While trying to understand what’s going on in the Turkey-Russia rift over Syria, two things must be kept in mind.
Firstly, the fact that the situation of the Syrian refugees is the first major humanitarian plight, the first major affront to humanity, of the 21st century. We’re witnessing it right now: as soon as Ankara loosens the grip on the border controls, Greece, Turkey’s nearest border with the EU, uses violence to deter the small portion of refugees it’s been hosting from staying any longer on their territory — Turkey held the majority of the refugees since people began fleeing Syria. Meanwhile, Bulgaria dispatches troops to the borders to shield itself from the Syrian immigrants coming from Turkey. Just then, European Commission (EC) spokesperson Peter Stano, speaking to Burak Tatari from the Turkish online news platform Medyascope, states that the EU is “ready to defend” its territory.
The second thing we need to keep in mind is how Turkey has had to ask the US and NATO for air cover due to the conflict with Russia in Idlib, even though, before, it had purchased Russian S-400 missiles for $2.5 billion just to spite the US.
Now, let’s take a look at the latest developments.
Growing tension with Russia
At first glance, the statements that “we will stick to the agreements” and “continue the dialogue” following Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s phone call with Russian Head of state Vladimir Putin, on Feb. 28 around noon, gave the impression that the tensions would be under control. A day prior, on Feb. 27, the decision to send a warrant to the Turkish Grand National Assembly, to declare war on Syria had not yet been taken at the emergency meeting, which was gathered following the Russian-backed Syrian air raids which resulted in 34 (*) fallen Turkish soldiers. In fact, despite Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Good Party (GP) leader Meral Akşener’s requests for an immediate closed session in Parliament, Erdogan ordered his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Group to propose, instead, a closed session on Tuesday (March 3rd) for a briefing by Minister of National Defense, Hulusi Akar. Parliamentary speaker Mustafa Şentop was also implying that there were still some clarifications needed regarding the developments. On the other hand, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had called NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, conveying Ankara’s call for an extraordinary meeting. Meanwhile, the president’s Defense and Foreign Advisor Ibrahim kalın had a telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brian. All of this pointed to the option that Erdogan looking for a way out with the least damage, at least until Tuesday, without more loss of troops.
That’s why, on the morning of Feb. 28, all eyes were drawn to the outcome of two developments: the NATO meeting in Brussels and Erdogan’s meeting with Putin. However, the outcome wasn’t as expected after all the implications that the tension was under control: after Putin and Erdogan’s meeting, tensions escalated once more.
Turkish UAVs and the Russian missile battery
Before the Erdogan and Putin’s meeting, Moscow’s statement that Turkish soldiers should not be outside the observation points changed the course of the events. The Putin administration made the accusation that, though Turkish soldiers were not targeted, in accordance with the Sochi agreement, they were intertwined with armed groups.
Upon this, Defense Minister Akar, who was at the temporary command center in Hatay, bordering Syria, held a press conference with Land and Air Force commanders present. He said that the Turkish soldiers were not with the armed groups at the time of the attack, that the second attack was carried out even though Russia was contacted right after the first unit was shot, and that even the ambulances that went to take the injured soldiers away from the site were shot. Moreover, Akar said that 200 Syrian targets were put under “heavy fire” in retaliation, 309 regime soldiers were “neutralized”, and many Syrian tanks, artillery, armored vehicles, and helicopters were destroyed. Akar also stated that two missile ramps were hit during the retaliation operation, in which Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (AUAV) were also used. According to information gathered by YetkinReport through diplomatic sources, one of the two missile ramps, the SA-17, belonged to the Syrian army, while the SA-22 was listed in Russian inventories: it was the ramp for Russia’s latest Pantsir S-1 short/medium renge missile battery.
Putin’s gathering of a National Security Council after meeting with Erdogan, and his statement that “Turkish soldiers should not have left the observation points” further showed that the Ankara-Moscow tension had increased.
