Direct clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces amid a Syrian government offensive in the last rebel stronghold of Idlib province are quickly threatening to escalate into a full-blown conflict between the two neighbors and to also shatter an alliance forged between Turkey and Russia.
Intent on halting the Syrian advance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed in February to take military action "everywhere in Syria" if another Turkish soldier was killed or wounded.
Fifty-five Turkish soldiers were killed in Syria's Idlib in February and tensions between Turkey and Syria have continued to spiral out of control. Erdogan said on Saturday he had asked President Vladimir Putin of Russia to stand aside in Syria and let Turkey fight Syrian government forces alone.
Turkey and Russia are simultaneously rivals and allies in different parts of the Middle East, including in Syria and Libya. Their interests align when it comes to gas supplies and weapons trade, even if they find themselves on opposite sides of proxy wars. And they both have a shared interest in defying U.S. influence in Syria.
Turkey and Russia had been working together to keep the calm in Idlib, negotiating cease-fires between the Moscow-supported Syrian government and the rebels, who are backed by Ankara. So far, talks between the two have failed to lift the impasse in Idlib.
In the latest round of violence, two Syrian war planes were shot down Sunday by Turkish forces inside northwest Syria, while Syrian forces downed a Turkish drone over Idlib. Syrian state media said the jets were targeted over the Idlib region, and that the four pilots ejected with parachutes and landed safely.
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Turkey’s Defense Ministry confirmed on Sunday Turkey had shot down two SU-24 aircraft and destroyed air defense systems after one of its aerial drones was downed. Earlier, Syrian military-run media said it had downed a drone inside northwest Syria, and was closing its airspace for any flights or drones across the country’s northwestern region. It said any aircraft that penetrates Syrian airspace will be treated as hostile and shot down.
He dubbed the operation, Turkey's fourth in Syria, "Spring Shield". Akar said Turkey had destroyed a drone, eight helicopters, 103 tanks, 72 howitzers, rocket launchers, and six air defense systems among other military equipment since Feb. 27.
Akar added that 2,212 members of the Syrian forces had been "neutralized", a term used to designate killed, wounded or captured. The Syrian Observatory, a Britain-based war monitor, said 74 Syrian government troops and pro-Damascus fighters had been killed since Feb. 27.
In late February, Russian state television said Turkish military specialists in Syria's Idlib region were using shoulder-fired missiles to try to shoot down Russian and Syrian military aircraft.
The report added that Russian and Syrian planes were therefore being forced to take counter-measures after carrying out bombing runs on rebel positions. Later in the day airstrikes killed some 33 Turkish troops in a further escalation of tensions.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Chavushoglu agreed on the need to create a "favourable atmosphere" to improve working relations between their countries, the Russian foreign ministry said on Sunday.
"The ministers have declared in favour of the adoption of measures to create a favourable atmosphere that will facilitate the effectiveness of the dialogue on the implementation of agreements in support of the Syrian settlement and other issues on the agenda of Russian-Turkish relations," the ministry said.
Lavrov and Chavushoglu, in a phone call, also discussed preparations for the upcoming meeting between Putin and Erdogan.
"We have neither the intention nor the notion to face Russia. Our only intention there is for the (Syrian) regime to end the massacre and thereby prevent, stop radicalisation and migration," Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said.
As Syrian government forces advance with Russia's support, Turkey has refused to abandon its military posts in Idlib and has threatened to pressure Syrian forces to retreat. That has boxed Turkey into a corner and leaving it with few options but the possibility of a confrontation with both Syria and Russia.
The Idlib crisis comes as Turkey finds itself in the middle of an economic downturn and increasingly isolated internationally. In the eastern Mediterranean region, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel have reached agreements on hydrocarbon exploration that exclude Turkey. That has forced Turkey to reach widely criticized maritime and security deals with Libya's UN-recognized government.
Emre Ersen, an expert on Turkish-Russian relations at Istanbul's Marmara University, says Turkey and Russia were engaged in posturing, trying to "strengthen their hands" before they reach a new accord on Idlib, which he called “inevitable."
"Turkey would be loath to trigger a new crisis with Russia like in 2015," Ersen said, referring to punishing Russian sanctions after Ankara shot down a Russian warplane over Syria.
The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War noted that “Russia has alternated between military and diplomatic phases in the campaign, slowing its progress, but facilitating Russian and pro-regime gains, both territorially and diplomatically."
"Erdogan does not bluff," said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara . "Whenever he has threatened an intervention in Syria, he has carried it through."
Unluhisarcikli said he does not think Syria, even with its backing by Russian air power, will be able to put up resistance against Turkey's military, the second-largest army in NATO.
He added that Turkey may have been emboldened by recent statements from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who condemned Syrian attacks in Idlib, and James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria, who visited Ankara on Wednesday and voiced Washington's support.
It remains unclear, however, whether Turkey would risk using all its military might against Syria. Russia’s military help has allowed Syrian President Bashar Assad to reclaim control of most of the country, and with the Kremlin’s blessing, Assad now wants to extend his control to Idlib.
Russian officials have argued that the Syrian offensive in Idlib became necessary because Turkey has failed to honor its obligations to rein in al-Qaida-linked militants who have mounted regular attacks against the Syrian army there and also have launched raids against a Russian base in Syria.
“The exacerbation of tensions is rooted in coordinated attacks by terrorists on neighboring regions of Syria that triggered retaliatory action by the Syrian government forces,” the Russian Defense Ministry said. It charged that the militants in Idlib used civilians as shields, adding that Turkey exacerbated the situation by sending in troops and weapons.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Turkey’s failure to “neutralize terrorist groups in Idlib” encouraged their attacks. “This is inadmissible,” he said.
Turkey considers Idlib strategically important and is determined to maintain its military presence in the province to prevent a possible influx of refugees at its borders. The country, already home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, believes that Damascus is deliberately driving displaced Syrians toward the border as a way to punish Ankara.
There are fears that after it takes Idlib, the Syrian army will advance to Turkish-controlled "secure zones" along the border, where Turkey hopes to resettle some of the refugees.
A Turkish presence in Idlib also gives it leverage in talks on Syria's future that could potentially help minimize security threats from its southern neighbor. Turkey is also concerned that a Syrian government victory in Idlib would end U.N. and other diplomatic efforts for a political resolution of the conflict.
“Everything on the ground shows that the only obstacle in front of regime forces are the Turkish soldiers,” wrote columnist Barcin Yinanc in Hurriyet Daily News newspaper. “So, basically, Turkey is giving the message that it will not leave Syria, because if it were to leave Syria then it will not have a meaningful say for the future of Syria.”
Assad's forces have been on an offensive for weeks to retake Idlib and parts of nearby Aleppo province, with backing from Russia and Iran.
The advance has unleashed a humanitarian crisis, with nearly a million Syrians having fled over the last three months, the biggest exodus of the war. Refugees are fleeing their homes and surging north toward the Turkish border.
Assad's forces scored a major victory in February when they retook the strategic M5 highway that runs through the rebel-held territory and links the capital to northern Syria, opening up supply routes.
In response to Syrian gains, Turkey has been massing troops in Idlib, rolling in armored vehicles while repeatedly calling on Russia to intervene to halt the Syrian government aggression.
Turkey, which hosts 3.7 million Syrians, said it would allow migrants to cross into Europe in anticipation of an imminent new migrant influx from Idlib, lifting restraints on movement in place since 2016 under a deal with the European Union.
Greece placed its borders on maximum security footing on Sunday after hundreds of migrants used porous crossing points to enter the country from Turkey, with thousands behind them seeking entry after Ankara's relaxation of policy.
Turkey's borders to Europe were closed to migrants under an accord between the Turkish-EU deal that halted the 2015-16 migration crisis, when more than 1 million people crossed into Europe by foot.