Tensions soared between Turkey and Russia after an airstrike in Syria killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers, prompting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to turn to traditional allies in the West for military support.
Russia denied involvement, saying the Turkish troops had been “within the ranks of terrorist” groups that came under fire from Syrian government forces. When it was clear there were Turkish casualties, Russia “took exhaustive measures for a complete cessation of fire” by the Syrian military, the Defense Ministry in Moscow said Friday.
Erdogan, who has been careful so far not to publicly blame Russia, held a six-hour crisis meeting with his top security officials after the biggest single-day loss of Turkish troops in decades, vowing to strike back against Syrian government forces. NATO agreed to meet on Turkey’s request for consultations Friday. Raising pressure on the European Union, Turkish officials warned Thursday’s attack could lead them to allow more refugees from Syria across its borders to the continent.
Neither the U.S. nor Europe has shown any inclination to back Turkey militarily in Syria, where Erdogan is supporting the last major rebel outpost in the northwestern Idlib province against the government. The strike there also wounded 32 Turkish soldiers.
The Kremlin so far has been cool to Erdogan’s repeated appeals for talks with President Vladimir Putin. Russia accuses Turkey of backing terrorists in Syria and has stepped up air operations in support of Syrian government forces seeking to retake Idlib.
Turkey’s benchmark Borsa Istanbul 100 Index plunged 10% in early trade, the most since June 2013, with the Syria tensions adding to a broader market selloff worldwide over the potential impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
Turkish NTV on Friday showed pictures of Syrian refugees apparently walking toward the border with Europe.
As the tensions rose, two Russian warships carrying Kalibr cruise missiles were sailing through the Dardanelles for a previously planned deployment off Syria, the official Tass news service reported, citing a statement from Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and top military commanders flew to an operation center on the Syrian border, signaling a major counter-offensive against Syrian forces. Turkish troops along the 911-kilometer (566-mile) Syrian border were placed on alert and there was intense air activity along the frontier, NTV television reported.
“Assad and regime forces will pay a heavy price for this heinous attack,” Turkey’s Vice President Fuat Oktay said Friday.
Turkish military action against the Syrian government would risk drawing “even more countries into this conflict, which would be unacceptable,” said Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament. “I hope our troops won’t allow any hasty steps and Turkey won’t cross the line beyond which direct military conflict could result,” he said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg “urged all parties to deescalate this dangerous situation” in a phone call with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday, according to an emailed statement. Envoys to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will meet in Brussels to discuss the Syria situation.
Erdogan had earlier threatened to push back Syrian regime forces from Idlib -- where Turkish soldiers were helping enforce a tenuous cease-fire -- if they didn’t withdraw by the end of February. His government reached out to the U.S. and Europe for assistance in stopping a major Syrian offensive on the province, where 51 Turkish soldiers have been killed so far this month.
Western capitals have shown little inclination to get involved.
Erdogan has acknowledged that his request for the U.S. to deploy Patriot missiles to deter Russian warplanes isn’t likely to be fulfilled, and it was unclear whether other NATO allies could meet Turkey’s request for missile-defense systems. Turkey’s ties with its NATO allies have been strained over its purchase of an advanced Russian missile-defense system last year.
Turkish soldiers have been stationed at a dozen outposts in Idlib since a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran to monitor a combat-free zone. In recent weeks, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have intensified attacks on rebel positions in the province, encircling some Turkish troops. Thursday’s airstrike came after Turkey-backed forces recaptured the town of Saraqib, where at least one Turkish outpost is located.
“Erdogan backed himself into a corner by demanding Syrian forces withdraw,” and he could resolve the situation without losing face by agreeing on new demarcation lines with Russia, said Elena Suponina, a Middle East expert based in Moscow. “It’s a game of chicken. Since Erdogan started it, he should be the first one to stop,” she said.
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