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Russia stuck in middle as Turkey and Syrian regime clash in Syria


Russia monitored Turkish attacks on Syrian regime forces by the Turkish air force after shelling killed six Turkish troops. Turkey sent forces into Idlib province over the weekend to bolster its observation points in the wake of a major Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive against Syrian opposition and extremists. This is the one of the largest clashes between the Bashar Assad regime and Turkey since the Syrian civil war broke out on March 15, 2011.

Russia is supplying Turkey with S-400 air defense, while Russia’s own air force operates with the Syrian regime from bases near Latakia. This puts Moscow in a bind. It ostensibly can control Syrian airspace and prevent Turkish airstrikes on Syrian regime forces. But if it does so, then what will become of Moscow’s billions in trade deals, S-400s and TurkStream energy deals in Turkey?

Syrian artillery reportedly killed six Turkish soldiers and wounded nine, according to the Turkish defense ministry on Monday. Reinforcement units were coordinated in their deployment with the Russians, Turkey has indicated. Turkey’s communications director Fahrettin Altun slammed the killing of the soldiers, and Turkish presidential adviser Ibrahim Kalin was outraged. “Our state will make them pay for this heinous attack,” Altun said, according to reports.

Russia’s TASS reported that the Turkish troops were shelled near Saraqib where the Syrian Arab Armed Forces are pressing forward with an offensive. Hundreds have already been killed in the fighting. Moscow said that Damascus had not released an official incident report. Clearly this indicates that Russia was monitoring events.

Ankara claimed it chose its F-16s to carry out a retaliation. It is the warplane of choice Turkey has used against Kurdish militants, in its invasions of Afrin and eastern Syria, and against Yazidi areas in northern Iraq. Now, they hit Syrian regime targets on Monday morning. Turkish sources are saying dozens of regime soldiers were killed. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked Russia not to stand in the way of Turkey’s retaliation, according to AFP. Turkish artillery and F-16s then launched their strikes. “We told the Russians that they are not targets,” Turkey’s leadership indicates, noting that they are focusing on hitting Syrian regime targets. Russian media claimed no Turkish jets entered Syrian airspace, casting doubt on Turkish claims.

It’s difficult to judge the latest Turkish military maneuver in Idlib. It could be the fourth or fifth Turkish operation in Syria. Turkey launched a 2015 raid to move the tomb of Suleyman Shah (c. 1214 - c. 1225), the grandfather of Osman I who founded the Ottoman empire. In 2016, Turkey invaded an area west of the Euphrates River in Euphrates Shield to stop the US-backed Kurdish forces from continuing their drive along the border where they were defeating ISIS. In 2017, Turkey inserted forces into Idlib, which is dominated by extremists and opposition groups. In 2018, Turkey invaded the peaceful Kurdish area of Afrin, leading to 160,000 refugees fleeing the attack by Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups. In 2019, Turkey sent Syrian rebels, backed by Turkish air power, to attack Kurdish forces near Tel Abyad, forcing another 200,000 people to flee and saying Turkey would resettle other Syrians in their place.

Turkey’s decision to send forces into Idlib on February 1 may therefore be a new phase, or a temporary attempt to stop the Syrian regime offensive.

THIS PUTS Russia in a bind. Russia has been the key support of the Syrian regime since the Syrian war began. In 2015, it intervened in Syria. It has air force and other assets in Syria. But Russia, since 2017, has also worked with Turkey as part of the Astana peace process and to sell Turkey weapons such as the S-400. Turkey and Russia have an energy pipeline. They also did a deal over Idlib in 2018 and over eastern Syria in 2019. They have new deals in the works to partition Libya into spheres of influence.

Russia and Turkey don’t want to clash. Both view Syria cynically. Turkey wants to use Syrian rebels to fight its wars in Libya. Russia wants to leverage its Syrian successes to humiliate the US and increase influence in the Middle East. Winning the war for Assad totally doesn’t matter to Moscow. Incremental victories are enough to pressure Ankara. But no one wants Russian or Turkish soldiers to die in battle. The preference is that Syrians, Shi’ite mercenaries hired by Iran from Afghanistan, or other cannon fodder do the fighting – just so long as the big powers don’t lose forces. In this respect, the killing of Turkish forces was rare.

Turkey’s TRT says it is providing security for Idlib. Syria’s regime media says it is pursuing “terrorists” toward Saraqib. But why didn’t Syrian artillery keep track of Turkish positions? Turkey apparently notified the Russians where they were going. For Damascus, the operations in Idlib are a major propaganda victory. Provoking Turkey, however, will harm Syrian forces, who have few replacements and have lost already thousands.

Turkey’s Erdogan is in Ukraine. This ostensibly could reveal a greater rift with Moscow, reports indicate. Perhaps. But Turkey needs Russia more than Ukraine. Russia manufactures S-400s, not Ukraine. Russia does deals for Idlib and other areas, not Ukraine.

Turkey’s relations with Ukraine are trade related. Turkey and Ukraine only have around $4.5 billion in trade, while Turkey wants to boost trade with Russia to $100 billion. By contrast, Turkish trade with Iran declined to around $6 billion 2019. Russian-Turkish trade is already on the way to $30 billion. Do the math. Russia is the country Turkey needs. Syria is a quagmire that is just there so that Turkey can claim it is fighting Kurdish militants, and boast to Syrian refugees it might help them return.

Turkey must show off that its F-16s can penetrate Syrian airspace. But Turkey has asked Russia’s permission to use F-16s in Syria, in battles in Afrin for instance. The question the Syrian regime will ask is whether Russia is an honest broker or enabler of Turkish retaliation. For Syria’s regime it doesn’t matter. They only have Russia and Iran, and the regime doesn’t want to be swallowed by Iran. So it must let Russia decide how much Turkish punishment will be coming. And then Russia can go to Turkey and sign a new deal for Idlib.


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