The Syrian news agency SANA says that Turkey shot down two warplanes in northwest Syria, marking a continuing escalation of the clash between Damascus and Ankara. Meanwhile, Turkey attacked Syrian army units in Idlib province, inflicting hundreds of casualties.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, speaking from military headquarters near the Syrian border, said Turkey aimed to confront Syrian government forces rather than Russian troops. He called on Moscow to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to withdraw to 2018 cease-fire lines on the edges of Idlib.
Referring to losses inflicted on Syria, he said Turkey had “neutralized” more than 2,200 Syrian troops, 103 tanks, and eight helicopters.
“The Spring Shield operation, which was launched following the abominable attack in Idlib on Feb. 27, continues successfully,” Akar said, referring to air strikes that killed 33 Turkish soldiers.
President Erdogan has asked Russia to step aside in Idlib province and allow Turkish troops to operate freely. But Russia has been engaged in its own fight with the Syrian rebels and won’t pull back. They did, however, reaffirm with Turkey the “goal” of reducing tensions.
But with Erdogan escalating the fighting, it may be only a matter of time before Russia is drawn into the conflict. This would be a disaster for Erdogan and cost him dearly domestically as well as with his NATO allies.
But Erdogan’s immediate problem is the 800,000 refugees who are clamoring to get into Turkey. Ankara is already hosting 3.6 million displaced people and Erdogan has been desperate for help from his European allies. But they have their own refugee problems and have so far refused to give much aid.
That may change as Erdogan has now thrown open his borders. Closed since 2016 by agreement with the EU, there are now thousands of refugees on the Greek-Turkish border trying to get in. Most of the refugees will pass through Greece on their way to Germany and other places in Western Europe.
Greek authorities fired tear gas and stun grenades through Saturday to prevent repeated attempts by a crowd of more than 4,000 people massed at the border crossing in Kastanies to cross, and fought a cat-and-mouse game with groups cutting holes in a border fence along the border to crawl through.
Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun later said Turkey had changed its focus to preparing for the possibility of new arrivals from Syria “instead of preventing refugees who intend to migrate to Europe.”
“Europe and others must take robust action to address this monumental challenge,” Altun said. “We can’t be expected to do this on our own.”
This is not what Angela Merkel, Emanuel Macron, or any other EU leader wants to hear. The last surge of refugees roiled domestic politics in all EU nations, leading to a change in governments in several countries.
The humanitarian crisis on the Turkish border with Syria is worse than it’s ever been. The international pressure on Turkey to give them succor will be enormous. Reluctantly, the EU will help but probably not for several months.
And if Russia and Turkey widen the war, the number of refugees will only grow.