Dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed and an unknown number were wounded during February 2020. The Russian and Turkish sides exchanged accusations over what was happening in Idlib province, which was controlled by Syrian opposition groups.
Most Turkish soldiers were killed during the fighting between Syrian government forces backed by Russia and provided with air cover and opposition fighters backed by Turkey with money and weapons.
The Turkish media does not explicitly accuse Russia of responsibility for killing the Turkish soldiers, but rather accuses the Syrian government of retaliating and bombing government sites.
Over the past few weeks, the Syrian government has taken control of dozens of villages and towns that were controlled by the opposition. Some estimates indicate that it recently controlled a third of Idlib Governorate. The battles caused the displacement of about one million people towards the Turkish border.
As government forces advance, more civilians flee to the Turkish border in extremely poor conditions. Turkey feels that the world has abandoned it and left it alone facing these successive human waves at its borders and providing humanitarian aid to them, which carries additional burdens, as it currently harbors about four million Syrians and does not want more of them on its lands.
The photos posted on social media showed pro-Turkish Syrian fighters using Turkish armored vehicles, while the Turkish army provided fiery support to the Syrian opposition’s operations through artillery and ground shelling of government forces positions.
Russia has accused Turkey of supporting Islamic militant groups and the Turkish army’s participation in the fighting alongside these groups.
Russia and Turkey and three centuries of conflict and wars
Russian media also accused Turkey of targeting Russian aircraft that were conducting raids in Idlib and trying to shoot them down using shoulder-fired missiles.
An official at the Russian Defense Ministry accused Ankara of violating the Sochi Agreement on Idlib by providing support to militants fighting the Syrian government with artillery fire and drones.
“In violation of the Sochi Agreement in the de-escalation zone in Idlib, the Turkish side continues to support illegal armed groups with artillery fire and the use of” drones to target the Syrian forces, “said Oleg Zoravlev, head of the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria.
Turkey: “Our target on the ground in Idlib is not Russia”
Turkey has requested the help of the United States, the European Union and the United Nations to pressure the Syrian government and Russia to stop military operations, but its efforts have achieved little result.
These endeavors were accompanied by continuous and intensive contacts with the Russian side, which may have halted the military campaign of the Syrian government.
Numerous rounds of negotiations took place between Moscow and Ankara with the aim of calming the situation and stopping the flow of the displaced towards the border, but it failed to reach a common understanding of the conditions for halting the military escalation.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also called his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, several times during the month of February, but they did not reach an agreement on ways to stop the escalation in Idlib.
Erdogan has repeatedly warned that his country will expel Syrian forces from the areas it has taken control of in recent months if it does not withdraw by the end of February.
The Turkish government and officials in the Syrian armed opposition groups say it is more likely at this point that Erdogan will agree to an agreement with Moscow that would withdraw some military presence in exchange for a Turkish role in determining the future of Syria.
They added that Erdogan “was surprised by the intransigent position of Putin, according to the Turkish viewpoint, whether on the battlefield or in the talks between the two countries.”
“Turkey and Russia can still reach a compromise … but if no agreement is reached and the attacks on Turkish soldiers continue, the Idlib attack will begin,” a Turkish official told Reuters.
This was accompanied by Turkey’s strengthening of its forces in the region during the past few weeks, as it deployed about 30,000 soldiers on the border with Syria, in addition to hundreds of armored vehicles and tanks, and towards a full military division inside Syria with the aim of stopping the progress of government forces.
However, this did not stop the progress of government forces, and the Turkish military effort was limited in effectiveness due to Russias control of the air in Syria and the denial of Turkey to the possibility of using warplanes to provide air cover for its forces deployed in Syria or to combat combat aircraft launching intensive raids in the region.
Turkey and Erdogan still remember very well the dire consequences that Turkey faced when a Turkish fighter shot down a Russian bomber plane near the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015, forcing it, within a few months, to apologize to Russia, and even to conclude an agreement to purchase the S-400 missile defense system.
Erdogan threatens to expel US forces from Incirlik Air Force Base
Turkey has asked the United States for Patriot missiles to help defend its forces, and has called on NATO to impose a no-fly zone to protect nearly three million civilians in Idlib province, but this does not seem available at the moment.
Washington and NATO officials have so far refused to engage militarily in northwestern Syria and do not appear eager to enter into a confrontation with Russia.
At the conclusion of the NATO meeting, at the request of the Turkish side, Turkey did not receive any commitment to assist it in the crisis it faces in Syria, and the alliance only expressed its solidarity with Turkey and condemned the attacks by the Syrian and Russian government forces.
The United States requires Turkey to get rid of the S400 system before acquiring the American Patriot system, which Turkish officials reject.
Turkey’s relations with the United States have been strained by the latter’s support for Kurdish fighters in Syria in the war on what was known as the Islamic State. Since eliminating the last pockets of the state in eastern Syria, Turkey has pressed hard for the United States to abandon the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the Kurds are the backbone of, and remove them from the border.
American forces withdrew from most of the border region between Syria and Turkey east of the Euphrates, Turkish forces invaded and occupied a large area of the region, and Turkey and Russia agreed to remove Kurdish fighters from the Syrian-Turkish border and conduct joint patrols between the two countries on the Syrian-Turkish border east of the Euphrates.
Erdogan challenges Washington over the Russian S-400 system
The number of American soldiers in Syria does not exceed 500 at the present time, even some of its previous bases in Syria are under Russian control, and the mission of these forces is limited to chasing Islamic State elements and guarding oil wells in eastern Syria, according to American officials.
It is no secret to anyone that US President Donald Trump is a supporter of withdrawing American forces from the entire region as quickly as possible and is not eager to enter into a conflict with Russia.