ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that his country would not “sit on our hands” after six Turkish soldiers were killed during shelling by Syrian government forces in Idlib.
Ankara retaliated to the deadly attack, which also injured nine other Turkish troops, by launching strikes on targets in the rebel-held northwestern province of Syria which left around 36 Syrian soldiers dead.
Turkey said that the heavy shelling took place despite Syrian forces being notified beforehand about the locations of Turkish troops. However, the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria dismissed the claim, and announced that the Turkish military had not informed Russia of its movements in the Idlib zone when they came under fire from government forces.
The attack has raised fears that Ankara could soon launch a military operation which would threaten to further damage already fragile Turkish-Russian agreements on the region.
Erdogan said: “We cannot sit on our hands. In response, we will hold to account all those responsible for the attack on Turkish soldiers. You (Russia) are not our interlocutor here, the regime is. Don’t block our effort to respond.”
He also warned on Friday that Turkey may start a military operation in Idlib and criticized Russia for not abiding by the Sochi and Astana deals.
Two top aides of Erdogan, Fahrettin Altun and Ibrahim Kalin, also pledged that Turkey would take revenge for the deaths of the Turkish soldiers.
The Syrian government offensive happened a day after a large Turkish military convoy moved into the area on Sunday with dozens of armored vehicles and fuel tanker trucks as reinforcements for establishing a new observation post around the Saraqib area.
Following Syrian regime advances in densely populated areas of Idlib, backed by Russian air power, Ankara recently began criticizing the reliability of its 2018 deal with Russia and Iran for establishing de-escalation zones in the region that is mainly controlled by the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham group, a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused on Jan. 28 “a terrorist nest” in Idlib for violating the cease-fire agreement for the region, but the next day Erdogan described them as “people fighting to defend their own lands,” and again accused Moscow of ignoring the bilateral agreements on Syria and issued another ultimatum.
Bill Park, a visiting research fellow at King’s College London, said that he had been expecting tensions to rise between Turkey and Russia and “now that moment has arrived. I find it hard to believe that Russia will allow Turkey to inflict serious damage on Syrian forces, so my guess is that Turkey will inflict only token damage on Syrian forces.
“If Turkey hits back hard, I predict that Russia will strike Turkish forces hard,” Park told Arab News.
Currently, three out of 12 Turkish observation posts are surrounded by regime forces in Idlib, and the new observation point was meant to stop the regime from advancing toward Aleppo.
In Turkey, which already hosts around 3.6 million registered refugees from Syria, the latest shelling sparked concerns about a possible new wave of immigration to Turkish borders from Idlib, which is home to about 3 million civilians.
Advances by regime forces into Maarat Al-Numan and other urban areas have already pushed thousands of civilians toward the Turkey-Syria border under harsh winter conditions.
Berkay Mandiraci, a Turkey analyst at the International Crisis Group, said: “Turkey fears a new mass inflow of refugees from Idlib as well as a loss of leverage in the Syria theater should Idlib gradually come under the control of the regime.”
He also pointed out Ankara’s fears that violent jihadists could infiltrate Turkey with refugees and launch attacks.
Although the Turkey-Syria border is currently closed, Turkey might be forced to open it to cope with any surge in refugees and relieve pressure on physical and security limitations in areas within Syrian territories controlled by Turkish soldiers.
“But Ankara is constrained by Russian buy-in and can only trip over Russia’s red lines insofar as it can risk its interests in other conflict theaters, where the two partners are at odds with each other, including Libya,” Mandiraci added.
Navar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, in Istanbul, said: “We are witnessing the collapse of the Astana agreement, and maybe the rebirth of the relationship between the Turks and the US in terms of Idlib.
“The Americans are willing to support Turkey in any move in Idlib politically and security-wise. However, there is a serious difference of approach in Idlib between the two: The Idlib goal of the US is to eliminate all extremists, and then to stop the killing.
“But Turks want to stop the mass attacks in Idlib that results in massive immigration influx and then to secure the area surrounding them. It is a huge difference,” he told Arab News.
However, Saban did not predict a major Turkish counterattack in the region.
“Most importantly, it may indirectly intervene by continuing to support the opposition and provide them with huge amounts of ammunition. They want to block any further advance of the regime and redraw their maps of control in Idlib after the loss of Maarat Al-Numan,” he said.
The fault lines between Ankara and Moscow seem to have broadened. During his official visit to Ukraine on Monday, on the same day as the Russian-supported assault on Idlib, Erdogan announced Turkey’s categorical rejection of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the importance of Crimean Tatars for Turkey.