Turkey-Syria clashes at risk of es­ca­lat­ing

Er­do­gan de­mands halt to As­sad forces’ of­fen­sive in rebel strong­hold

Toronto Star - - NEWS - SUZAN FRASER

ANKARA, TURKEY— Di­rect clashes be­tween Turk­ish and Syr­ian troops amid a Syr­ian gov­ern­ment of­fen­sive in the last rebel strong­hold of Idlib prov­ince are threat­en­ing to es­ca­late into a full-blown con­flict be­tween the two neigh­bours and also shat­ter an al­liance forged be­tween Turkey and Rus­sia.

In­tent on halt­ing the ad­vance, Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan has vowed to take mil­i­tary ac­tion “ev­ery­where in Syria” if an­other Turk­ish sol­dier is killed or wounded. Ear­lier, he warned Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces that they have un­til the end of February to re­treat to the lim­its of a pre­vi­ously agreed cease­fire line in Idlib.

Turkey and Rus­sia are si­mul­ta­ne­ously ri­vals and al­lies in dif­fer­ent parts of the Mid­dle East, in­clud­ing in Syria and Libya. Their in­ter­ests align when it comes to gas sup­plies and weapons trade, even if they find them­selves on op­po­site sides of proxy wars. And they both have a shared in­ter­est in de­fy­ing U.S. in­flu­ence in Syria.

Turkey and Rus­sia had been work­ing to­gether to keep the calm in Idlib, ne­go­ti­at­ing cease­fires be­tween the Moscow-sup­ported Syr­ian gov­ern­ment and the rebels, who are backed by Ankara. So far, talks be­tween the two have failed to lift the im­passe in Idlib.

As Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces ad­vance with Rus­sia’s sup­port, Turkey has re­fused to aban­don its mil­i­tary posts in Idlib and has threat­ened to pres­sure Syr­ian forces to re­treat. That has boxed Turkey into a cor­ner, leav­ing it with few op­tions but the pos­si­bil­ity of a con­fronta­tion with both Syria and Rus­sia.

The Idlib cri­sis comes as Turkey finds it­self in the mid­dle of an eco­nomic down­turn and in­creas­ingly iso­lated in­ter­na­tion­ally. In the eastern Mediter­ranean re­gion, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Is­rael have reached agree­ments on hy­dro­car­bon ex­plo­ration that ex­clude Turkey. That has forced Turkey to reach widely crit­i­cized mar­itime and se­cu­rity deals with Libya’s UN-rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment.

Emre Ersen, an ex­pert on Turk­ish-Rus­sian re­la­tions at Is­tan­bul’s Mar­mara Univer­sity, says Turkey and Rus­sia were en­gaged in pos­tur­ing, try­ing to “strengthen their hands” be­fore they reach a new ac­cord on Idlib, which he called “in­evitable.”

“Turkey would be loath to trig­ger a new cri­sis with Rus­sia like in 2015,” Ersen said, re­fer­ring to pun­ish­ing Rus­sian sanc­tions af­ter Ankara shot down a Rus­sian war­plane over Syria.

The U.S.-based In­sti­tute for the Study of War noted last week that “Rus­sia has al­ter­nated be­tween mil­i­tary and diplo­matic phases in the cam­paign, slow­ing its progress, but fa­cil­i­tat­ing Rus­sian and pro-regime gains, both ter­ri­to­ri­ally and diplo­mat­i­cally.”

“Er­do­gan does not bluff,” said Ozgur Un­luhis­ar­cikli, di­rec­tor of the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund in Ankara. “When­ever he has threat­ened an in­ter­ven­tion in Syria, he has car­ried it through.”

Un­luhis­ar­cikli said he does not think Syria, even with its back­ing by Rus­sian air power, will be able to put up re­sis­tance against Turkey’s mil­i­tary, the sec­ond-largest army in NATO. He added that Turkey may have been em­bold­ened by re­cent state­ments from U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, who con­demned Syr­ian at­tacks in Idlib, and James Jef­frey, the U.S. spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Syria, who vis­ited Ankara on Wednesday and voiced Wash­ing­ton’s sup­port.

Er­do­gan’s threat drew a quick re­buke from Moscow, where top of­fi­cials blamed Turkey for the ten­sions.

It re­mains un­clear, how­ever, whether Turkey would risk us­ing all its mil­i­tary might against Syria. Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary help has al­lowed Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad to re­claim con­trol of most of the coun­try, and with the Krem­lin’s bless­ing, As­sad now wants to ex­tend his con­trol to Idlib.

Rus­sian of­fi­cials have ar­gued that the Syr­ian of­fen­sive in Idlib be­came nec­es­sary be­cause Turkey has failed to hon­our its obli­ga­tions to rein in al-Qaida-linked mil­i­tants who have mounted reg­u­lar at­tacks against the Syr­ian army there and also have launched raids against a Rus­sian base in Syria.

“The ex­ac­er­ba­tion of ten­sions is rooted in co-or­di­nated at­tacks by ter­ror­ists on neigh­bour­ing re­gions of Syria that trig­gered re­tal­ia­tory ac­tion by the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces,” the Rus­sian De­fence Min­istry said. It charged that the mil­i­tants in Idlib used civil­ians as shields, adding that Turkey ex­ac­er­bated the sit­u­a­tion by send­ing in troops and weapons.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Turkey’s fail­ure to “neu­tral­ize ter­ror­ist groups in Idlib” en­cour­aged their at­tacks. “This is in­ad­mis­si­ble,” he said.

Turkey con­sid­ers Idlib strate­gi­cally important and is determined to main­tain its mil­i­tary pres­ence in the prov­ince to pre­vent a pos­si­ble in­flux of refugees at its borders. The coun­try, al­ready home to 3.6 mil­lion Syr­ian refugees, be­lieves that Da­m­as­cus is de­lib­er­ately driv­ing dis­placed Syr­i­ans to­ward the bor­der as a way to pun­ish Ankara.

There are fears that af­ter it takes Idlib, the Syr­ian army will ad­vance to Turk­ish-con­trolled “se­cure zones” along the bor­der, where Turkey hopes to re­set­tle some of the refugees.

A Turk­ish pres­ence in Idlib also gives it lever­age in talks on Syria’s fu­ture that could po­ten­tially help min­i­mize se­cu­rity threats from its south­ern neigh­bour. Turkey is also con­cerned that a Syr­ian gov­ern­ment vic­tory in Idlib would end UN and other diplo­matic ef­forts for a po­lit­i­cal res­o­lu­tion of the con­flict.

“Ev­ery­thing on the ground shows that the only ob­sta­cle in front of regime forces are the Turk­ish sol­diers,” wrote colum­nist Barcin Yi­nanc in the Hur­riyet Daily News news­pa­per. “So, ba­si­cally, Turkey is giv­ing the mes­sage that it will not leave Syria, be­cause if it were to leave Syria then it will not have a mean­ing­ful say for the fu­ture of Syria.”

As­sad’s forces have been on an of­fen­sive for weeks to re­take Idlib and parts of nearby Aleppo prov­ince, with back­ing from Rus­sia and Iran.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Syr­ian civil­ians on Thurs­day flee from Idlib in rain to­ward the north, to find safety in­side Syria near the bor­der with Turkey.

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