Turkish president has warned that Russian-backed regime forces must retreat from Idlib by end of February
Turkish retaliatory strikes on Friday reportedly killed at least 16 Syrian troops, a day after tensions skyrocketed in Idlib Province when 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in bombardments attributed to the Assad regime.
The Turkish response came after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held an emergency meeting Thursday night.
“It was decided to retaliate against the illegal [Syrian] regime, which pointed their guns at our soldiers serving to defend [the] Republic of Turkey’s rights and interests,” Erdogan’s director of communications, Fahrettin Altun, said in a statement following the meeting.
“In this context, all known targets of the regime have been put under fire with all our air and ground support elements,” he added.
The statement did not explicitly mention Russia’s role in supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Analysts believe Moscow and Ankara want to avoid a direct military confrontation, which would significantly escalate the crisis.
Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College focused on Turkey and the Middle East, stated that the US and NATO might be hesitant to offer Ankara support after Erdogan’s purchase last year of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.
“Turkey is facing a crucial moment in its foreign policy. Depending on the scope of retaliation [in Syria], it will become clear if [Ankara] is going to forfeit its coming closer to Russia and return fully back into the American sphere,” Fishman told The Media Line.
Notably, the US State Department released a statement Thursday reinforcing that, “we stand by our NATO ally Turkey and continue to call for an immediate end to this despicable offensive by the Assad regime, Russia, and Iranian-backed forces.”
Relations between the US and Turkey have warmed slightly during the crisis. Ties had been severely strained not only due to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400, which is not inter-operable with NATO military equipment, but also over Ankara’s incursion last October into northeastern Syria that targeted US-allied Kurdish fighters.
Now, however, Ankara’s calculus may be changing. Analysts have postulated that Erdogan could seek Patriot missiles from Washington to defend against attacks from the Syrian regime, which is being supported by Russian air power.
In the interim, Turkey has stuck to its threat to use militarily force to push Assad’s troops away from the shared border by the end of February.
Yet the assault in Idlib has not subsided even as negotiations between Moscow and Ankara are ongoing.
To this end, Erdogan had proposed convening a summit between the leaders of Germany, France and Russia on March 5, but Moscow rejected the notion and instead said that Iran should play a role in the talks. The Turkish president then suggested that a one-on-one meeting could be held on the same date with Russian President Vladimir Putin, although the Kremlin has denied that such will take place.
Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s top adviser and communications director, tweeted on Thursday evening that, “Time is running out! …. If these attacks continue [in Syria], we [are] moving forward with our plans to stop the regime from killing and displacing more people.”
In this respect, the UN said that nearly a million people have fled towards the Turkish border amid the offensive in Idlib, the war-torn country’s largest remaining rebel stronghold.
On Friday, a senior official announced that Turkey would no longer stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe, a threat being construed as an attempt to pressure the West to convince Putin to agree to a truce.
Muzaffer Senel, an assistant professor of political science and international relations at Istanbul Şehir University, said that the prospects of a cease-fire were low even if Turkey’s European allies intervened.
“It seems difficult to convince the Russians to accept the Germans and French at the table. Therefore, it [will be] difficult for Ankara to get Putin to stop the Assad forces,” Senel told The Media Line.
Senel thus expects casualties to mount and predicts that Turkey will increase its military activity in Syria in the coming week.
“It looks like there will be more disaster rather than victory,” he warned.
Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a former Turkish parliamentarian, stated that Erdogan must now realize that the US’s partial military retreat from Syria benefited Russia, Iran and Assad – at Turkey’s expense.
“At this point, Ankara’s military posturing is aimed at slowing pro-Assad forces down rather than winning new territory,” Erdemir wrote in an email to The Media Line. “Given the rise in anti-refugee sentiment among the Turkish electorate, Erdogan’s key priority is to prevent a new wave of Syrian refugees.”
Polls have consistently shown that that a majority of Turkish citizens want Syrian refugees to eventually return home.
While Erdemir said there remained a chance for a diplomatic solution to stave off an even larger humanitarian catastrophe, he was skeptical about the emergence of a long-term deal to end the conflict.
“A military stalemate in Idlib could offer Ankara the chance to negotiate a new demarcation line with the Kremlin, constituting a safe haven for displaced Syrians near the Turkish border,” he began.
“But any Russian-brokered deal is destined to be short-lived as Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers appear committed to gradually pushing their way further into rebel-controlled territory in Syria.”