ISTANBUL — Turkey said deadly clashes in Syria’s northwest Idlib province on Monday killed at least eight Turkish soldiers and civilian contractors and scores of Syrian troops. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to continue military operations, risking further entanglement in the Syrian imbroglio.
The Turkish soldiers were reinforcing a military outpost near the town of Saraqib, where Turkey is monitoring an all-but-defunct deconfliction zone in Idlib Ankara secured in a 2018 deal with Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s backers. Turkey supports the Syrian opposition fighting Assad since 2011 in a war that has killed as many as a half-million people.
“Those who think they can test Turkey’s resolve with these types of treacherous attacks will come to understand that they have made a great mistake,” Erdogan said before departing for a previously scheduled trip to Ukraine. “We are determined to continue the operations we have undertaken for the security of our nation, our people and our brothers in Idlib.”
There have been skirmishes between Syrian and Turkish troops at the 12 observation posts in Idlib before, but direct confrontation between the two militaries is rare. The fighting on Monday was the deadliest yet between the two sides and led members of the Turkish opposition to question whether Turkey is now at war with Syria.
Last week, Erdogan had signaled a fight loomed, warning Turkey would not tolerate a new wave of refugees and would do “what’s necessary” to protect its borders, accusing Assad of using displaced human beings to threaten Turkey. Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, making it the world’s largest host of displaced people.
Longstanding animosity between Turkey and Syria is boiling over as Assad has intensified an offensive to retake Idlib, the rebels’ last bastion and home to some three million civilians, since November. The campaign, backed by Russian air power, has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, most of them rushing to the Turkish border, which is closed.
Turkish fighter jets and howitzers were firing on dozens of Syrian government targets, Erdogan said. However, Turkey would require Russian acquiescence to use the airspace above Idlib, and Russia denied airstrikes were conducted. Russian officials also accused Turkey of failing to inform them of troop movements in advance.
Russian warplanes continued to bombard Idlib’s neighboring province of Aleppo on Monday, killing nine civilians, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Monday’s escalation could harm an entente between Ankara and Moscow, which have agreed to a series of cease-fires in Idlib as well as in northeast Syria, which Turkey invaded in October to fight Syrian Kurdish militants. Erdogan has sharpened his rhetoric against Russia in recent days as fighting in Idlib threatens a full-blown humanitarian crisis, and some analysts believe Russia is siding with Damascus over Ankara while it pressures Turkey to finally make peace with Syria.
A personal rapport between Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin has drawn Turkey into Russia’s orbit and Erdogan’s purchase of a $2 billion Russian anti-aircraft system has strained Ankara’s ties with its NATO partners. Russia also supplies Turkey with much of its oil, gas and coal, and Putin was in Turkey just last month to inaugurate a new natural gas pipeline. The two leaders have also worked to hammer out a deal in Libya, where they again support opposing sides.
"While developments in Idlib will strain Turkish-Russian relations they will likely survive the fallout, given the two capitals see economic and strategic interests aligning in other arenas,” said Berkay Mandiraci, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“While Ankara has shown more military assertiveness recently, its actions are likely going to be constrained by Russia’s increased leverage in other conflict theaters where the two partners are mostly at odds with each other, including in Libya as well as Ankara's energy-related [and] economic interests," he told Al-Monitor.
On Monday, Erdogan accused Russia of failing to meet its commitments but said that Turkey was focused on holding the Syrian government to account. “To the Russian authorities: You are not our interlocutors here. It’s entirely the regime and you should not block us. It is impossible for us to remain silent when our soldiers are being martyred,” he said. “If we don’t get the result we want, I will speak with my counterpart to convey the gravity of the situation.”
Turkey also needs Russia to help keep the peace on the other side of the war-ravaged country. A joint patrol by Russian and Turkish troops in northeast Syria was canceled on Monday, according to news reports. Russia and Turkey are conducting the patrols to enforce a cease-fire with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia that fought with the United States against the Islamic State until a Turkish incursion forced President Donald Trump to evacuate American troops.
Russia stepped into the lurch created by the United States’ hasty withdrawal. Turkey attacked the YPG because of its ties with Kurdish insurgents within Turkey.
Erdogan adviser Fahrettin Altun said Turkey would continue to respond to threats if Russia fails to “control” Assad. But he also took aim at Western allies, who were outraged by the military operation against the YPG, for failing to support Turkey in Syria.
“Turkey’s presence in northern Syria is the only barrier against yet another humanitarian crisis,” Altun wrote on Twitter. “If the international community does not stand with Turkey against instances of aggression like this one, it will be faced with yet another refugee crisis along our borders.”
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