LONDON - The Kremlin was scrambling Friday to reach a stopgap agreement with Ankara to halt fighting in northwest Syria amid growing fears that Russia and Turkey are on the brink of open warfare.
Clashes between the Turks and their Syrian rebel allies with troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Idlib province have already killed two Turkish soldiers this week and dozens of Syrian government troops.
The skirmishes between the Turks and Assad’s forces were triggered when Syrian rebels supported by Turkish artillery stormed a village east of Idlib city on a strategic highway. Turkish media said the Turkish army was directly involved in the ground attack. Kremlin officials say their forces weren’t involved and that their warplanes held off striking Turkish positions.
While expressing hope an open conflict between Russia and Turkey can be averted, Kremlin officials warned that Russia would support al-Assad’s forces militarily if the fighting escalates and Turkey increases its military operations.
Desperate situation for displaced Syrians
The new developments in Idlib, roiling months of cooperation between Moscow and Ankara on the Syrian conflict, are rapidly raising the stakes in Idlib — as well as adding to the desperation of nearly a million displaced Syrians who have fled in the past few months toward the Turkish border, which remains closed to them.
Since the Syria conflict erupted nearly nine years ago, Turkey has taken in more than 3 million Syrian refugees but refuses to accept any more. Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies have carved out a swathe of territory in northwest Syria and are relocating some Syrian refugees there, using land snatched from Kurdish forces.
The United Nations has warned of possible catastrophe in Syria’s northwest unless the Assad government shows restraint. Syrian government forces, which for weeks have been advancing in the province, have been shelling areas where displaced Syrians are camped, say U.N. officials.
The U.N. deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Mark Cutts, told Britain’s Sky News that even by the Syrian war's brutal standards, the situation is now desperate. If the shelling and airstrikes move any further into the areas where refugees are camped out, “We're going to see a bloodbath, we're going to see a massacre on a scale that has never been seen in this entire war,” he said.
The Turkish-backed attack on Assad’s forces underscored the seriousness of the threat issued this week by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan warned Turkish troops would go on the offensive in Idlib unless President Assad calls off his offensive on the enclave -- the last remaining stronghold of anti-Assad rebel forces and part of an area Ankara has earmarked as a buffer zone and the future home of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.
Russian defense officials condemned the Turkish military action and urged Turkey "to cease support of the actions of terrorists and handing them arms.”
Analysts say the Turkish leader can ill-afford to see his plans for Idlib dashed, which would amount to a personal and political setback.
But conversely a defeat for Assad would wreck Moscow’s efforts in Syria over the past five years, eroding the Kremlin’s growing clout in the region.
"It is very hard to tell how far Turkey is willing to go in Idlib,” according to Assaad al-Achi, director of Baytna Syria, a pro-democracy civil society support organization. “Negotiations with Russia have not stopped, but have failed so far to produce any lasting cessation of hostilities. Therefore, Turkey is in a conundrum. It wants to avoid at all costs a humanitarian disaster on its southwestern border, but at the same time it doesn’t want to ruin its relationship with Russia.” he said in a commentary for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based research group.
There were reports circulating in the Turkish capital, Ankara, Friday that President Erdogan has been sounding out Washington on whether the U.S. would deploy two Patriot anti-aircraft missile batteries on its southern border in readiness for escalating hostilities.
On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump praised his Turkish counterpart, calling him a “tough guy” who doesn’t want to see people killed in great numbers. “We are working together on seeing what can be done. You have a lot of warring going on right now,” he added.
Some analysts say Trump is taking a keener interest in Syria and some U.S. officials appear to see the growing conflict in Idlib as an opportunity to pull Erdogan more firmly into the West’s camp. Other U.S. officials say the administration is wary of being drawn in and highlight Trump’s determination to disentangle the U.S. from Middle East conflicts.
With the perceived danger the situation could trigger a general standoff between Russia and NATO, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron told Russia's Vladimir Putin in a phone call Thursday they want to meet him and Turkey's president to discuss ways to defuse the burgeoning crisis in Syria.
Meanwhile, humanitarian organizations are discussing trying to form a “peace team” of former and retired world leaders to try to persuade all warring parties to observe a cease-fire.
Western diplomats say both Moscow and Ankara appear at this stage desperate to avoid an open clash. But their conflicting interests are making it harder to shape an interim agreement and that the situation on the ground risks spinning out of anyone’s control. An agreement has eluded negotiators after two rounds of talks in Ankara and Moscow earlier this month. On Friday, more columns of Turkish armor and howitzers crossed into Syria.
Russian officials appear to believe that Ankara will blink because, they say, Turkey has much to lose. The last time Moscow and Ankara were drawn into a standoff over Syria was in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane. Russia imposed sanctions on Turkish exports and businesses, crippling Turkey’s agriculture and tourism sectors.