With the attack on Turkish soldiers, the feared emergency seems to be occurring: an open war between NATO member Turkey and Syria.
On Friday, after an airstrike in Idlib: A dead chicken gives a meal Photo: Umit Bektas/reuters
The long-dreaded emergency has arrived. The military clashes in the Syrian rebel province of Idlib have degenerated into a full-scale war between Turkey and the Assad regime’s troops.
On Thursday night, at least 33 soldiers were killed and at least 40 others seriously injured in an airstrike by Syrian warplanes on Turkish positions. Eyewitnesses from the Turkish province of Hatay, which borders Idlib, reported on social media that up to a hundred soldiers were injured in hospitals in the border town of Reyhanli. The governor of Hatay, Rahmi Dogan, confirmed that 36 seriously wounded soldiers were being treated.
These are the heaviest losses ever suffered by the Turkish army in Syria. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called a special meeting of his Security Council later that night and then ordered counterattacks on "all known Syrian targets." Those attacks, the Turkish military said, had been carried out both from the air and from the ground by Friday morning.
Following a special meeting of NATO ambassadors in Brussels convened at short notice at Turkey’s request, the military alliance strongly condemned the "reckless Syrian airstrikes" and called on Russia and Syria to end their offensive in Idlib.
Meeting soon between Putin and Erdogan?
The Turkish army has thus finally landed "in the Syrian quagmire," as the opposition complains. For weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has kept Turkey on tenterhooks, refusing to enforce a renewed cease-fire with his protege Bashar al-Assad, as Erdogan is increasingly urging.
Still, the Turkish government is making an almost convulsive effort to refrain from Russian involvement in the fighting in Idlib, blaming the Syrian government alone for the attacks. The Russian government then hastened to declare that night that no Russian warplanes had been involved in the attack, but accused Turkey of being involved in an attack on Syrian troops along with terrorists from the al-Qaida-affiliated militia Hai’at Tahrir al-Sham. "We did not know that Turkish soldiers were among the Islamist militia," a Kremlin spokesman said.
This claim was immediately denied by Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. No other armed forces were present with the Turkish troops during the attack, he said.
At noon on Friday, after much urging from Ankara, Erdogan and Putin did have a direct telephone conversation, but it did not produce a diplomatic breakthrough. The Turkish ministers of defense and foreign affairs are to meet with their Russian counterparts, it was agreed. However, according to Turkish sources, Putin held out the prospect of a meeting between the two presidents in the near future.
Turkey fears hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees
However, Putin had previously canceled a meeting scheduled for Wednesday of next week jointly with Chancellor Merkel, French President Macron and Erdogan. "We are still working on it," government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in Berlin.
Erdogan wants to use his army to ensure that Assad stops attacking at least part of Idlib so that a safe protection zone can be created there for almost three million people, one million of whom are already camping in tents along the Turkish border, according to the UN. Turkey fears that otherwise hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees could once again cross the border, which the country would no longer be able to accommodate.
The Turkish government has therefore asked not only NATO but also the EU for more help. The German government and also the U.S. government have therefore now taken a clearer stance. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas spoke of "war crimes" in Idlib, and influential U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham joined Turkey’s call for a no-fly zone over Idlib.
However, this no-fly zone would then have to be enforced militarily not only against Syria but also against Russia. Since this could lead to a major military conflict, the pressure on Putin to agree to a new ceasefire is now to be increased instead.