Meanwhile, the NATO meeting had ended.
No no-fly zone from NATO, however…
Presidential Head of Communications Fahrettin Altun had announced that Turkey’s expectation from NATO was the declaration of a no-fly zone in northwestern Syria. Erdogan had said, in recent days, that the most pressing issue for turkey in Idlib was the inability to enter the airspace. Indeed, the martyrdom of Turkish soldiers through Russia-backed Syrian jets, revealed Turkey’s current shortcoming in military planning was revealed in the most painful way. The NATO meeting was held in accordance with its Article 4, which envisions “consultation with members on national security and border integrity”. This article was also accepted as the precondition for Article 5, which can be summarized as “one for all, all for one”.
But NATO didn’t officially declare a no-fly zone. According to diplomatic sources, some members, though they agreed with the Secretary-General’s declaration of “full support” to Turkey, politically, expressed that a resolution on the part the of UN would be needed for military support. But some influential countries stressed that Turkey should be given support against Russia on Syrian territory “as soon as possible”; they also pledged military support. These reservations on some level, have to do with that NATO’s reluctance rush into a military confrontation with Russia, and its willingness to let diplomacy take its course; Turkey, right now, seems to be on the same page. If the promised support is delivered, diplomatic sources state that NATO has the capacity to render Russia-Syrian air superiority virtually unusable along the Hatay-Gaziantep-Kilis line, even if no official no-fly zone is implemented.
What did NATO allies pledge?
It was found out that the US, the UK, Italy, and Spain were among the countries that pledged to support as soon as possible. There is the possibility that the US might dispatch one or two Patriot batteries, that are currently at Rammstein air base in Germany, to zones close to Turkey’s border with Syria. It’s also suggested that two missile ships (one of which is still in the Black Sea, both part of the 6th Fleet on the Mediterranean), as well as an advanced electronic warfare system capable of obscuring Russia’s air defense system, could be put to use.
It was also found out that Spain, in addition to extending the Patriot battery’s term at Malatya’s Kürecik base, pledged to offer military transportation support; Britain and Italy have expressed in the meeting that they could provide support with anti-missile systems as well as means of electronic warfare. There is also information that a Danish warship accompanying the French Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, which is still in motion towards the offshore of Syria, will continue to sail close to the Turkish territorial waters and give support.
The same sources stated that the Netherlands said that it could turn its political support into military support if need be and that Germany — which requires Parliament’s decision for military support — pledged financial support to the whole operation. It was reported that the Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who had received Turkish support (including submarine and aircraft patrol) when faced with a Russian threat, have promised full support for Turkey.
Will Russia step back?
Putin’s retort, despite these developments, is considered as an indication that Russia will not step back at this stage.
It’s not expected that Britain’s urgent call for a UN Security Council meeting to discuss Idlib would change the attitude of Russia, which has so far vetoed 14 draft resolutions on Syria alongside China.
While these pledges are being made, Russia displays a show of force against NATO presence in the Mediterranean by transiting two of its warships equipped with advanced electronic warfare and missile systems through the Black Sea and the Aegean via the Straits, towards Syria.
On the other hand, the Kremlin’s announcement made this evening stated that Putin and Erdogan could meet face to face on March 5 or 6. This was despite Erdogan saying, just a day ago, on Feb. 27, when the Turkish soldiers had not been attacked yet, that “there will be no meeting”. These developments show that, though tension is escalating, diplomatic solutions have still not been exhausted.
Now we need to keep an eye on Erdogan’s planned meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as well as the prospective meeting with Putin.
Whatever it takes to avoid war, reduce the tension, and not have any more martyrs, must be done. Turkey’s interest lies in peace, not war.
(*) Number of fallen Turkish soldiers as result of air raids in Syria was known as 33 until Feb. 29, when President Tayyip Erdoğan has updated the figure as 36, which was later corrected as 34. Updated on March 1, 2020 at 16.30.