Fighting intensifies as Turkey, US set up joint operations center
Syrian rebels launched a major counter-attack against regime forces, which for five months have been waging an offensive to recapture Idlib Province.
This comes after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where the two reportedly agreed to enhance coordination in Syria.
But analysts told The Media Line that Erdogan’s top priority was to press Putin to halt regime attacks in the northwestern region that straddles the Syrian-Turkish border.
Reuters news agency reported that Putin stated the two sides had decided “to neutralize the terrorists’ nests in Idlib and normalize the situation there,” which is the last major rebel stronghold in Syria.
At a joint press conference after their meeting, Erdogan said the Syrian regime attacks must stop to ensure peace in the region.
“We cannot accept the bombing [of] civilians and, unfortunately, targeting civilians strengthens radical elements,” Erdogan said. “The situation has now risked the lives of Turkish soldiers in the area. We have the right to self-defense on our borders and we will take the necessary steps at the necessary time,” he added.
Muzaffer Senel, assistant professor of Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Şehir University, told The Media Line that Erdogan’s top priority was the safety of Turkish soldiers at observation posts in Syria.
Regime forces recently encircled one of these positions and, earlier this month, Turkey said one of its military convoys in the area was targeted by an air strike.
Reuters reported that a Turkish official said that, “if there is even the smallest attack on Turkish soldiers, we will retaliate against this.”
Under an agreement with Russia and Iran, Turkey created 12 observation posts in northwestern Syria in a bid to avoid direct clashes between rebels and troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad.
Ankara fears the fighting in Idlib will lead to a humanitarian crisis that will force some 4 million civilians in the cross hairs to seek refuge in Turkey, which is already home to over 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
“The humanitarian crisis is on the way, it’s staying at the gate.… I’m not so optimistic but still there is a small chance for a diplomatic solution,” Senel said.
The Putin-Erdogan meeting came after Turkey’s defense minister announced the launch of a joint operations center with the United States to create and monitor a “safe zone” aimed at preventing armed groups from operating close to the Syrian-Turkish border.
“Turkey is trying to compartmentalize, which is not an easy thing to do,” said visiting fellow at Kings College London, Simon Waldman. He told The Media Line that Moscow does not want Ankara closely cooperating with US troops in Syria, as this gives Washington a say in future developments in the war-torn country.
“It’s really about [Russia] pushing the US and saying that… this is our area of influence, keep out,” Waldman asserted.
Even so, Turkey and Russia have divergent interests in Syria, with Putin backing Assad while Erdogan opposes the regime and supports rebel forces.
Waldman predicts that Russia will gradually push the Turkish military out of the nation.
Kristian Brakel, the Turkey country director for the German-based Heinrich Boll Foundation, said the Russia’s involvement in the Idlib offensive is Moscow’s way of countering the Turkey-US alliance.
“I think it’s a signal to Turkey that there might be consequences,” he told The Media Line.