Syria Conflict Is Shifting From a Proxy War to a Clash of Superpowers

The Turkish target bank in Syria’s Idlib province is steadily expanding. The Turkish Defense Ministry reports that at the start of this week, Turkey destroyed 82 Syrian targets, including nine tanks, two Howitzer mortars, six rocket launchers and two military vehicles, and also killed 299 Syrian soldiers.

To date, Turkish fire has killed more than 2,500 Syrian troops, some from militias and some from the regular army. There are no reports on the number of civilians killed in these strikes, as if each casualty is assumed to be an armed enemy. The Turks meanwhile report that 50 Turkish fighters have been killed since the confrontation began.

Turkey is carrying out most of its airstrikes using drones built by the Turkish companies Kale Group and Baykar Technologies, as part of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vision to build an independent military and technological infrastructure that doesn’t rely on outside suppliers. Kale Group, which was started in the 1950s as a ceramics manufacturer, is now not just the largest one in the country. It is also one of Turkey’s largest corporations, encompassing 17 companies, including ones that supply parts for American fighter jets. It was a partner in the production of the F-35 stealth jet before being removed from that project following Erdogan’s decision to acquire the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems.

Baykar Technologies, whose chief technology officer is Erdogan’s son-in-law, Selcuk Bayraktar, is the leading company in designing and manufacturing advanced drones that can remain in the air for over 24 hours and carry a hefty explosive charge. The Turkish government recently announced an allocation of $100 million for further development of the drones, a budget that was approved by Erdogan’s other son-in-law, Minister of Finance and Treasury Berat Albayrak.

A convoy of Turkish military vehicles near the town of Hazano in the rebel-held northern countryside of Syria’s Idlib Province, March 3, 2020.AFP

But given the threat that the war poses to Turkey’s relations with Russia, the financial interests of the Erdogan family in the war in Idlib could now hit a land mine. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Erdogan to try to reach new understandings about the management of the battlefield in northern Syria after a series of violent clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces sparked recriminations between the two major powers. The two agreed to establish a secure corridor along a key east-west highway in Idlib and hold joint patrols on it as of March 15 in an attempt to alleviate tensions in the area.

Russia has already begun to adopt hostile rhetoric directly against Turkey, accusing it of violating the Sochi Accord of September 2018, in which Turkey pledged to remove radical militias such as the Sham Liberation Front from the Idlib area and to disarm all the other militias. Meanwhile, Turkey is accusing Syria and Russia of striking its forces and seizing control of the outskirts of Idlib. Violence was supposed to be reduced in and around Idlib, but the Russian-Syrian pressure is causing it to increase. Furthermore, the main roads connecting the province to Turkey are controlled by Syria, and a new wave of hundreds of thousands of refugees is heading for the Turkish border.

Russia and Syria reject these allegations. They report that Turkey is the one backing the militias, which have an estimated 50,000 fighters, and that these militia forces were integrated in bases Turkey built around Idlib.