Country Risk

Turkey’s challenge to Iran-backed offensive in Syria aimed at offering US alternative to Kurds in curbing Iranian expansionism

31 January 2018
A Turkish soldier inspects a tunnel at Burseya Mountain, in Syria's Afrin district, after Turkish forces captured the location from the Syrian-Kurdish YPG under Operation Olive Branch, on 28 January 2018. Source: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Key Points

  • The Turkish deployment was probably intended to pre-empt a planned offensive by the Syrian government and its allies from southern Aleppo towards the besieged Shia villages of Kefraya and Foua, currently isolated territorial pockets inside the opposition-held Idlib province.
  • The completion of such a Syrian government offensive, including taking control of Idlib city and province, would bring President Bashar al-Assad significantly closer to achieving a total military victory, as well as ending Turkey’s leverage over Iran and the Syrian government.
  • Escalatory Turkish intervention against Iran’s interests in Syria would risk Russian retaliation. Russia is, however, highly unlikely to escalate against Turkey militarily in the coming three months. Meanwhile, Turkish and Iranian policies in the region are likely to increasingly diverge, driving higher violent risks in areas like Iraq and northern Syria.


On the night of 29 January 2018, Turkey reportedly deployed a military force with more than 100 vehicles to the opposition-held front line in southern Aleppo, before withdrawing it the following day, probably as a result of Russian and Iranian pressure.

The Turkish deployment comprised 20 tanks, 30 armoured bulldozers and 70 other vehicles including artillery, Panthera F9 APCs, ambulances, and trucks. It appears to have been aimed to establish a monitoring and deterrent presence in Al-Eis, an opposition-held town in southern Aleppo province. The adjacent town, Al-Hadher, is reportedly held by the Iran-backed allies of the Syrian government. Some social media reports claim that fighting took place between Iran’s proxies and the Syrian government on the one side and the Turkish forces on the other. If confirmed, this would signify a first in the Syrian war, with previous Turkish military action in Syria having been directed at either the Islamic State or Kurdish forces. The Turkish force was reportedly attacked with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) as it withdrew out of Syria on 30 January, killing three personnel.

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