Turkey has reportedly asked the US to deploy two Patriot missile defence batteries on its southern border to free it to punish any future attacks by Russian-backed Syrian troops on zones in northwestern Syria still held by Ankara-backed rebels.
Bloomberg on February 20 said a senior Turkish official had disclosed the move. The report of the request was almost immediately followed by a spasm of violence that left two Turkish troops dead and five wounded.
There are signs that US President Donald Trump is taking a keener interest in the brewing conflict centred on Idlib province, the last rebel-held bastion which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, presumably only if he obtains the go-ahead from strategic ally Russia, seems intent on entering into battle for as he seeks to finally end his country’s nine-year-old civil war. Trump, however, made much of wanting to pull the US out of Middle East conflict zones when last October he cleared US troops out of part of northeast Syria, declining to stand in the way of a Turkish incursion targeting Kurdish militia allied with Washington. Not that Trump hasn’t been known to suddenly reverse course: on February 18, according to C-SPAN, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland he called Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan a “tough guy” who doesn’t want to see people killed in great numbers, reiterated that he has “a good relationship” with Erdogan and stated: “We are working together on seeing what can be done. You have a lot of warring [in Idlib] going on right now.”
Some analysis, nevertheless, concludes that the Pentagon is firmly opposed to the US getting involved in the Idlib conflict. The “Syria Pulse” column in Al-Monitor on February 19 said well-informed sources contended that the Trump administration was only weighing whether to provide “intelligence and some form of logistical support” for Turkey in Idlib.
Russian air power
The latest fighting increased the number of Turkish troops killed in Idlib over the past three weeks to at least 15. Pro-Syrian government forces, supported by Russian air power, have their eye on 40,000 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels as well as 20,000 al-Qaeda linked extremists holed up in Idlib, according to some estimates. For its part, Turkey has sent thousands of troops and convoys of tanks into the area.
The quoted official said Ankara could use F-16 warplanes to strike units loyal to Assad in Idlib if the Patriots were deployed in Hatay on Turkey’s border to provide protection. Turkey was yet to receive a US response to the request, relayed last week to James Jeffrey, the US envoy for Syria engagement, the official added.
Turkey’s Defence Ministry said an airstrike caused the latest deaths and injuries among Turkish forces. It did not attribute the blame to either Russian or Syrian aircraft. The Russian Defence Ministry said Russian Su-24 jets carried out strikes to stop an offensive by Syrian rebels backed by Turkish artillery.
Erdogan has warned that a Turkish operation to push back the Assad forces, which also have the support of Iran, is “only a matter of time” if a deal to end the confrontation cannot be reached. Talks between Turkish and Russian officials have so far failed to achieve that, although there was a hint of a breakthrough on February 20 when Reuters cited a Turkish official as saying Turkey and Russia were discussing possibly mounting joint patrols around Idlib as one option to ensure security there. The official reportedly added that Iran, Turkey and Russia planned to meet in Tehran early next month to further discuss Syria, while a Russian delegation might come to Ankara before that for further talks.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin on February 20 remarked that a Turkish military operation would be “the worst option”.
Bloomberg also spoke to Elena Suponina, a Middle East expert based in Moscow. She said the escalating standoff in Idlib between Russia and Turkey was now developing “according to the worst scenario”. By lending air support to the Syrian army “Russia has demonstrated it’s ready to respond harshly,” she added, noting: “This signal should be understood correctly by Turkey. It would be good if it pushed the sides toward a compromise.”
In an interview with TRT television, Mesut Hakki Casin, a professor at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University and a member of the foreign affairs board that advises Erdogan, cautioned: “Turkey can shut down the straits and its air space to Russia to block military shipments to the regime forces.”
Turkey is worried that the Syrian government advance across Idlib could trigger the movement of as many as two million refugees towards the Turkish frontier. Somewhere around 3.5mn Syrian conflict refugees are already hosted by Turkey, and the country says it cannot take any more.
Turkey and Russia are also facing off through proxies in the Libyan conflict. Ankara has dispatched thousands of Syrian rebels to defend the United Nations-recognised Libya administration of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Rebel general Khalifa Haftar, backed by hundreds of mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner security contractor controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, are seeking to topple his government, although latest reports indicate the Haftar offensive has stalled.