ISTANBUL - Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is threatening to escalate fighting against Syrian government forces following Monday's killing of Turkish soldiers. The warning comes in the face of calls for restraint from Moscow, but Erdogan is facing growing domestic pressure for an uncompromising stance.
"We have given the necessary response and retaliated in kind, but this is not enough," Erdogan said Tuesday. The Turkish military claimed to have hit more than 100 targets of Damascus forces Monday.
The strikes were in response to the killing of five Turkish soldiers by artillery from Syrian forces in Idlib province.
Erdogan said Tuesday he would announce what new military steps he will take. He met Monday with his military commanders to discuss the Syrian situation.
In the space of a week, 12 Turkish soldiers have been killed by regime forces in Idlib. The Turkish president is facing growing domestic pressure to hit back.
"What are you waiting for? Don't beat around the bush while Turkish soldiers are being martyred in attacks carried out by soldiers of another state," Meral Aksener, leader of the IYI Party, said in a meeting of her party's parliamentary group.
"(Syrian leader Bashar al-) Assad is a murderer, a criminal and the source of hostility," said Devlet Bahceli, the MHP leader and parliamentary coalition partner of Erdogan's AKP. Bahceli turned up the pressure on Erdogan, calling on Turkish forces to march on Damascus, saying until Assad's removal, there will be "no peace."
"By saying such things, they [Bahceli and Aksener] are cornering Erdogan. They are pressuring him, he may feel compelled into taking steps he doesn't want," said international relations teacher Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University.
Analysts point out Bahceli's party is increasingly making inroads into Erdogan's AKP nationalist voter base. "The basis of [Turkish] foreign relations needs to be viewed through the prism of domestic policy," said analyst Sezer Aydin.
Erdogan appears to be leaving all options on the table with the Turkish army continuing to ramp up its deployment into Idlib.
Ankara set up 12 military observation posts across Idlib as part of the 2018 agreement with Moscow to create a de-escalation zone aimed at ending fighting between Syrian government and rebel forces.
While Moscow backs Damascus and Ankara backs the rebels, the two countries have been cooperating to end the civil war. But the escalating violence in Idlib is putting increasing pressure on that cooperation.
Tuesday, Moscow called on Ankara to end its military operations against Damascus and to enforce the 2018 deescalation agreement in Idlib. Russian diplomats accuse Turkish military forces of failing to disarm groups designated as terrorists in Idlib, a charge Ankara denies.
On Tuesday, a Russian diplomatic delegation visiting Turkey to seek a solution to Idlib left for home after talks ended in deadlock.
Turkish-Russian relations came under further pressure. "We genuinely hope that the [Turkish] government reviews its relations with Russia," Bahceli said, describing recent diplomatic efforts over Idlib as "nothing but a fairy tale."
Damascus forces backed by Russian airpower are continuing to advance in Idlib. Tuesday saw rebels lose control of the last part of the critical M5 highway, which links Damascus with Aleppo, one of Syria's main cities.
While tensions between Moscow and Ankara escalate, Washington has been quick to offer support to its NATO ally. "My condolences to the families of the soldiers killed in yesterday's [Monday's] attack in Idlib. The ongoing assaults by the Assad regime and Russia must stop," tweeted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. "I've sent Jim Jeffrey to Ankara to coordinate steps to respond to this destabilizing attack. We stand by our NATO Ally #Turkey," he added.
U.S. ambassador Jeffrey is the Special Representative for Syrian Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Arriving Tuesday in Turkey, Jeffrey said threats were coming from Assad, and he will closely cooperate with "our ally" Turkey and wants to provide "any support possible."
Ankara's recent rapprochement with Moscow has deeply strained Turkish-U.S. ties, with fears Turkey was abandoning its traditional Western allies.
"Washington wishes to put an end to this estrangement," said Ozel. "If you look at the statements coming from the American authorities and NATO, and they are giving more and more support for Turkey and Turkey's position and Turkey is edging closer and closer to the United States and its allies in NATO."
"Even in Ankara, they finally realize they cannot go so far with Russia, the interests are opposite to one another," he added. "But Erdogan will not want to confront the Russians as they do have a lot of leverage over Turkey."
Washington's strong support of Ankara, analysts say, could strengthen Erdogan's hand when he speaks by telephone Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a call that analysts say could well determine Erdogan's course of action in Idlib and broader trajectory of Turkish foreign policy.