ANKARA/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Escalating military action by Russia and Turkey in Idlib risks a direct confrontation between the two major foreign powers in Syria’s war, days ahead of a summit of their leaders to hammer out a deal to halt the fighting.
Both countries say they hope to avoid a head-on clash, but after Turkey ramped up attacks on Russian-backed Syrian forces and Russian military police helped secure a town seized from Turkey-backed rebels, all sides acknowledge the risk.
Turkey says it has shot down three Syrian planes and destroyed eight helicopters and scores of tanks since last Thursday, when 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike, the deadliest attack on the Turkish army in nearly 30 years.
In response to the Turkish assault and advances by Turkey-backed rebels, Moscow said on Monday that Russian military police were helping fortify the strategic town of Saraqeb, which has changed hands three times in a month, to ensure it didn’t fall into rebel hands.
“We need to accept that this incident raised tensions between the two countries,” a Turkish security official said of last week’s attack on Turkish troops.
“Turkey does not intend to clash with Russia in any way, and Russia does not want that either,” he said. “But on the battlefield it’s another story. It’s so complicated that an accidental attack on one another is the biggest risk.”
NATO member Turkey has the alliance’s second largest army. Russia, a nuclear-armed power, has a major air base in Syria and deployed warships in the Mediterranean last week.
Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and is trying to stem advances by Russian-backed Syrian government forces which have displaced 1 million people in Idlib, the last rebel bastion in Syria, driving them toward the Turkish border.
Russian support since 2015 has been instrumental in turning the tide of the war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad, who says he will recapture “every inch” of Syrian land.
“Russia is taking a very tough stance and showing it’s ready for conflict,” said former Russian lawmaker Sergey Markov. “An attack on Saraqeb will be an attack on Russia.”
A person with direct knowledge of the Russian military police deployment in Syria said they had entered Saraqeb to show the Turks that they risked a direct clash with Moscow if they tried to retake it.
Russia believed the risk of a clash between Turkish and Russian forces was real, the same source said, saying Russian military police had been ordered not to fire at Turkish forces unless one of their own was wounded in a Turkish attack.
STRENGTHENING NEGOTIATING HANDS
The showdown in northwest Syria comes ahead of Thursday’s meeting between Presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, suggesting both sides are seeking to consolidate their military position in part to bolster their negotiating hand.
A Syrian opposition figure described the battle for Saraqeb, at the junction of Syria’s main north-south and east-west highways, as a “war of wills”, while a rebel military commander said both countries were trying to impose a “fait accompli”.
“The Syrian government is trying to take over new places with Russian support ahead of the Erdogan-Putin meeting,” the Turkish security official said. “They are trying to have the upper hand at the table”.
Turkey insisted last month that Syrian forces withdraw to Idlib frontlines established in a 2017 “de-escalation” accord. Damascus and Moscow ignored the demand, taking more territory in a conflict they frame as a war on terrorists.
Vladimir Frolov, a former senior Russian diplomat, said the key issue at Thursday’s summit was the size of the remaining pocket of border territory which Russia would allow rebels to hold and where millions of displaced people could shelter.
“Erdogan wants a 30 mile deep zone, Moscow has been offering an 8 mile strip,” Frolov told Reuters, predicting that the two leaders might split the difference.
He said Russia’s deployment in Saraqeb was a signal that the control of the north-south M5 highway on which the town stands was a “red line” for Moscow, and would remain under its control.
That would require Turkey to back down from a months-long refusal to abandon a dozen military observation posts set up around the perimeter of the de-escalation zone, most of which are now surrounded by Syrian government forces.
Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Peter Graff, William Maclean
- From Idlib to Tripoli: Turkey's grab for influence in Libya
- What Is Russia Doing in Libya? Pentagon Warns of Escalation As Putin Sends Fighter Jets
- Trump urges Libya de-escalation on call with Erdogan: White House
- Risk of spreading coronavirus between teachers and children in schools is 'extremely low', according to major new study
- China Media Suggests Russia on Board with U.S. Army Coronavirus Conspiracy Theory
- Redeployment of US Nukes to Poland Would Be Direct Violation of Russia-NATO Agreement, Lavrov Warns
- Prime Minister gives Cabinet directions from Chequers in attempt to get a grip on the coronavirus crisis – and could be back in Downing St next week - after criticism over lack of PPE and growing calls for a clear exit from lockdown
- Eurozone crisis live: Clashes in Madrid, after Spain announces €65bn austerity plan - as it happened
- Libya gov’t warns of escalation after attacks near embassies
- First plane carrying 150 'critically important' Romanian fruit pickers who will join 'land army' battling to save Britain's harvest lands at Stansted
- Coronavirus: Is Putin rushing Russia out of lockdown?
- Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict is a reminder of Europe's instability
- Life After Raqqa: Regions Where Daesh May Move to If Defeated in Syria
- Official: Libya's Tripoli forces take key base from rivals
- Boris Johnson accuses Keir Starmer of being 'negative' as the Labour leader savages the Prime Minister at PMQs over the decision to STOP coronavirus testing for a ten-week period earlier this year
- China’s bold military move against US in the South China Sea
- Syria: What it will mean if rebels snub peace talks
- Putin, Erdogan Discuss Coronavirus Response, Situation in Syria and Libya
- Coronavirus latest: WHO reports most cases in a day
- Coronavirus live updates: Fed chair signals unemployment peak, up to 25%, yet to come
Escalating Idlib battle raises risk of direct Russia-Turkey clash have 1024 words, post on www.reuters.com at March 3, 2020. This is cached page on Talk Vietnam. If you want remove this page, please contact us.