Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to drive Russian-backed Syrian government forces from the last rebel stronghold of Idlib, escalating his threats against Damascus after being buoyed by rare public support from the U.S.
Erdogan has massed tanks and commandos in Idlib after at least 14 Turks, most of them soldiers, were killed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and on Wednesday threatened to hit Syrian targets “anywhere” if Turkish troops are harmed again.
“We’re determined to drive away regime forces until the end of February” from the vicinity of Idlib, he said. At least three Turkish army outposts have been cut off in the area.
Assad’s attempt to crush Turkish-backed rebels and al-Qaeda militants in the final major opposijtion holdout after nine years of war has triggered fierce Turkish military retaliation, while testing key strategic alliances.
Turkey and Russia have so far maintained an uneasy partnership in Syria, where they back opposing sides, but disagreements over who should control Idlib are taking a toll on the relationship. On Wednesday, Russia directly accused Turkey for the first time of failing to abide by agreements meant to contain hostilities in Idlib, warning that the situation was being aggravated by the flow of Turkish troops into the province.
James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria engagement and its special representative to the global coalition to defeat Islamic State, met Turkish officials in Ankara on Wednesday and told NTV television in an interview later that the U.S. would review intelligence sharing and equipment transfers to Turkey.
A recapture of the province would mark a major strategic victory for Assad and threatens to give Turkey less of a say in postwar Syria, where it’s been backing rebels since the conflict began in 2011.
Walking a fine line, Erdogan has been careful not to alienate Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is backing Assad. The two spoke by phone Wednesday about the “aggravation of the situation” in Idlib, and noted the need for “full implementation” of agreements their countries have reached regarding the rebel-held zone, according to a Kremlin statement.
Erdogan said he and Putin decided that military and civilian officials from both sides would hold further discussions.
But Turkey’s openness to international support also lays bare the power imbalance in Syria, where Russia controls the air space above Idlib.
Erdogan said he might soon talk with President Donald Trump on events in Syria after Ankara secured support from a visiting U.S. official in its tussle with the Assad regime.
Upon his arrival in Ankara on Tuesday, Jeffrey said he had traveled to Turkey to discuss whatever support the country needed to defend its soldiers against “a threat in Idlib from Russia and the Assad government.”
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said on Twitter that he had dispatched Jeffrey to “coordinate steps to respond to this destabilizing attack.”
The U.S. and Turkey are finding rare common ground over the conflict in Syria despite a lengthy dispute between the NATO allies over Turkey’s purchase of an advanced Russian missile-defense system.
Putin and Erdogan struck a deal at Sochi in September 2018 that provided for the creation of a demilitarized zone in Idlib between Syrian government troops and opposition groups.
It required “radical militants” to withdraw from the area and provided for Turkish and Russian forces to conduct joint monitoring of the zone, as well as allowing the restoration of key transit routes to Aleppo, Syria’s shattered commercial hub.
Moscow has demanded a halt to attacks on Russian forces and their allies in the northwestern province, who’ve been conducting a months-long advance on the opposition bastion.
“We continue to regret the fact that these groups are attacking Syrian troops from Idlib and carrying out aggressive actions against our military infrastructure. This is unacceptable and goes against the Sochi agreements,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.
Erdogan, however, said the Syrian offensive on Idlib was aimed at forcing civilians to flee. Turkey, which already hosts the world’s largest number of Syrians who escaped the war, fears from a new influx of refugees.
Turkey’s increasing military foray into Idlib is adding to geopolitical risks and unsettling investors. Turkish stocks and bonds plunged following reports of new fatalities on Monday. The yield on Turkey’s 10-year government bond and two-year notes rose as the lira slipped to a nine-month low against the dollar.
— With assistance by Anthony Halpin
Photographer: Aref Tammawi/AFP via Getty Images
One man was killed when US troops in north-east Syria returned fire after their convoy came under attack near a checkpoint manned by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday.
At one point in the standoff, a Russian army convoy also arrived at the scene in an apparent attempt to mediate the rare confrontation involving US and Syrian fighters.
A Pentagon spokesman said US-led coalition forces were conducting a patrol near the town of Qamishli when they encountered a checkpoint occupied by pro-government forces.
“After coalition troops issued a series of warnings and de-escalation attempts, the patrol came under small arms fire from unknown individuals,” said Col Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the US-led coalition.
“In self-defense, coalition troops returned fire,” he said.
One Syrian man was killed and another was wounded, according to Syrian state media.
A video posted on state news agency Sana’s website showed angry men firing small arms at a convoy of several armored US vehicles flying the US flag. Some residents pelted the convoy with stones, while another dumped a bucket full of dirt on the back of one vehicle.
Photographs and video from the scene showed armored vehicles with US, Russian and Syrian flags next to each other. One vehicle was stuck in the dirt, apparently having veered into a ditch, while another had a flat tire.
In one video, a resident walked up to US soldiers at one of the vehicles, holding a US flag, screaming: “What do you want from our country? What is your business here?”
Replying in English, a soldier tells the shouting man to “back off!”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said residents and armed pro-government militiamen blocked the path of a US convoy. The militia fired in the air, prompting the American troops to fire smoke bombs.
The Observatory, which has a network of activists on the ground, said it was not clear if the person killed was a civilian or a militia member.
“The situation was de-escalated and is under investigation,” said Caggins in a statement. Air Force Lt Col Carla Gleason, traveling with the US defense secretary in Brussels, said no Americans were killed in the incident.
The Russian defence ministry said later that “a conflict took place between US troops and the local population” leaving one resident dead and another wounded.
It said that the arrival of Russian troops at the scene had made it “possible to prevent further escalation of the conflict”.
Hundreds of US troops are stationed in north-eastern Syria, working with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to fight against Isis.