Details began to emerge after the Turkish Defense Ministry announced on February 3 that six Turkish soldiers were killed and seven others were injured in an attack by pro-Assad regime forces near Idlib. Turkish officials announced in later hours that the number of fallen soldiers and civilan personnel hase increased to 8. (*) The attack late on February 2 took place at a spot close to the town of Saraqib, a junction on the M5 highway that links Aleppo to Idlib. This was near to the region where 4 Russian soldiers reportedly belonging to the Russian counter-intelligence service FSB were killed by mortar fire on February 1.
Another incident that adds to the timing of the attack is that it came hours before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Ukraine, which has serious problems with Russia. Thus, Erdoğan said at a press briefing at 10 a.m. before leaving for Ukraine that 46 Syrian regime targets were hit by 122 howitzer and 100 mortar shells as of 6:16 a.m. and 30 to 35 pro-regime force members were killed. In evening hours that number was announced as 76; it was not able to confirm that figure from the Syrian side. (*) According to sources in the field, Turkish Defence Ministry waited until the Turkish Special Forces have carried the bodies of the fallen soldiers and the injured ones to Turkey with a helicopter mission into Idlib, before issuing a statement.
Erdoğan said Ankara sent a message to Moscow that Turkey sees the Syrian regime responsible for the attack and Russia “should do not stand in our way,” but it is reported that after his statement, Russian air forces hit targets that they consider as terrorist in the region between Aleppo and Idlib. Following the development, the Turkish Armed Forces decided to withdraw from a joint patrol with Russian military forces around the town of Kobane in northern Syria against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) on February 3. Defence Mininister Hulusi Akar has left the delegation to Ukraine and flew to Syrian border with top brass.
To put it briefly, tensions between Turkey and Russia are mounting to a level that might risk deals for Syria and even Libya at a time when hundreds of thousands of migrants are moving toward Turkey, according to American sources.
Background of the attack and other details
The last episode began when the Syrian military took over the town of Maarat Al Numan on the M5 highway near Idlib on January 28. Turkey did not lose time to announce a reaction message the same day, after Syria reclaimed the town from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group considered as terrorists by the Turkish government as well. The Turkish Defense Ministry reminded Russia of the January 12 Idlib ceasefire deal. Still, Russia responded that the mentioned deal also covers the right to struggle against terrorists. Upon that, Erdoğan said, en route to Turkey from Senegal on January 29, that Russia should stop attacks on Idlib or else the Astana process would be terminated, asking Moscow whether “those who defend their land were terrorists?”
The next day on January 30, when Tod Wolters, commander of the U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, met in Ankara with Defense Minister Akar and Chief of General Staff Yaşar Güler, Russian and Syrian jets bombed positions around Idlib. Still the same day, the U.S. Special Envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, said a new influx of migrants from Idlib to the Turkish border could reach some 700,000 people; this should be something that they have been monitoring via satellites.
On February 1, a new military convoy from Turkey reached the city-centre of Idlib and started preparations to set up new checkpoints in addition to the existing 12 observation posts. (Russia should be pointing to that convoy when it says, “They did not warn us and thus became a target.”) The same day, social media posts claimed that Syrian helicopters that took off from the Neirab airfield close to Idlib were intervened electronically and they returned before holding an attack on the anti-regime forces.
The killing of Russian security members during clashes with forces that they name terrorist in the Zahra region between Aleppo and Idlib was also on the same day.
Tensions with US, now with Russia…
With the killing of four soldiers late on Feb. 2, the number of Turkish soldiers killed in Syria and Iraq in the past month reached 24. Such reports on Turkey’s casualties, which would have made it to the headlines at another time, all remained to be seen only in statements by the Defence Ministry.
The fact that Turkey and Russia are facing serious problems both in Libya and Syria was not made public until the last a few days. On the contrary, it was highlighted that the strong leader-to-leader relationship between Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin would not allow serious conflict on national interests.
However, reports of casualties from Idlib prove that this can no longer be hidden. Problems do exist and they cannot be resolved only with leader-to-leader diplomacy, with the Presidency circles defining rooted institutions such as Foreign Ministry and the General Staff or the National Intelligence Service (MIT) as support for details.
A similar situation is valid for relations with the U.S. At a point when relations depend on the leader-to-leader ties between Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump, which even have a deeper dimension in terms of similarities in personal discourse, things might also end up bad. Indeed, by putting five senators against Erdoğan on Oct. 13, 2019 at the White House, Trump meant to say that “The issue of Turkey’s S-400 missile purchase [from Russia] is beyond me and you have to resolve the issue with the U.S. Congress.”
Turkey retaliates to the attack on its soldiers in Syria territory; the grief and rection in Tukey is high. Yet, its better stay at that dose and doesn’t go beyond that as to put Turkey in an unfair position.
At a time when serious steps for a political resolution for Syria has been taken as part of the Geneva process thanks to deals with the U.S. and Russia, and the position of Turkey on the bargaining table has strengthened, is it worth losing soldiers, receiving more migrants and risking the country further in terms of politics, military and economy only for the sake of some particular groups to hold the control of Idlib? Isn’t it time to say it is never too late and make a change? Does it really worth it?
(*) Updated on February 3, 2020 at 20.32