are operating on the ground in Idlib now, under IRGC supervision.
The rapid advance of the offensive throughout December and January precipitated the determined Turkish response. Ankara was faced with the prospect of the wholesale collapse of the rebel enclave in Idlib. President Erdogan poured in Turkish troops and equipment, determined to prevent this outcome.
Why was the Turkish president prepared to enter the Syrian quagmire in this decisive way? It has been clear, after all, for four years now that the rebellion is on its way to defeat. Idlib is where its 'bitter-enders' have gathered. What can be gained from preserving this enclave, in which among others 20,000 fighters of the local iteration of al-Qaeda are present?
There are a number of issues motivating the Turkish president. At the most basic level, he fears the prospect of another wave of Syrian refugees entering Turkey. The country has already received around 3.6 million Syrians in the course of the civil war. This is far higher than any other country. Unemployment is growing in Turkey and the economy is fragile and faltering. Resentment against the Syrian newcomers is high. This threatens to have a political cost for Erdogan's Justice and Development (AKP) Party if the issue is not addressed. A new wave of refugees would compound the problem. To prevent this, and to have a chance of partly reversing the situation, Erdogan needs the Idlib rebel enclave to survive.
Erdogan has sought to set himself up as the natural leader of Sunni Islamist causes in the region.
But there is more than the refugee issue at stake here. Erdogan supported the Sunni Arab rebellion in Syria earlier and harder than any other leader. His backing of it forms a part of the broader, erratic and floundering foreign policy in which he has sought to set himself up as the natural leader of Sunni Arab causes and of political Islam in the Arabic-speaking world. It is of a piece with his staunch backing of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, his allowing a Hamas network to operate on Turkish soil, from where it plans attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank, his deploying of client militiamen to back the Islamist government in Libya, his frequent vilification of Israel, and his dispatching of troops to secure Qatar, and to train Sunni militiamen in Iraq.
To accept the complete crushing of the Syrian rebellion at this juncture would constitute a humiliating blow to the Turkish leader. It would severely tarnish his strong-man image, and perhaps stretch the credulity of his adoring base at home beyond breaking point. Hence the bold deployment of troops in recent days, and their engagement against regime forces. Hence the decision to remove restrictions on migrants making their way from Turkey to Greece and Bulgaria – in an effort to force the EU to take notice of the Idlib crisis. And hence the frantic efforts to secure US backing for the Turkish military effort – resulting in the rather meager outcome of a US commitment to supply the Turks with 'ammunition.'
So the motivations of the clashing sides are apparent. But while these goals are directly opposed to one another, this does not mean that a conventional war between Turkey and Syria is inevitably imminent.
That is because of the presence of Russia. To understand the dynamic, take a close look at events around the town of Saraqib in recent days. The town is strategically located at the intersection of two vital highways, the M5 between Aleppo and Damascus, and the M4 running from Aleppo to Latakia. It changed hands several times in the fighting of recent days.
Then Russia on March 2 deployed its own military police in the town. A further Turkish attempt at reconquest would have meant a direct confrontation with Russian personnel. Unsurprisingly, no such attempt has taken place.
Moscow has a treat-based alliance with the Assad regime. Assad owes his survival to Putin. But Russia also has a strategic objective of drawing Turkey away from the west. This effort has been proceeding well over the last half decade. The Turkstream pipeline, the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, the S-400 anti aircraft system sale are among its fruits.
As a revanchist power, Turkey's natural strategic connection is to Russia.
At root, Turkey is a revanchist power, seeking to grow at the expense of the retreating US-led order in the Middle East. From this point of view, in spite of local differences, its natural strategic connection is to Russia. Moscow also wants to upturn that order. Turkey is a major prize. If winning it means Assad has to wait a while before planting his flag along the border, Putin is likely to make him wait.
Now that Turkey has been allowed to strike back and slow the regime's advance, Putin is likely to be looking to cement a new ceasefire, allowing for Ankara to claim some kind of achievement. There is little or no chance of Turkey's demand that the regime army fall back to the 2018 Sochi Agreement lines being realized. But new lines guaranteeing, for a while, a new and smaller rebel enclave will be what Putin will seek to impose.
It will be a tricky arrangement to achieve and to sell to both sides. It may well not last long. But it is what Russia's strategic interests dictate. And Russia remains the decider in Syria west of the Euphrates.
So an arrangement along these lines, and not an all out Erdogan-Assad war, remains the most likely outcome for the next phase.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and is a research fellow at the Middle East Forum and at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy.