A Turkish military convoy moving in Idlib Province in northwest Syria last week (Aaref Watad/AFP)
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stepped back from a military line against Russia in northwest Syria, calling on Moscow to discuss the future of a Russian-regime offensive in Idlib Province that has killed and wounded thousands of civilians and displaced more than 800,000.
On Wednesday Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkish forces had killed or injured 76 Assad regime fighters in 54 air and artillery strikes, a day after regime fire killed eight Turkish personnel. The strikes were the first significant Turkish attacks on the regime’s military in Syria’s 107-month conflict.
Last week Erdoğan finally named Moscow after the offensive seized more territory in southern Idlib, including the city of Ma’arat al-Nu’man, and displaced more than 400,000 civilians in six weeks: “We have waited until now, but from this point, we are going to take our own actions.”
But on Tuesday, the Turkish President struck a conciliatory notes toward Russia, with whom he has cooperated since a reconciliation with President Vladimir Putin in July 2016.
Returning from a day visit to Ukraine, he said, “We will discuss everything, but not with anger.”
Significantly, he pointed to the priority of economic and military projects with Russia, including a nuclear power plant deal, the TurkStream Pipeline project, tourism, and Turkey’s purchase of S-400 air defense systems from Moscow.
“We cannot overlook these. That is why we will sit down and discuss everything (with Russia). Not in anger since it would only bring harm,” he said.
At the same time, Erdoğan encouraged Russia to distance itself from the Assad regime and the Idlib offensive.
Referring to the September 2018 agreement with Putin for a “de-escalation zone” around Idlib and northern Hama Province, shattered by the Russia-regime offensive from late April, he said of the killing of the seven Turkish troops and a military contractor:
It is a clear violation of the Sochi deal. Of course there will be a cost for such actions for the regime. We have already said we will do whatever is necessary from now on….
The Russian side was also informed [about the Turkish response], including the coordinates. Russia also knows the fact that Turkey cannot tolerate any more conflict and civilian massacres in Idlib, nor a new refugee flow.
Holding Back the Displaced
The Russian-regime assault has seized almost all of northern Hama and part of southern Idlib, killing more than 1,500 civilians and wounding thousands.
It is now threatening Saraqeb, 15 km (9 miles) from Idlib city and at the junction of the M4 and M5 highways.
Last week, Turkey — blocked last August by Russia from moving troops to southern Idlib — deployed convoys, including mechanized vehicles, towards Saraqeb.
Erdoğan referred on Tuesday to the concern of Turkey, which closed its border in 2016, of the more than 800,000 displaced civilians in Idlib.
“It is not possible to solve this crisis with tent cities,” he said, referring to harsh winter conditions. He added that Turkey is building briquette houses for the displaced 30-40 km (19-25 miles) inside Syria.
But he offered no prospect of Turkey, which hosts more than 3.6 Syrian refugees, opening the border.
Instead he called on the international community to assume more responsibility: “It is not enough to appreciate Turkey’s efforts. We need concrete steps.”
His focus was on money for Turkey, saying the European Union has not fulfilled the 2016 agreement to provide 6 billion euros ($6.62 billion) to Turkey.
“They did not even pay the first 3 billion,” he said.