Following attacks, Ankara has retaliated with a measured response and warned the regime of severe 'punishment' if its forces are targeted again in future.
- What’s most recent escalation?
The Syrian regime attacked Turkish military posts, killing one Turkish soldier on June 27 in the Zawiya region of Idlib province, Syria’s last rebel stronghold.
Three other soldiers who were wounded in the attack have been evacuated from Syria, according to the Turkish Defence Ministry, while Ankara said the artillery and mortar fire was “deliberate” and to be responded with the “heaviest punishment”.
Turkey's Defence Ministry later confirmed that Turkish armed forces effectively hit the regime's positions.
- Why is Assad’s army attacking Turkish soldiers?
The Syrian regime wants the Turkish army to leave Idlib, which means closing down 12 observation posts set up by Turkey as part of the 2017 de-escalation deal between Russia and Iran, the two staunch allies of the Assad regime.
Turkey has been supporting Syria’s moderate rebels since 2011, when a peaceful uprising against the regime morphed into a full-scale war following the Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad's violent crackdown on dissidents.
In the initial years of the conflict, the rebels took over large swathes of Syrian land, pushing Assad's forces toward Damascus. The anti-Assad momentum received a major blow when Iran dispatched its militias and Russia its fighter jets in support of Assad. By 2015, the Syrian regime started to retake the lost territories, engaging in bloody violence that claimed the lives of an estimated 511,000 people since the start of the war until 2018.
The de-escalation zones were agreed in 2017, an attempt to reverse the overwhelming humanitarian crisis, but the deal has started to falter in recent months. The Syrian regime broke the spirit of the Astana peace process between Russia, Iran and Turkey by launching a brutal military campaign in Idlib, forcing heavy civilian casualties as well as a refugee influx of thousands of people.
The regime aims to capture two strategic highways, M4, connecting Damascus to Aleppo and M5, a lifeline for supplies to Damascus. But Turkish observatory posts fall within the vicinity of the two highways.
- How did it start?
Tensions between Turkey and the Syrian regime arose in late April, when the latter attacked Turkish positions in Idlib for the first time. More attacks followed on May 12, 29 and 30 and continued for four days in June, a source close to Turkish military told TRT World.
On June 26, The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) sent reinforcements to the area in response to the attacks by Assad’s forces over the past three months.
“We will not accept the regime’s aggression [towards our post], which goes against the Idlib agreement signed with Russia. We collaborate with Russia and Iran on Syria and it's their responsibility to stop the regime here. They are the two guarantors of the regime,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in reaction to the attacks.
- How is it related to S-400?
The new attacks came shortly before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin’s meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Japan on June 28-29.
The leaders are expected to discuss issues including Idlib and Turkey’s purchase of the surface-to-air S-400 missile defence system from Russia.
Tensions between the US and Turkey have reached a fever pitch in recent months with Turkey set to begin receiving the advanced missile defence system which Washington said will jeopardise Turkey's role in the US F-35 fighter jet programme and could trigger congressional sanctions.
Turkey, however, didn’t step back from its decision, saying that S-400 would not pose the alliance as they won’t be integrated into NATO systems.