ANKARA: Ankara has re-engaged with Washington in a bid to defend its cause in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province through both military and diplomatic means.
The diplomatic revival has included high-level visits to Ankara by American officials, including the US Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey.
Supportive messages were received from Washington after US and Syrian forces clashed in Syria’s Qamishli, which could prove crucial for overcoming Ankara’s relative loneliness on the ground.
During his parliamentary speech on Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey will target Syrian forces “anywhere” around Syria if Turkish soldiers are attacked again.
He added that the Syrian troops will be pushed beyond Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of this month.
“If there is the slightest damage to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am announcing from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib’s borders or the lines of the Sochi agreement,” Erdogan said, alluding to the 2018 ceasefire deal.
The president’s remarks came after five Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian forces in Idlib on Monday, just a week after a similar attack killed eight Turkish officials.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund of the US, said Erdogan has responded to escalation by the Syrian regime in Idlib by changing the rules of engagement.
“Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has not fought a regular battle against a state actor since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. With the ongoing deployments in Syria, Turkey is building a force that is clearly superior to Assad’s,” he told Arab News.
In a political retaliatory move, the Syrian parliament voted unanimously on Thursday to recognise and condemn the Armenian Genocide.
Meanwhile, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar called on NATO and Europe to provide support against the Assad regime’s attack in Idlib, leading to speculation over whether Turkey will request an Article 4 meeting in NATO, as it has done in the past over Syria.
An ally can invoke the Article 4 consultation mechanism of NATO’s founding treaty to bring any security-related issue of concern to the discussion within the North Atlantic Council.
Relations between Moscow and Ankara are being strained by the developments, with Russia accusing Turkey of breaking Syrian accords it made with the Kremlin. Moscow also criticized Ankara for failing to deliver on its promise to neutralize radical militants in Idlib.
“Erdogan feels he can cope with the Russia factor thanks to strong support from the US. Not only is Turkey not isolated in Idlib, but it could also decrease its overall isolation through its bold policy in the region,” Unluhisarcikli said.
Ankara, which highly values keeping the province in the hands of rebels, is continuing to send thousands of troops and special forces to reinforce its frontline, especially in Aleppo province.
With Russia controlling the air space above Idlib, its defense ministry used drones to broadcast on Wednesday images of a Turkish military convoy carrying weapons to the province. Russian TV channel Rossiya 1 broadcast a warning to Erdogan on Tuesday: “Get out of Syria. Go home.”
Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the Ankara-based think tank ORSAM, said there are disagreements between Turkey and Russia in terms of sharing their zones of influence.
“Although Russia attaches high importance to eradicating the militants from Idlib, it also wants to withdraw Turkish observation points and to secure Russian bases completely. The control of the M4 highway is also a critical point of disagreement between the parties,” he told Arab News.
Who Ankara will take as a better ally in Syria is creating an intense communications battle between the US and Russia.
The US Embassy released a video with Turkish subtitles and reiterated that the US stands with Ankara, while Russia republished a Turkish infographic about arms provided by the US to the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which is considered a terror group by Ankara.