- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Turkey and Syria moved closer to all-out war Tuesday in Syria’s Idlib province, as carefully crafted international cease-fire agreements crumbled and heavy fighting between the two regional foes sparked a massive humanitarian crisis.

Video footage that emerged Tuesday shows what appears to be a Syrian Army helicopter being shot down by Turkish military forces. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, vowed that Syrian forces “will pay a very heavy price” after an attack Monday that left at least five Turkish soldiers dead.

The deteriorating situation in Idlib comes four months after President Trump pulled all American troops from the Syria-Turkey border, clearing the way for a Turkish military offensive that Ankara said was designed to wipe out terrorist forces. The American pullout also cleared the way for Russia and Syria to consolidate power across Syria and retake the vast majority of the country from rebel forces after nine years of brutal civil war.

Analysts say the reignited Syrian crisis threatens to engulf Turkey and force Ankara to greatly expand its military mission inside the country. The winner, they say, could ultimately be Russia, as President Vladimir Putin may emerge as the only player powerful enough to prevent a full-blown war.

“Erdogan went into Syria for entirely selfish and cynical reasons, and now finds that it was a lot easier to go in than get out,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who tracks the region extensively.

Turkey could get sucked into Syria far more, and that’s just [what] Russia wants,” he said. “If Russia can be the sole broker between Turkey and Syria in a low-intensity conflict, it only enhances Moscow’s power and allows it to keep Syria and Turkey under control. Simply put, Putin outplayed Erdogan.”

While Russia and Turkey in 2018 reached a deal to enforce a demilitarized zone in Idlib and prevent a massive flood of Syrian refugees from streaming into Turkey, the area now has become ground zero in a growing conflict. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces recently launched military operations to retake Idlib, while Turkey insists its own forces are there merely as an anti-terror and peacekeeping presence.

Turkey says it has killed at least 76 Syrian soldiers over just the last week. But after Monday’s Syrian attack, Mr. Erdogan has indicated that an even more forceful Turkish response is on the horizon.

“We have dealt a resounding blow to the Syrian [regime]. They have been seriously punished, especially in Idlib, but this is not enough, there is more to come,” the Turkish president said Tuesday, according to the country’s Anadolu News Agency.

Turkish and Russian delegations met this week in Ankara in the hopes of reaching a new deal to halt the fighting. The Kremlin urged Ankara to cease all attacks in Idlib, though the strain between the two countries continues to grow as fighting continues.

Meanwhile, international observers are warning of a large and growing humanitarian catastrophe. United Nations officials say that as many as 700,000 people have been displaced in Idlib over just the past two months, and there’s growing fear inside Turkey that a flood of refugees will pour across the border if Mr. Assad’s forces fully recapture the province.

“It’s an absolutely desperate situation on the ground at the moment, and no one there feels safe,” Mark Cutts, the U.N.’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, told CBC radio this week. “We really want the whole world to understand that this is now a crisis on a huge scale.”

After last October’s withdrawal, the U.S. no longer has a viable military presence in the region. The small number of American forces still in Syria are focused almost exclusively on training Kurdish-led groups to conduct military operations aimed at crushing the Islamic State.

U.S. forces also are guarding Syrian oil fields in the northeastern section of the country.

Specialists say the U.S. withdrawal last year opened the door to the current conflict.

“Of course it was the partial U.S. withdrawal which enabled this dynamic,” Mr. Rubin said. “U.S. projection of power historically enables peace and stability. When the United States leaves and vacuums develops, it’s hardly ever the forces of altruism and liberalism which fill them.”

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