Turkey Vows to Resist Attacks on Its Forces in Syria
By Carlotta GallFeb. 28, 2020
After 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in strikes in Syria, fears have risen of open conflict with Russia. NATO ambassadors met on Friday, but did not approve any military action.
A Turkish military convoy in the eastern part of Idlib, Syria, on Friday.
A Turkish military convoy in the eastern part of Idlib, Syria, on Friday.Associated Press
ISTANBUL — Turkey vowed on Friday to resist further aggression against its troops in northwestern Syria, a day after Russian or Syrian air and artillery strikes killed 33 Turkish soldiers, bringing Russia and Turkey close to open conflict.
NATO ambassadors met on Friday in an emergency session called by Turkey, a member state. They expressed ‘‘solidarity’’ with Turkey, condemned the airstrikes, and called for a de-escalation of the conflict and for a renewed cease-fire. But they did not approve any military action, let alone the no-fly zone that Turkey has demanded over Idlib, the region where the strike occurred.
Turkish officials have warned that if the pressure in Idlib is not resolved, Turkey will not be able to hold back Syrian refugees from forging across borders into Europe, which officials in Brussels have interpreted as a veiled threat to leverage a refugee crisis for cooperation from NATO.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia spoke to each other in an effort to calm tensions. According to the Russian side, they agreed to hold a summit meeting in the near future.
But emotions were still running high in Turkey on Friday. “We will not leave the blood of our brave soldiers on the ground,” Fahrettin Altun, the director of communications in the Turkish presidency, wrote in a thread of comments posted on Twitter. “The international community must act to protect civilians and impose a no-fly zone.”
Russia denied any role in the attacks, saying on Friday that none of its jets were operating in the area when they occurred. “Aircraft of the Russian Air Force did not engage in combat in the Behun vicinity,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Turkey has blamed the strikes on the Syrian government. But it has also indirectly blamed Russia, saying it knew of the presence of Turkish troops and did nothing to stop the attack even after being alerted.
Russia has been conducting a ferocious campaign of aerial bombardment in the province of Idlib in support of the Syrian offensive to seize control of the last rebel-held region.
Turkey has twice staged incursions over the border, the latest in October after the United States pulled back from the region, with Mr. Erdogan arguing that Turkey needed to create a buffer zone and flush out Kurdish forces that it considers terrorists.
But that mission threatens to embroil Turkey deeper in the Syrian conflict, placing it increasingly in direct confrontation with Russia, which supports the government of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, said the attack was carried out even though the Turkish troops had coordinated their location with Russian forces on the ground. He added that there were no other armed groups near the Turkish units at the time of the attack, as Russian officials have suggested.
“Following the first strike, although another warning was made, the attack continued; during those airstrikes even ambulances were hit,” he said in comments to the Anadolu news agency in the Turkish border city of Hatay.
Turkish planes, artillery and drones retaliated after the attack, pounding the Syrian government positions responsible, Mr. Aksar said. “Our operations will continue until the bloody hands laid on our soldiers are broken,” he said.
The Russian Defense Ministry rejected Turkey’s assertion that it had alerted Russian forces before the strikes. “Immediately after obtaining information about injured Turkish servicemen, the Russian side took comprehensive measures to completely stop shelling by the Syrian military,” its statement said.
Moscow also denied that Turkey had shared coordinates of its troops with Russian forces, saying they tried to stop the attacks as soon as they were told about them.
While there was no way to resolve the conflicting accounts, Russia is known to practice hybrid warfare, of which lies and deception are an integral part. In Crimea, for instance, it took nearly a year before Mr. Putin admitted that the “green men” who invaded the territory were in fact Russian soldiers without insignia.
Reports from the scene described a Russian jet striking a Turkish convoy and then artillery strikes pounding Turkish troops in several buildings. The prolonged strikes prevented rescuers from reaching the wounded, Ahmed Rehal, a Syrian journalist, reported.
