ANKARA: Tensions between Turkey and Syria were on Monday ratcheted up after five Turkish troops died following shelling by Syrian regime forces in the northern province of Idlib.
Five other Turkish soldiers were also injured during the attacks in the Taftanaz area of Idlib — the last rebel stronghold in Syria — a strategic part of the region which hosts a military air base.
Turkish armed forces retaliated after the strike, which coincided with a car bomb explosion in the Syrian capital Damascus on the same day.
The attack on Turkish forces — the second in just over a week — took place as a Russian delegation held further talks with its Turkish counterparts over the Idlib conflict.
Last Monday, eight Turkish military and civilian officers were killed during shelling by Syrian regime troops in Idlib fighting to end rebel control over the key M4 and M5 highways.
Aaron Stein, Middle East program director at the US- based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Turkey’s options in the province were running out. “Ankara can basically choose to annex the territory it governs in Syria and defend it or surrender as part of a dialogue with Moscow.
“It isn’t going to march to Damascus, and even a new defensive line it establishes in consultations with Russia won’t ease the pressure on Turkey to agree to some mechanism that Russia can live with to end the war,” he told Arab News.
“Taftanaz isn’t a designated observation point under the Sochi deal, and Russia is only providing safety guarantees for established points but not those that are not officially sanctioned, so that it keeps the airspace closed,” Stein added.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently gave an ultimatum to Damascus, saying President Bashar Assad’s regime must withdraw from the Idlib de-escalation zone by the end of February.
According to Stein, Turkey could mount more military action in the region but only at the risk of ending talks with Moscow. “It is a losing bet,” he added.
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said Turkish troops would stay in Idlib “to give necessary response to those violating the international law.”
On Jan. 13, Turkish and Syrian heads of intelligence met in Moscow, in the first official contact in years, but the talks failed to result in any changes to the current battleground situation.
Turkey recently dispatched a task force consisting of at least 1,000 tactical vehicles equipped with aerial defense and firing capabilities in Idlib — the first-ever deployment in Syrian territories.
Navvar Saban, a military expert from the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies, predicted a further escalation of fighting in Idlib. “There is no going back. I’m very concerned for the safety of civilians in the region,” he told Arab News.
He held out hopes that upcoming meetings between Russian and Turkish delegations could lead to a positive plan for Idlib. “But the military reinforcement and operations of the Turkish side aim to secure the current situation and could push the regime side behind the M4 road.
“In terms of the M5 road, it will be related to the ongoing talks between the Turks and the Russians. Turkey will insist that Russia will supervise this road,” he said.
In the meantime, Turkey has continued to gather its troops in Idlib close to the M4 and M5 highways, both strategic routes connecting the government-controlled cities of Aleppo and Hama with the rest of the country.
However, Russia and Turkey failed to reach a deal on Idlib after Monday’s talks, and Turkey has not resumed joint patrols with Russia.
Alexey Khlebnikov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, said that the Russia-Turkey talks were most likely to be preparatory and were not meant to reach a final deal.
“As has always happened in the past when a crisis or a difficult situation occurs, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and Erdogan switch to a ‘manual operation’ mode and meet together. Moreover, Putin’s spokesperson did not exclude that the meet may happen,” he told Arab News.
Khlebnikov pointed out that a large-scale escalation was unlikely to happen while Russian military personnel were also on the ground.
“Turkey won’t risk a direct clash with Russia. Moscow is in control of the Syrian sky over Idlib which makes it doubtful that Turkey will use its airpower; an escalation will only increase refugee flows which is exactly what Turkey wants to avoid,” he said.
Latest reports show that about 1 million refugees are flocked along the Turkish-Syrian border, while the remaining 2 million civilians inside Idlib are expected to flee the province due to the threat of repeated air assaults by regime forces.
Khlebnikov noted that the most likely scenario was that Ankara and Moscow would strike another deal which reflected the current realities on the ground, namely the reopening of the M4 and M5 highways.