Just after midnight on December 3, a Turkish military convoy was rolling into a military outpost west of Saraqeb in Idlib province when at 1:13 AM deadly artillery fire came raining down from the sky.
The barrage, which originated from Syrian Arab Army forces, killed eight Turkish soldiers and supporting civilian personnel and wounded seven more.
Since an agreement in 2018, the Turkish Army has maintained several hundred personnel in twelve outposts in Idlib province to observe a ceasefire agreement brokered with Moscow and Damascus supposedly designating the province as a safe haven. These Turkish outposts are in addition to Turkish forces occupying a sizable chunk of Syrian territory in order to deny access to Kurdish YPG separatists.
But in reality, no one expected Assad to honor the agreement in the long term, as Idlib remains the last major stronghold of anti-Assad rebels in Syria following the fall of Aleppo and the eradication of resistance in the suburbs of eastern Damascus. By 2019 the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) was back on the offensive.
Despite Turkey’s warming relations with Moscow, Ankara had compelling reasons to be dismayed by the attacks on Idlib. Turkey had already taken in 3.6 million refugees due to the Syrian civil war. Since December 2019, indiscriminate shelling and bombing by Syrian forces and Russian aviation has caused a half-million more Syrians to flee their war-ravaged country.
Finally on January 29, 2020, Assadist forces captured the rebel city of Maarat-al-Numan. Its capture exposed a new line of rebel-held cities along the east-west M4 Highway to attack, including the city of Saraqeb. Syrian forces soon advanced northward up the perpendicular M5 Highway and were engaging rebels on the western outskirts of Saraqeb when they fired upon the Turkish convoy.
Ankara Strikes Back
Despite the fighting ongoing in the region, Ankara maintains that it had notified Russia at 4:13 and 10:27 PM that the convoy was inbound to one of its outposts in order to avoid precisely such an incident. Russia claimed it had not received the report.
In retaliation for the “martyrdom” of Turkish troops, hulking 56-ton Turkish T-155 Firtina self-propelled howitzers in Turkey and on Syrian soil began lobbing 155-millimeter shells at Syrian positions in the provinces of Hama, Idlib, and Latakia as well as Nubl in Aleppo province. The Firtina (“Storm”) is a Turkish derivative of the South Korean K9 Thunder artillery vehicle, and is capable of rapid-fire volleys on targets up to twenty-five miles away.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan stated in a speech that by 6:15 AM Turkey had struck forty-six Syrian targets with 122 artillery and 100 mortar shells, inflicting thirty to thirty-five casualties. The inclusion of mortars, which have a shorter range three to five miles, would imply strikes launched considerably closer to Syrian forces.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, was only able to confirm thirteen casualties to Turkish shelling: eight in Idlib, three in Latakia province, and two in Hama province. As SOHR also reported the bombardment wounded twenty, some seriously, those numbers may actually be consistent with the Turkish casualty claims.
The geographic dispersion reflects that the Turkish response was a wider-scale attack on targets across Syria, not just on the positions that opened fire in Idlib province.
Ankara also claimed its F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighters struck SAA targets. Later, the Turkish defense minister claimed Turkey had launched a total of fifty-four strikes, supposedly inflicting seventy-six casualties.
However, Moscow claimed that no Turkish F-16s entered Syrian airspace. This denial appears to have been undercut by a Syrian-government SANA announcement that Turkish jets had attacked Syria but inflicted no casualties.
As Russian military air defense systems protect Syria, Moscow would have an incentive to deny that it allowed Turkish jets to attack Syrian targets without firing upon them—or worse, failed to detect them.
The clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces threaten to unravel a tense entente with Russia, which recently sold S-400 air defense missiles to Turkey. Ankara’s purchase of the missiles widened a growing rift with the United States and Western Europe, and resulted in Turkey being ejected from the F-35 stealth fighter program.
Turkey has further retaliated by openly considering purchases of Russian Su-35 fighters and (still somewhat buggy) Su-57 stealth fighters instead. Such sales would not only profit Russia financially, but also help further compromise Turkey’s status as a member of NATO.
But when Turkish forces bombard the forces of Moscow’s ally Assad, it places Russia in an awkward position with allies old and new. Nonetheless, this conflict was long foreseeable: Turkey had made clear its objection to an offensive on Idlib province, while it was obvious that Assad would eventually move to crush rebels in Idlib province, and receive Rusian military support while doing so.
If Ankara is sufficiently incensed, it could attempt to impede further attacks on Idlib—particularly Saraqeb—perhaps hoping to avert further swelling of the large population of Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Alternatively, Ankara may calculate that it has adequately punished the attack on its forces in Idlib, and that it doesn’t want to risk being drawn into a larger-scale clash with Assad’s forces that might also threaten its overture with Moscow.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.