Turkey is actively imposing a safe-zone against Russia. Assuming the new doctrine holds, it means an end to Russian and Iranian hopes for a military solution in Syria.
After a series of Russian aggressions in the Turkey-Syrian opposition safe-zone established in Syria, Turkey declared that it retaliated to the attack on the night of March 14. For the first time in the history of the Syrian civil war, a nation has retaliated for an attack against Syrian civilians that did not harm its soldiers or wasn't a chemical attack.
The action shows a new approach by Turkey to protect an area and sustain it as a safe-zone. This incident is the first attempt that actively prevents Russia and the Assad regime from attacking areas held by the Syrian Interim Government.
In reality, the attack is one of many – Russia has struck the safe-zone before. First, on February 9, 2017, during Operation Euphrates Shield, four Turkish soldiers lost their lives in a Russian air strike while fighting Daesh in Al-Bab. Just 19 days later, Russia conducted another air strike against armed Syrian opposition at Shukkariyah near Al Bab.
Two and a half years later, on November 25, 2019, the Russian airforce attacked Burj, Tarhin, and Qusah near Al Bab and an oil tanker in the countryside of Jarablus. Later on, when the situation in Idlib had escalated seriously, Russia attacked Al Bab and Qabashin in early and mid February of 2020. On July 15, 2020, Russia again targeted Al Bab.
Soon after, on October 24, 2020, Russia attacked a petrol market near Jarablus with a ballistic missile. On February 9, 2021, Russia resorted once again to a ballistic attack against Tarhin near Al Bab, and against Mazalah village near Jarablus on February 27, 2021. Another ballistic attack by Russia occurred on March 5,2021 against Hamran and Tarhin near Al Bab. While the frequency of attacks was obviously increasing, the last attack happened on March 14, 2021 to which Turkey finally retaliated.
The Russian air strikes were tactical attacks in 2017 to stop a further advance by Turkey and the Syrian opposition against Daesh. However, since 2019, the Russian air strikes and ballistic missile attacks have targeted the oil infrastructure i.e. oil markets, oil refineries, and oil tankers.
Russia has two main motivations for these attacks. The first is to prevent an alternative to the Assad regime from being established by the Syrian Interim Government with Turkey’s support. Especially, Turkey's investment in healthcare, education, security, and humanitarian aid. Improved living conditions in Syrian Interim Government areas in contrast to those held by the Assad regime could be a disaster for the regime ad Russia. To prevent these areas from becoming a centre of attraction, Russia targets its oil infrastructure that is necessary for heating, electricity, and water.
The second motivation of Russia is to sell locals on the notion that the safe-zone is neither safe nor durable. Russia's message is: the safe-zone where 2.3 million Syrians live is only as safe as Russia allows it to be.
The opening of a safe-corridor at Abu Zindan near Al Bab – for civilians to flee to regime-held areas – can be viewed within Russia's aims. However, civilians are not taking that option in any discernable numbers.
While Russia employs this strategy for areas under Syrian Interim Government control, it does regard the areas held by the separatist-Marxists YPG terror group differently. Despite the self-declaration of an autonomous region and control over Syrian oil fields, Russia does not attack YPG-held areas. On the contrary, the Russian military presence protects the YPG against the Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian National Army.
From the Russian perspective, the YPG is not an internal threat to the Assad regime like the Syrian Interim Government. Therefore, Russia is not alienated by the YPG, but by the US support to the YPG. Russia will look to break off the YPG from the US, and does not aim to eliminate the YPG but tries to mediate between the regime and the YPG. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Russia is rejecting the YPG’s demand for autonomy in Syria as a result of the Astana process.
YPG is the Syrian wing of the PKK terror organisation.
For Turkey, Russian attacks in the safe-zone are dangerous and may harm Turkey’s Syria policy in the long-term. Therefore, Turkey had to step up and stop the Russian attacks. Turkey had to draw a line through reprisals. In this line, the recent retaliation is highly significant.
For the first time, Turkey directly retaliated for an attack in safe-zones that didn't harm any Turkish soldiers. Turkey responded to the latest attack by also targeting areas controlled by the YPG. The attack shows that Turkey is associating Russia with the YPG.
While the attack and the retaliation by Turkey may seem relatively small in comparison to the heavy fighting in recent years in Syria, it can be still considered a milestone. Turkey is actively imposing a safe-zone against Russia. Assuming that this new doctrine by Turkey will hold, it means an end to Russian and Iranian hopes for a military solution in Syria.
However, one can expect that Russia and Iran will continue to test Turkey’s resolve and try to compromise the safe-zone for civilians in Syria. While Turkey seems determined to protect Syrians as it did in Idlib during Operation Spring Shield, others have to take responsibility as well.
The retaliation by Turkey to Russian attacks marks an important opportunity to ensure safety for Syrians, and this opportunity should not be wasted. Western states, as well as Arab states, have to support Turkey in its ambition to save civilians. The only thing that lies between the slaughter of 5.4 million in the safe-zone and Idlib is Turkey.
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