Ankara, Turkey – An attack by Syrian government forces killed five Turkish soldiers in northwest Syria on Monday, threatening further escalation in the region after another deadly artillery strike last week.
Turkish defence officials said five other troops were wounded in “intense” shelling in Taftanaz in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold in Syria.
Turkey immediately responded and “neutralised” more than 100 enemy targets, the defence ministry said in a statement.
“A heinous attack occurred today in Idlib, where our military serves, pursuant to our rights under international law, to end the violence and mitigate the humanitarian crisis,” Fahrettin Altun, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s communications director, wrote on Twitter.
“Turkey retaliated against the attack to destroy all enemy targets and avenging our fallen troops. The war criminal, who ordered today’s heinous attack, targeted the entire international community, not just Turkey.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu commented that Ankara had “responded to the cowards”, adding: “Our glorious army will continue to do what is necessary.”
Last week, eight Turkish military personnel were killed in a similar attack on Saraqeb, south of Taftanaz. The Turkish response at the time left at least 13 Syrian soldiers dead.
Following that attack, Ankara warned Syrian government forces to retreat to lines agreed in a 2018 ceasefire by the end of February. However, Syria‘s military promised to continue its campaign, which is focused on seizing two highways linking Aleppo to other government-controlled areas.
The most recent attack came as a Russian delegation arrived in Ankara for further talks on fighting in Syria. Russia and Iran support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Turkey backs some of the opposition groups that have made Idlib their final stronghold.
Omer Celik, a spokesperson for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, said Erdogan could meet with his counterpart Russian President Vladimir Putin if the talks reached a stalemate.
“Negotiations are ongoing with the visiting delegation and, so far, no concrete conclusion has been reached,” he said. “The Turkish side has made its own concrete position very clear. Negotiations will continue.”
Celik added: “The Turkish Armed Forces will continue their efforts in Idlib until the regime withdraws.”
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Turkey would call on Moscow to put pressure on the Syrian government.
“Assad regime forces killed 13 Turkish troops in one week alone,” he said. “Ankara has to punish Assad and Russia has to agree to this, but that doesn’t mean Putin will allow Erdogan steamroll Assad completely out of Idlib.”
Astana process ‘in danger’
Murat Aslan, a security analyst at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research in Ankara, accused Russia of supporting the attacks on Turkish troops while engaging in diplomacy.
“The Assad regime is dependent and loyal to Russia and all the attacks by Assad forces are backed by either Iran or Russia,” he said.
“We know the aircraft that bomb the area are from the Russian side so there’s a kind of coordination between the Assad regime and Russia that directly targets Turkish forces and civilians.
“On the one hand, the Russians are negotiating with Turkey in Ankara, and on the other, they are pushing on the ground by backing the Assad regime.”
Referring to a past agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran to deliver peace to Syria and establish a post-conflict political solution, Aslan added: “The current situation is very tense and the Astana process seem to be in danger because of attacks on the Turkish observation posts.
“If these attacks continue the meaning of the Astana process will be lost.”
Turkey has established a dozen observation posts in Idlib. These came under pressure when Syrian government forces resumed their offensive in December, and several have been surrounded.
Over the past week, Turkey has sent thousands of troops as well as equipment, including tanks and armoured personnel carriers, into Idlib in an effort to slow the Syrian army’s advance, which has sent nearly 700,000 displaced civilians fleeing towards the Turkish border.
Speaking as a meeting of senior security and government officials, including Erdogan, was under way in Ankara, Celik ruled out the possibility of a Turkish retreat.
“Our observation points will continue with determination in accordance with the orders given,” he said.
“There is no possibility of withdrawal from the observation points in any way.”
Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst and researcher, said Turkey needed to reiterate its demands in Idlib. “Remaining in a defensive position without a firm red line and a clear mandate will only make the soldiers and easy target for the Assad regime,” he said.
Turkey currently hosts 3.6 million Syrians and has closed its borders, saying it cannot accept more.
“Russia does not want Turkey in Idlib any more, that’s clear,” Aslan said, adding, however, that “Turkey wants to keep Idlib because if Idlib is lost to the Assad regime there will be a huge wave of immigrants to the Turkish border.”
“Turkey does not want to see a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib.”