Turkey calls on Russia to stop Syrian government offensive in Idlib

Ankara is looking for ways to end a military confrontation that killed eight Turkish servicemen and could drag Turkey even deeper into the war raging on its southern border.
Tuesday 04/02/2020
Ankara is looking for ways to end a military confrontation that killed eight Turkish servicemen and could drag Turkey even deeper into the war raging on its southern border. (AFP)
Ankara is looking for ways to end a military confrontation that killed eight Turkish servicemen and could drag Turkey even deeper into the war raging on its southern border. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Turkey called on Russia to use its influence with the government in Syria to stop an offensive in Idlib province that triggered a deadly clash between Turkish and Syrian troops.

The appeal February 4 highlighted Moscow’s central role in the Syrian conflict and indicated that Ankara is looking to end a military confrontation that killed eight Turkish servicemen and could drag Turkey even deeper into the war on its southern border.

The Syrian government is determined to control rebel-held Idlib and seal its military victory over insurgents almost nine years since the start of the conflict. Ankara is supporting rebels in Idlib and is concerned the fighting could send hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkey, which already houses 3.6 million Syrians.

Turkey sent troops and hundreds of military vehicles, including battle tanks, over the border into Idlib on February 2 to protect 12 Turkish military posts and to confront the advancing Syrian Army that had driven rebels out of the strategically important town of Maaret al-Numan several days earlier. Five Turkish soldiers, three civilian army contractors and at least 13 Syrian government soldiers died in a clash February 3 between the two sides east of Sarakib.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a telephone call that Turkey and Russia “have to do something urgently” to stop the escalation.

Moscow is the key military power in Syria and a crucial supporter of President Bashar Assad, who has vowed to bring Idlib under his control.

“The regime has to stop this aggression immediately,” Cavusoglu was quoted in news reports as saying February 4. “That is the message I gave to Lavrov yesterday.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey would not allow Syrian forces to gain ground in Idlib.

“Syria is right now trying to buy time by driving those innocent and grieving people in Idlib toward our borders. We will not allow Syria the opportunity to gain ground there,” Erdogan said in quotes published by the Hurriyet newspaper and broadcaster NTV.

“There will, of course, be consequences for the regime,” Erdogan said in the interview, which was given to journalists on his plane returning from a visit to Ukraine.

Erdogan earlier criticised Russia, Assad’s most important backer, for failing to enforce peace agreements in Idlib but he toned down his rhetoric in the latest statement. “We don’t need to get into a serious conflict or a serious confrontation with Russia at this stage,” he said. “As you know we have very serious initiatives with Russia.”

The fighting in Idlib is a stress test for a Turkish-Russian alliance that has seen both countries closely cooperating in Syria despite being on different sides of the conflict. Ankara and Moscow have also extended their ties in tourism and in the energy sector and Turkey angered its NATO partners by buying a Russian missile defence system. A senior Russian lawmaker said Moscow was alarmed by the situation in Idlib and that it was putting serious strain on agreements between Russia and Turkey.

The United States, Turkey’s traditional partner whose influence in Ankara has waned with the ascendency of Russia’s role, said it stood by the Turkish government in the escalation in Idlib.

US broadcaster National Public Radio quoted a US State Department spokesman as condemning the “continued, unjustifiable and ruthless assault by the Assad regime, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on the people of Idlib.”