Smoke plumes billowing in the Syrian village of al-Nayrab, about 14 kilometers southeast of the city of Idlib in the northwestern Idlib province, during bombardment by forces of the Syrian regime and its allies, February 3. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images)

Turkish and Syrian Soldiers Killed in Dangerous Escalation

Analysts Say Turkey will avoid direct confrontation with Russia, which is backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Turkey is attempting to force Russia to limit attacks on Syria’s largest remaining rebel stronghold, analysts told The Media Line, after Turkish and Syrian soldiers were killed in a dangerous escalation in the conflict.

The Turkish government said that five of its soldiers were killed in shelling in Idlib and 30 to 35 Syria soldiers were “neutralized” in retaliation.

Russia, which backs Assad, said that Turkey faced fired from the Syrian regime because Ankara did not give Moscow warning of an operation in northwestern Idlib, according to the Russian state news agency.

However, Ankara said it did notify Russia beforehand.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared on Monday that his country would not back down.

“We will not put an end to this; the operation will continue. … It is not possible for us to remain silent. We will continue to ask for accountability.

Analysts said that Turkey was attempting to put pressure on Moscow to stop attacks on Idlib by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has said he wants to take back control of the entire country.

Nicholas Danforth, a Washington and Istanbul-based analyst, said Turkey had been left with no good options of how to prevent the Syrian regime’s attack on Idlib, the largest remaining rebel stronghold in the country.

“It’s a sign of the desperate situation that Turkey is in here,” said Danforth, a senior visiting fellow at the US think tank the German Marshall Fund.

“Turkey clearly wanted to avoid this. … Erdoğan knows the risks that he’s running.”

Turkey agreed with Russia to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib in deals brokered in 2017 and 2018, as well as to ceasefires.

“Russia clearly showed that it was not negotiating in good faith”, Danforth said. “This puts Turkey in the unsavory position of threatening escalation when military it’s not in an ideal position to do so.”

The Turkish president threatened a military operation in Idlib province on Friday.

Analysts believe Erdoğan’s primary objective is to avoid another wave of refugees from coming into Turkey, which hosts more refugees than any other country.

Resentment from the Turkish public towards the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the country was partly blamed for Erdoğan’s party losing the mayoral race for Istanbul last year.

The United Nations warned that 400,000 people had fled towards the Turkish border, amid increased attacks on Idlib province.

Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Stratfor, a global consultancy group, said a direct confrontation between Russia and Turkey would likely lead to a major crisis but believed that neither side would deliberately fire at the other.

However, an accidental confrontation was possible.

Russia has one of the largest militaries in the world and has provided air power to support Assad in Idlib while Turkey is a NATO member state with the second-largest army in the military alliance, after the US.

Revealing Turkey’s lack of desire to confront Moscow, Erdoğan stated that he told the Russian authorities, “You are not the counterparts for us. The counterpart in this case for us is the Syrian regime.”

Bohl stated that there would be more pressure on NATO countries to act there was a significant loss of Turkish troops, or if Turkish airspace or territory was close to being violated by Russia or the Syrian regime.

“Russia has no interest in getting into a firefight with a NATO ally,” Bohl said.

“That implicit threat is part of what makes the Turks so bold and willing to push back against Russian power.”

News of the soldier’s deaths came after the Turkish government stated on Sunday it sent military vehicles and soldiers to the southern city of Hatay, near the border with Syria and Idlib province.

Bohl believed Erdoğan was hoping that sending more troops near the border would convince Russia that it needed to limit Assad’s attacks in order to avoid a clash with a NATO member state.

Russia has been trying to strengthen relations with Turkey, including with energy and arms deals.

Turkey started accepting deliveries of Russian S-400 air defense system last year, which the US has warned may lead to sanctions against Ankara.

Danforth said that confrontations between Turkey and Assad put Russia in a difficult position of trying to balance its desire to destabilize NATO through increased ties with Ankara at the same time as supporting Assad’s push to retake control of Idlib and the rest of Syria.

“To the extent the conflict between Turkey and Syria escalates, it will make it impossible for Moscow to achieve both those goals.”

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