Turkey was not able to evacuate the casualties by air, because Russia controls the airspace in northwestern Syria. As a result, rescue workers and civilians were forced to transport the dead and wounded to the Turkish border in trucks.
Sergei V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said at a news briefing following talks with Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn of Luxembourg on Friday that Russia’s presence in Syria was justified. “We insist that there should be no compromises with terrorists, who have been rearing their head after the so-called Arab Spring broke out in 2011,” he said.
Russia said earlier on Friday it was sending two warships armed with cruise missiles to waters off the Syrian coast.
NATO ambassadors met for their emergency session under Article 4 of the alliance’s founding treaty, which allows any NATO member to request talks when it believes its “territorial integrity, political independence or security” is threatened. The talks do not commit the 29-nation alliance to any particular action or response.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, expressed solidarity with Turkey following strikes that killed 33 troops in Idlib, Syria.
Today, Turkey briefed on the serious security situation in Syria. Allies offer their deepest condolences for the death of Turkish soldiers in last night’s bombing in Idlib, and expressed their full solidarity with Turkey. Allies condemn the continued indiscriminate airstrikes by the Syrian regime and Russia in Idlib Province. I call on them to stop their offensive, to respect international law and to back U.N. efforts for a peaceful solution. This dangerous situation must be de-escalated, and we urge an immediate return to the 2018 cease-fire to avoid further worsening of the horrendous humanitarian situation in the region, and to allow urgent humanitarian access for those trapped in Idlib.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, expressed solidarity with Turkey following strikes that killed 33 troops in Idlib, Syria.Stephanie Lecocq/EPA, via Shutterstock
‘‘Allies condemn the continued indiscriminate airstrikes by the Syrian regime and Russia in Idlib Province,” said the NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, who was chairman of the talks. “I call on them to stop their offensive, to respect international law and to back U.N efforts for a peaceful solution.”
Mr. Stoltenberg added: “This dangerous situation must be de-escalated and we urge an immediate return to the 2018 cease-fire to avoid the worsening of the horrendous humanitarian situation in the region.”
Mr. Stoltenberg said the alliance would “augment its air defenses” protecting Turkey “against the threat of missile attacks from Syria,” but that was all.
“NATO provides political and practical support, constantly assessing and looking into what more they can do,” Mr. Stoltenberg said in response to a question.
The consultations did not take place under Article 5, which is about mutual self-defense and refers to an attack on the territory of any member. The attack on Turkish troops did not take place on Turkish soil.
Ian Bond, head of foreign policy studies at the Center for European Reform in London, warned that “if the Turks are driven out of Idlib, then there is nothing in the way of a massacre.” That would have security implications and implications for refugee flows, Mr. Bond said.
“NATO has to show it’s standing behind Turkey and send a clear message to Putin that there has to be a cost, not necessarily military, for what they’re doing in Syria,” Mr. Bond said.
Given Mr. Erdogan’s position and desire not to lose face, Mr. Bond suggested that Turkey may be more likely now than before to try to defend Idlib from the Syrian government.
Also on Friday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, warned that “there is a risk of sliding into a major open international military confrontation. It is also causing unbearable humanitarian suffering and putting civilians in danger.”
In a tweet, Mr. Borrell called for the escalation around Idlib to “stop urgently,” and underlined that “the E.U. will consider all necessary measures to protect its security interests. We are in touch with all relevant actors.”
Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels, and Oleg Matsnev from Moscow.
Turkey, Russia and Syria (and Iran) made an agreement 2 years ago for the de-escalation zone. Syria and Russia have violated the agreement and invaded the zone. Russian aircraft have attacked 70-100 hospitals. Syrian forces have surrounded and attacked Turkish observation posts and killed over 100 Turkish troops. Turkey has asked/demanded that Syrian forces return to their positions outside of the de-escalation zone, they have had multiple meetings with Russia regarding a cease fire in the zone. Russia and Syria (and Iran) keep advancing, attack civilians, hospitals and Turkish troops in their effort to drive out rebels. Not sure you can say Turkey is starting this war.