Airstrikes and artillery attacks by Syria killed 33 Turkish troops on Thursday as Ankara edged closer to all-out war with the Syrian regime. Turkey hit back, targeting Syrian positions up and down the line, bringing the two sides closer to a major escalation that’s bound to involve Russia.
A Turkish official declared that the borders would be opened, allowing tens of thousands of refugees access to central Europe. While not official, Greece and Bulgaria are reinforcing their borders, determined to keep the newcomers out.
Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, said the attack occurred despite coordination with Russian officials on the ground and continued even after the alarm was sounded following the first strike.
Turkey’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said that in retaliation, “all known” Syrian government targets were being fired on by Turkish air and land support units.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said the Turkish troops hit by shelling should not have been in that area, and Ankara had not informed Moscow in advance about their location. A senior Russian lawmaker said any full-scale Turkish military operation in Idlib would end badly for Ankara.
Russia knows full well where every Turkish unit is positioned. The idea that the troops were somewhere that they should not have been and the attack was accidental is ludicrous.
Vladimir Putin would like nothing better than to get Turkey, a NATO member, stuck in the Syrian quagmire. Perhaps Putin is trying to goad President Erdogan into an unfortunate escalation. If so, it’s Erdogan’s own fault for being so far out on a limb in the first place. Turkey’s intervention in Idlib hasn’t helped the situation and may have worsened the humanitarian crisis as 800,000 refugees have fled the fighting.
Since 2016, Europe has relied on Turkey to halt Syrian refugees, while the West has all but abandoned diplomacy to end the war to Moscow and Ankara.
The prospect of a new migration crisis caused alarm in European countries already contemplating restrictions on internal borders and public gatherings to fight the coronavirus.
“At a time when we are imposing stricter border monitoring over the coronavirus, imagine if we have an inflow of hundreds of thousands of migrants,” Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said, announcing the mobilization of extra police on the border with Turkey. “We cannot afford that.”
Erdogan’s game is simple: get NATO involved in helping him out of his predicament. Putting pressure on Western Europe to intervene in Idlib by threatening to take his finger out of the dike holding back nearly a million refugees is pretty effective diplomacy.
For their part, NATO has condemned the attacks on Turkish troops and urged both sides to negotiate. In truth, there’s not much to talk about. President Assad wants to end the civil war but he can’t do that without subjugating Idlib province, the last stronghold of the rebels. The brutality with which he is going about this task is incredible, but it shows just how badly he needs the war to end.
Putin and Russia are content to allow the blood to flow. The more the fighting rages, the stronger they get—while everyone else gets weaker.
NATO will not go to war with Russia over Syria. But Putin is exposing the alliance as a weak, ineffective body without much leadership. This doesn’t bode well for the future, as Russia continues to improve its position in the Middle East.