Turkey, Russia inch towards Syria clash

Ankara vows to retaliate against Syria regime backed by Moscow after air raid on its forces

Smoke billowing over the town of Saraqib in Idlib province in north-western Syria on Thursday. At least 33 soldiers were killed in an air strike on Turkish forces in the province that day.
Smoke billowing over the town of Saraqib in Idlib province in north-western Syria on Thursday. At least 33 soldiers were killed in an air strike on Turkish forces in the province that day.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ISTANBUL • Turkey and Russia are inching towards a direct confrontation in Syria after an attack on Turkish positions in the war-torn nation killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a crisis meeting with his top security officials after the country's military suffered its biggest single-day losses in an air strike on its forces in Syria's north-western Idlib province on Thursday.

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 yesterday, 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 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg.

Turkey has urged 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 tried to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to drop support for the regime in Damascus.

Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan spoke by phone yesterday to discuss the implementation of agreements on Idlib amid mounting tension, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. Mr Lavrov told reporters at a news conference in Moscow that Russia and Turkey were ready to continue coordinating over the Syrian province.

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.

Separately, an official said yesterday that Turkey will no longer close its border gates to refugees who want to go to Europe. "We will no longer keep the doors closed for refugees who want to go to Europe," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Nearly 300 migrants, including Syrians, have arrived in Turkey's Edirne province on the border with Greece in a bid to go to Europe, the private DHA news agency reported.

Another group of migrants arrived on the coast of Ayvacik in Canakkale, western Turkey, and wanted to go to the Greek island of Lesbos by boat, it reported.

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

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

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

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

Syrian President Bashar al-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 his request is not likely to be fulfilled.

Thursday's attack - the single deadliest incident suffered by Turkey in the course of its campaign in Syria - raises the stakes significantly.

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

The prospect of Turkey waving through a flood of Syrian refugees past its borders is precisely what German 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 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.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2020, with the headline 'Turkey, Russia inch towards Syria clash'. Subscribe