Russia, Turkey inch towards confrontation as air strike in Syria's Idlib kills 33 Turkish soldiers

An ambulance believed to be carrying a soldier arrived at a hospital near the Turkey-Syrian border on Thursday night amid reports of a deadly air strike on Turkish soldiers.
Smoke billows over the town of Saraqib in the eastern part of the Idlib province, following bombardment by Syrian government forces, on Feb 27, 2020.
Smoke billows over the town of Saraqib in the eastern part of the Idlib province, following bombardment by Syrian government forces, on Feb 27, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

ISTANBUL (BLOOMBERG) - Turkey and Russia are inching towards direct confrontation in Syria after an attack on Turkish positions in the war-torn nation killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers on Thursday (Feb 27). 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a crisis meeting with his top security officials after Turkey’s military suffered its biggest single-day losses in an air strike on their forces in Syria. 

Turkey will hit “all regime targets” using ground and air forces in retaliation, Mr Erdogan’s office said after the meeting. 

As the toll of soldiers killed in the ambush rose, 32 others were wounded, NTV reported on Friday, citing Mr Rahmi Dogan, governor of Turkish border city Hatay. 

Turkey repeated calls upon Western allies for backing in the wake of Thursday’s clashes, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaking to Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. 

Turkey has urged the US and EU powers to increase their support in the face of attacks on Turkish soldiers by Syrian forces operating under Russian air cover. 

But Mr Erdogan’s efforts to drum up aid from his Nato partners that could strengthen his position have come to naught as he’s tried to persuade Russia’s Vladimir Putin to drop support for the regime in Damascus. 

At stake is not only Turkey’s national security but also millions of Syrians who are likely to seek refuge in Turkey and in Europe as they escape Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria. 

The latest attack makes it even more difficult for Turkey to prevent Syrian migrants from seeking refuge elsewhere, a senior Erdogan ally said, signalling growing frustration with European inaction. 

“Major escalation,” Mr Tim Ash, a strategist at BlueBay Asset Management in London, said after Thursday’s clashes. 

“Turkey and Russia could be on the brink of actual war. It has been coming for a while. Where is Nato?” 

CRISIS MEETING 

Mr Erdogan met with his Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and top security officials from the military and intelligence agency for two hours following the clashes. 

Earlier in the day, Turkey said the rebels it supports retook the town of Saraqib from Syrian regime forces. 

After the meeting, Mr Akar and the military’s top brass travelled to the Syrian border, NTV said. 

Turkish soldiers were stationed at several outposts in Idlib under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran to monitor a combat-free zone. 

Mr Assad’s forces have intensified attacks on rebel positions in the province in recent weeks, with some Turkish posts having been encircled. 

Mr Erdogan has pledged to push back Syrian forces should they fail to lift their siege on Turkish posts by the end of this month and lobbied US and European powers to bring pressure to bear on both Syria and Russia. 

Turkey has asked the US to deploy Patriot missiles on the border with Syria to deter Russian air forces operating around Idlib, though Mr Erdogan has already acknowledged that his request from the US isn’t likely to be fulfilled. 

REFUGEE EXODUS 

Thursday’s attack – the single deadliest incident suffered by Turkey, which maintains Nato’s second-largest army, in the course of its campaign in Syria – raises the stakes significantly. 

Since the US withdrew its forces in October, war-torn Syria has become a big-power struggle between Russia and Turkey. 

Turkey, already the biggest host of refugees, with more than 3.5 million Syrians accepted, says it can’t take any more if the Russian-backed attacks in Idlib unleash another wave. 

Hundreds of thousands are already on the move toward Turkey and the total number could exceed two million, Mr Erdogan has said. 

Europe, and Germany in particular, will be watching developments with growing alarm. 

The prospect of Turkey waving through a flood of Syrian refugees through its borders is precisely what Chancellor Angela Merkel had hoped to avert and will further stoke anti-immigrant populist sentiment across the continent. 

Her open-door policy to Syria refugees back in 2015 fatally weakened her 15-year hold on power and unleashed the country’s far-right forces. 

Germany is now in the throes of a political battle where the pressure is building to take the country in a more conservative direction. 

Within hours of Thursday’s attack, the spokesman of Mr Erdogan’s ruling party, Mr Omer Celik, said Turkey’s policy on Syrian refugees remains unchanged but that it’s getting increasingly difficult to “hold” them.