Conflict and Fragility

Policy briefs

Turkey's interventions in its near abroad: The case of Idlib

06 Sep 2021 - 10:34
Source: Syrians in protest climb atop a Turkish military M60T tank as they attempt to block traffic on the M4 highway on March 15, 2020. Karam Almasri /

The trigger for the Turkish Operation Spring Shield in northern Idlib in February 2020 was to prevent the Syrian conflict – especially extremists and refugees – spilling over into Turkey as the result of a new regime offensive. A deeper driver of the operation was Ankara’s desire to draw a line against further regime advances that might jeopardise Turkish territorial gains across northern Syria. Millions of Syrian internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the Islamist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) were the main – although unintended – beneficiaries of the operation. Tactically, Operation Spring Shield was a success because of a surge in Turkish military resources in northern Idlib, Ankara’s willingness to use them, and the speed with which Turkey acted. Strategically, it helped a great deal that Russia decided to stand aside for a few days. Russian-Turkish diplomacy resumed after battlefield conditions had shifted in Turkey’s favour and Syrian regime forces were stopped in their tracks.

In the short term, Operation Spring Shield can be considered as having brought a measure of humanitarian and geopolitical stabilisation by clarifying Turkey’s red lines to Damascus, Tehran and Moscow, and by bringing about a new equilibrium between Russiansupported forces and Turkish forces in Syria. The operation did not negatively affect Turkey’s relationship with its NATO partners, the EU or the US. This was in part because the operation highlighted the limitations of the Astana process – a diplomatic initative in which Turkey, Iran and Russia pursue opposing aims vis-à-vis the Assad regime – from which these actors are excluded. In the medium term, the impact of Operation Spring Shield will depend on the permanence of the Turkish presence, the level of Turkish developmental investment and the evolution, as well as the place, of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in the future governance of northern Idlib.

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