A Turkish military in Idlib Province in northwest Syria, February 2020

Turkey has stepped up its rhetorical challenge to Russia over the situation in northwest Syria, with the question of military action still unanswered.

In the past two weeks, the Erdoğan Government has finally criticized Moscow by name over the Russian-regime offensive in the greater Idlib area which has seized opposition territory, killing more than 1,800 civilians, injuring thousands, and displacing about a million.

Last Saturday, Turkey began moving forces towards Saraqeb, the key town in southeast Idlib Province captured by the offensive last week. Saraqeb sits at the junction of the Damascus-to-Aleppo M5 highway and the M4 highway across Idlib.

At the same time, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkish and Russian delegations met in Ankara. Well-placed EA sources say the talks not only failed to reach any accord, but ended badly with the Russians refusing to suspend the offensive and the Turks insisting on the pullback of regime forces.

The situation has been worsened by clashes after regime forces fired on Turkish positions. The pro-Assad shelling has killed 13 Turkish personnel in two incidents, with Ankara retaliating with airstrikes and artillery fire and claiming scores of regime casualties.

See also Syria Daily, Feb 11: Another Deadly Clash in Northwest Between Turkey and Assad Regime

On Wednesday morning Daily Sabah, close to the Erdoğan Government, launched the strongest verbal attack so far on Moscow in the lead article on its website:

Despite repeatedly claiming it wants to put an end to the conflict in northwestern Syria’s Idlib, Russia continues to fuel the war with attacks. It has increasingly assumed a hypocritical stance at the expense of a humanitarian catastrophe in the region.

On Tuesday, Moscow released one of its usual statements – a couple of sentences on the humanitarian chaos in Idlib, an expression of concern on the escalating tensions but no concrete actions on the ground to back these words.

The site jabbed at the Russian Defense Ministry’s proclamation of assisting Syrians, with an implicit reference to the deadly offensive: “[The regime’s] backer, Russia is often active on the ground aggravating the humanitarian crisis.”

The Erdoğan Government is concerned about the pressure on its border from the million displaced. Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, but closed off any entry from 2016.

An estimated 3 million people, 20% of Syria’s remaining population, are in the greater Idlib area.

Military Escalation?

Erdoğan has suspended the Astana process, the political talks between Russia, Turkey, and Iran since 2018. He has promised military operations to push back the Assad regime.

So far, however, Turkey’s actions have been limited to reinforcement of 12 observation posts — isolated and ineffective amid the Russian-regime offensive — around Idlib and northern Hama. The posts were part of a September 2018 agreement between Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin for a “de-escalation zone” around Idlib and northern Hama Provinces, shattered by the launch of the offensive in late April.

Turkey has also covertly provided weapons and ammunition to anti-Assad fighters, including near Saraqeb, while refraining from an overt presence on the frontline.

On Tuesday, a regime helicopter was shot down near Taftanaz. Neither the Turkish military nor the Ankara-backed Syrian National Army claimed the downing.

A local source assessed that the SNA, possibly with an anti-aircraft missile supplied by Ankara, fired at the helicopter. It was the first regime loss of a warplane this year.