Intel: Five Turkish soldiers killed in Idlib amid Russian-Turkish de-escalation talks

al-monitor A Turkish delegation (L) led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal meet with Russian officials to discuss Syria, Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan, Aug. 2, 2019. Photo by Aliia Raimbekova/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

Feb 10, 2020

Five Turkish troops were killed and five wounded in shelling by the Russian-backed Syrian regime today as the Turkish and Russian delegations were in talks in Ankara to wind down the clashes in Idlib.

Why it matters:  The escalation indicates the Russian-Turkish talks that began on Feb. 8 have failed to produce concrete results other than maintaining the appearance of cooperation. 

The number of Turkish casualties in the recent Idlib escalation had risen to 13 by the latest attack after Syrian artillery fire hit the Turkish troops’ positions in the northwestern Syrian town of Taftanaz on Jan. 10, killing at least five Turkish soldiers and wounding five others. 

“Turkey immediately retaliated against the attack with intense fire,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Eight Turkish military personnel were killed in shelling by the Syrian regime on Feb. 3.

Turkey continues to send reinforcements to the area, and the number of Turkish troops on the ground has reached some 9,000.

In the first round of the Russia-Turkey talks on Feb. 8, the Turkish side, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal, reiterated its determination to push back forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if they refused to withdraw from the de-escalation zone in Idlib by the end of February. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had set the deadline on Feb. 5, adding that otherwise, Turkey would “take matters into its own hands.”

Russian-backed Syrian government forces’ rapid push to capture the last rebel stronghold in Syria roiled the relations between Russia and Turkey over the past week. 

Erdogan had publicly rebuked Moscow’s support for the Syrian government after eight Turkish military personnel were killed in shelling by the Syrian regime on Feb. 3. The Russians, in turn, accused Turkey of having failed to fulfill its commitment to remove fighters designated as “terrorists” from the ranks of its allied rebels and from in and around Idlib. 

The rare public display of mutual grievances led many to question whether the rift would affect cooperation between the two countries in a variety of areas, ranging from gas to the arms trade.

Despite such speculation, Ankara moved quickly to tone down its rhetoric after a phone conversation between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 4. 

“The perpetrator of the attacks in Idlib is the Syrian regime,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Feb. 6. “Why should we have a conflict with Russia over this?”

What’s next:  It remains unclear whether the recent casualties will reignite the tension between Ankara and Moscow.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry announced on Feb. 8 that the talks would continue in the coming days. The Russian delegation is represented by special envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin and Defense Ministry officials, the statement said.

Know more:  Read Diego Cupolo’s article on Erdogan’s Feb. 3 visit to Ukraine, which was laden with symbolism aimed at Russia. Also, see Semih Idiz’s latest take on how fraying Turkish-Russian ties might force Erdogan to mend ties with the West.

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