MOSCOW - Tensions between Russia and Turkey over their sometimes allied and often dueling military campaigns in Syria broke into the open Friday, with Moscow blaming Ankara for the deaths of 33 Turkish troops in Syria’s Idlib region during airstrikes.
While Russia denied any role in the deaths of the Turkish soldiers, the Kremlin accused Turkish forces of operating unannounced in the region — and of providing support to terrorist groups subsequently targeted by Moscow’s ally, the Syrian government.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin had met with his Security Council in the wake of the attacks, with Russian generals informing Putin that raids by terrorist groups against Syrian forces in Idlib had prompted airstrikes.
Turkish troops, said Peskov, had been caught in the fighting while aiding terrorist groups in opposition to Damascus.
Turkey disputed that account, insisting the attack occurred despite Ankara’s having informed Moscow that its troops were operating in the area. It also denied the presence of Syrian rebels near the scene of the attack, suggesting the air assault was intentionally targeting Turkey.
Meeting possible soon
Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Ergodan later discussed the situation by phone and agreed on the possibility of a meeting “in the near future” aimed at “normalizing conditions” in northwest Syria, said Kremlin officials.
A spokesman for the Turkish leader, however, said Ergodan also was insisting on Turkey’s right to respond in kind to the Syrian airstrikes.
The Turkish deaths came as Russia continues to help the Syrian government establish control over Idlib, one of the last remaining bastions of opposition to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
The Syrian government's bombing campaign, carried out with Russian support, has caused a humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 900,000 residents fleeing the fighting for the Syrian-Turkish border.
It also has prompted a standoff with Turkey, which has insisted that Syria respect a Russian-negotiated buffer zone agreed to in 2018.
Though Turkey has stopped short of blaming Russia for direct involvement in the latest attack, Ankara has often been critical of Moscow’s inability — or, perhaps unwillingness — to control its ally in Damascus.
Amid a visit by a Russian delegation to Ankara to discuss the crisis in Idlib on Friday, Turkish officials demanded that Russia force the Syrian government to immediately agree to a sustainable cease-fire.
Turkey’s allies in NATO joined those calls, with the alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, expressing condolences to families of Turks killed in the attack and placing blame squarely on Moscow and Damascus:
#NATO has just met in solidarity with our Ally Turkey, following the death of Turkish soldiers near Idlib. We condemn the indiscriminate air strikes by the Syrian regime & Russia. This dangerous situation must be de-escalated & humanitarian access allowed: https://t.co/TxBqHO5NVF pic.twitter.com/XCatlnyB9k— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) February 28, 2020
A Mideast power returns
Russia entered the Syrian civil war in 2015, coming to the aid of its ally, Assad, in what the Kremlin insisted was an anti-terrorist campaign against Islamic State, and what Western powers have billed as a ruthless effort to root out opposition to Assad’s rule.
“Russia came there not just to help and leave. It came there to stay,” said Alexey Khlebnikov, an analyst with the Russian International Affairs Council, in an interview with VOA. Russia is the only actor that continues to have working relations with all regional powers, he said.
In carrying out the Syrian campaign, Moscow has resurrected its Soviet-era role as a Middle East power broker, maintaining a complex web of alliances and partnerships between erstwhile regional enemies.
Yet among the most surprising has been a partnership with Turkey, a NATO member and traditional foe of Assad’s Syria. It's a relationship that has proven at times effective and contentious.
Russia and Turkey clashed early after Moscow’s entry into the war, with Turkey shooting down and killing a Russian pilot along the Turkish border in 2015.
At the time, Putin called the death of the pilot “a stab in the back” and ordered Russian sanctions on Turkish products and a ban on Russian tourism to the country.
Yet the two sides bridged differences as Russia switched the brunt of its air power from what the West called Syria’s “moderate opposition” to widely recognized terrorist groups, such as Islamic State, that were waging attacks in Turkey proper.
And for all the sparring over the events in Idlib, there seemed consensus in Moscow that Russia was interested in maintaining a working relationship with Turkey that has since expanded beyond the Syrian front into agreements involving trade, tourism and energy.
“A wider war between Turkey and Russia? Never!” said Alexei Malashenko, a longtime regional observer currently with the Institute for the Dialogue of Civilizations. “It’s very dangerous, of course. But we are dealing with a new kind of Middle East.”
“I don’t think that either Russia or Turkey is willing to sacrifice bilateral ties just for Idlib,” concurred the Russian International Affairs Council’s Alexei Khlebnikov.
Be that as it may, it was clear all sides were hedging their bets as they took stock of growing tensions in Idlib.
The Interfax news agency reported that Russian and U.S. officials discussed the situation in Syria by phone Friday.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin dispatched two warships armed with Kalibr cruise missiles to the Middle East on Friday.
Their destination? The coast of Syria.