February 28, 2020

TURKEY: Russia Denied Responsibility For Attack On Thursday, Saying That The Turkish Troops Had Been “Within The Ranks Of Jihadi Terrorist” Groups That Came Under Fire From Syrian Forces.

Bloomberg News
written by Onur Ant and Selcan Hacaoglu
Thursday February 27, 2020

Tensions soared between Turkey and Russia after an airstrike in Syria killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers, prompting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to turn to traditional allies in the West for military support.

Russia denied responsibility for Thursday’s attack, saying that the Turkish troops had been “within the ranks of terrorist” groups that came under fire from Syrian forces.

“Immediately after receiving the information about the casualties among Turkish troops, the Russian side took exhaustive measures for a complete cessation of fire by Syrian forces,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement Friday.

Erdogan, who has been careful so far not to accuse Russia of involvement, held a six-hour crisis meeting with his top security officials after the attack in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, which also wounded 32 Turkish soldiers. He vowed to hit “all regime targets,” according to a statement from his office.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and top military commanders flew to an operation center on the Syrian border, signaling a major counter-offensive against Syrian forces, which are backed up by Russian warplanes. Turkish troops along the 911-kilometer (566-mile) Syrian border were placed on alert and there was intense activity in the air along the frontier, NTV television reported Friday.

“Assad and regime forces will pay a heavy price for this heinous attack,” Turkey’s Vice President Fuat Oktay said Friday.

As the tensions rose, two Russian warships carrying Kalibr cruise missiles were sailing through the Dardanelles for a previously planned deployment off Syria, the official Tass news service reported, citing a statement from Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

Envoys to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will meet in Brussels on Friday to discuss the situation in Syria “following Turkey’s request” for consultations under Article 4 of the alliance’s charter, NATO said in a statement. “Any Ally can request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.”

Erdogan had earlier threatened to push back Syrian regime forces from Idlib -- the country’s last rebel stronghold where Turkish soldiers were helping enforce a tenuous cease-fire -- if they didn’t withdraw by the end of February. His government reached out to the U.S. and Europe for assistance in stopping a major Syrian offensive on the province, where 51 Turkish soldiers have been killed so far this month.

Western capitals have shown little inclination to get involved.

Erdogan has sought unsuccessfully to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to drop support for the regime in Damascus. Putin, who has waged a military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2015, wants the government in Damascus to regain control over all of the country’s territory.

‘Escalation’ Risk

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate cease-fire in a statement from his spokesman, warning that “the risk of even greater escalation grows by the hour.” That could spur another wave of Syrian refugees into Europe, potentially further roiling domestic politics in places like Germany.

Turkish NTV on Friday showed pictures of Syrian refugees apparently walking toward the border with Europe.

Erdogan has acknowledged that his request for the U.S. to deploy Patriot missiles to deter Russian warplanes isn’t likely to be fulfilled, and it was unclear whether other NATO allies could meet Turkey’s request for missile-defense systems. Turkey’s ties with its NATO allies have been strained over its purchase of an advanced Russian missile-defense system last year.

Turkish soldiers have been stationed at a dozen outposts in Idlib since a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran to monitor a combat-free zone. In recent weeks, Assad’s forces have intensified attacks on rebel positions in the province, encircling some Turkish troops. Thursday’s airstrike came after Turkey-backed forces recaptured the town of Saraqib, where at least one Turkish outpost is located.

Since the U.S. withdrew its forces from Syria in October, Russia and Turkey have jostled for power. At stake is not only Turkey’s national security but also the fate of millions of Syrians who are likely to seek refuge in Turkey and in Europe as they escape Idlib. The latest attack makes it even more difficult for Turkey to prevent Syrian migrants from seeking refuge elsewhere, a senior Erdogan ally said, signaling growing frustration with European inaction.
UPDATE 2/28/20 at 2:59am: Added tweet below.

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