ISTANBUL — Raising the stakes in an already volatile situation in the embattled Syrian province of Idlib, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued warnings against Syria and Russia that amounted to a “declaration of war," an analyst said.
The threats triggered a sharp response from Moscow, accusing Turkey of failing to rein in rebels in Idlib. The exchange sent the Turkish-Russian alliance in Syria to a low point.
Erdogan’s speech February 12 addressing lawmakers of his ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara came after 13 Turkish troops were killed in clashes with Syrian government forces in Idlib since the start of the month.
Erdogan’s nationalist ally, Devlet Bahceli, on February 11, said Turkey should prepare to march on Damascus to stop the Syrian offensive in Idlib that is threatening to send hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkey, a country that already houses 3.6 million Syrians.
Even though it came just hours after Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to iron out their differences in a telephone call, the speech by Erdogan included sharp accusations against Moscow. He suggested that Turkey would see agreements with the Kremlin, such the deal on Idlib reached in Sochi in 2018, as null and void if attacks on Turkish troops in the province continued.
“I hereby declare that we will strike regime forces everywhere from now on regardless of the Sochi deal if any tiny bit of harm is dealt to our soldiers at observation posts or elsewhere,” Erdogan said in reference to 12 Turkish observation points in Idlib set up under agreements with Russia.
Erdogan said Turkey was determined to push Syrian government forces beyond the observation posts by the end of February. “We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground,” he said. Aircraft striking settlements in Idlib would “no longer move freely."
The United Nations said about 700,000 people are on the move, with many seeking shelter along the closed Turkish border in the north-western Idlib.
“I want particularly to underline that the [Syrian] regime and Russia, together with regime-aligned forces, take aim at the civilian population coming from the east,” Erdogan said. “The goal is to clear the region [of civilians] and push the people of the region towards our borders.”
The Kremlin said in a brief readout of the call that Putin and Erdogan had agreed on the importance of implementing Russian-Turkish agreements on Syria and that contacts between Syria and Russia about the situation should continue.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Turkey of flouting agreements it had made with Russia to neutralise militants in Idlib and said militant attacks on Syrian and Russian forces in the region has not stopped.
“We continue to note with regret that these groups are carrying out strikes from Idlib on Syrian forces and also taking aggressive action against our military facilities,” Peskov said.
However, Erdogan said Turkey was determined to act. “We will do what is necessary without waiting for never-ending conferences,” he said.
The Turkish leader highlighted a controversial principle of his Syria policy: the aim to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power. Turkey played down that goal in recent years to smooth relations with Russia, Assad’s main backer.
“The fight for freedom of the Syrian people is a fight for survival for Turkey’s 82 million people,” Erdogan said.
His speech did not burn all bridges with Moscow. A Turkish delegation is to soon go to Moscow to discuss Idlib, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.
But Erdogan's words were a clear signal that Turkey views its cooperation with Moscow as having limits and that Ankara was not willing to sacrifice what it sees as Turkey’s core interests in order to work with Russia.
Kerim Has, a Moscow-based expert on Turkish-Russian relations, called Erdogan’s speech a “declaration of war” against Syria. “It’s his ‘personal war,’” Has said about Erdogan.
“Turkey doesn’t need a war with Syria but it seems that he needs [one] to consolidate his power inside country even in the short term,” Has added, “but I think it’s a miscalculation for him.”
Has said Moscow was likely to back Damascus in a military confrontation with Turkey while avoiding a direct one with Turkish troops but he stressed that the Kremlin had other means of pressuring Ankara.
“Moscow can put into force again some economic, tourism sanctions, personal blackmailing tools against Erdogan to force him [to accept] Russian rules,” he said.
The United States is eager to exploit the Turkish-Russian tensions over Idlib to rebuild a relationship with Ankara that has gone from crisis to crisis in recent years. James Jeffrey, the US envoy for Syria, was to meet with Turkish officials. The US Embassy said they would discuss working together towards a political solution to the conflict.
“Today, our NATO ally Turkey is facing a threat from Assad’s government and Russia. We are here to assess the situation with the Turkish government and offer support if possible,” Jeffrey said after his arrival in Ankara February 11.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar called for NATO assistance for Turkey in Syria. “NATO countries, NATO, Europe and the world must look at this issue more closely and must provide serious, concrete support,” he told the Associated Press.
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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