Turkey-Russia Tensions Flare Over Clashes as Assad Pushes Home Idlib Offensive

By Dimitri Simes | February 11, 2020 | 9:31pm EST
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Photo: Presidency of Turkey)
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Photo: Presidency of Turkey)

(CNSNews.com) – Turkey is threatening to take military action against the Assad regime following a clash in the northwestern Syria that left several Turkish soldiers dead and wounded. 

Such a move could complicate Turkey’s partnership with Russia, a close patron of Damascus and a country whom Ankara has sought to court in recent years. 

On Monday, Syrian government forces killed five Turkish soldiers and injured five others during a clash in Idlib province. Turkey responded by launching strikes against 115 Syrian military targets and claimed it had “neutralized” 101 of them.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on Tuesday that the Assad regime would pay a “heavy price” for its attack against Turkish forces.

“We gave the necessary responses to the Syrian side at the highest level,” he said. “Especially in Idlib, they got what they deserved. But this is not enough, it will continue.”

Just a week ago, there was another clash between Syrian regime and Turkish forces in Idlib. That incident left eight Turkish soldiers dead and prompted Turkey to send hundreds of troops and military vehicles to the province. 

Russia has called for a diplomatic solution to the recent tensions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday that Russia wanted to see existing de-escalation agreements implemented. He warned that Moscow regarded any “terrorist activity against Syrian forces and Russian military facilities” as unacceptable. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in reaction to Monday’s clash in Idlib stated that the United States fully sympathized with Turkey, adding that “The ongoing assaults by the Assad regime and Russia must stop.”

Pompeo added that he had sent U.S. special representative for Syria James Jeffery to Ankara “to coordinate steps to respond to this destabilizing attack." 

Idlib in northwest Syria is the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country. The region is dominated by various Turkish-backed rebel groups and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist organization linked to al-Qaeda. When U.S. special forces killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last year, he was found hiding in an Idlib village, near the Syria-Turkey border.

In December, Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched a new offensive in Idlib. Backed by Russian air support, his forces have regained control of a strategic highway and several towns surrounding the provincial capital. The U.N. reported on Tuesday that nearly 700,000 Syrians have fled Idlib since the offensive began.

Turkey says the offensive violates a deal it reached with Russia in September 2018 to establish a de-escalation zone in Idlib. The agreement mandated that “radical militants” had to leave the designated zone entirely, and granted Turkey permission to deploy military observation posts across Idlib. 

For its part, Russia has accused Turkey of failing to honor its promise of clearing the zone of jihadist groups, like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. 

The tensions have caused the two countries to scale back their cooperation in Syria. Last week, Turkey suspended its joint patrols of the Syrian border with Russia, put in place last October. 

Turkish and Russian delegations met over the weekend in Ankara, but failed to agree on how to defuse the situation. 

Frustrations over Idlib have prompted Turkey to adopt a more defiant stance toward Russia in other areas as well. Visiting Ukraine last week, Erdogan signed deals to expand trade ties with Kyiv, and to provide financial aid to the Ukrainian military – which is embroiled in an ongoing conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country.


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