ISTANBUL - Turkish forces shot down a Syrian warplane in Syria's Idlib province Tuesday, in an escalation of Turkey's military offensive against Syrian government forces. Ankara's assault is in retaliation for the killing of 34 Turkish troops in an airstrike blamed on Damascus.
The fighting increases the threat of confrontation between Turkish and Russian forces, a danger the Russian and Turkish presidents will be seeking to avoid when they meet Thursday. Russia backs Syria's government offensive near the Turkish border.
Turkey's military campaign is showing little sign of abating, with the third Syrian fighter downed by the Turkish Air Force since Sunday. The Turkish Defense Ministry said Tuesday that in the past 24 hours, more than 300 Syrian soldiers were killed and more than a dozen tanks, armored vehicles and missile systems were destroyed.
The Turkish offensive is centering on Idlib, the last rebel stronghold, which Syrian forces, backed by Russian airpower, are fighting to capture. Ankara's ongoing offensive is expected to continue at least until Thursday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
"The Turkish aim is to reverse the gains the Syrian regime has been making in Idlib over the last few weeks," said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"So that Mr. Erdogan could go to his meeting with Vladimir Putin on the 5th of March with a stronger hand," Aydintasbas said.
Along with supporting the rebels in Idlib, Erdogan is also determined to prevent a new exodus of Syrians entering Turkey. Already more than a million people in Idlib have fled to Turkey's border to escape Syrian government forces.
Analysts say the scale of the Turkish casualties in last week's airstrike has created a new, powerful motivation for Ankara.
"Turkey is in Idlib and cannot go away from Idlib because it has become a matter of honor for Turkey," said Professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "And if it becomes a matter of honor, then Turkey is ready to pay whatever it costs. So there's a growing tension now."
Moscow has an advanced missile defense system that covers the Idlib region along with advanced jets stationed at a nearby airbase; however, Ankara's air attacks, primarily carried out by drones, have mainly been allowed by Russia to act with impunity.
"It's clear that the Russians are trying to preserve the relationship with Turkey because Turkey is such an asset for them in terms of their Middle East policy and in terms of driving a wedge in the NATO alliance," said Aydintasbas.
"So they don't want to push Turkey so far that it will go back to the West, or Erdogan will feel compelled to sever the relationship," she added. "So Russia has allowed Turkey to use the Syrian airspace. For a number of days in return, Turkey has solely focused on the regime targets."
While Ankara and Moscow back rival sides in the Syrian civil war, they have increasingly cooperated in seeking an end to the conflict. Cooperation in Syria is the basis of a broader and deepening Turkish-Russian relationship, much to the concern of Turkey's NATO allies.
Ankara, too, does not appear ready to end its relationship with Moscow. Erdogan is avoiding accusing Russia of being responsible for the deadly airstrike last week on Turkish troops. Most analysts point out that Syrian government bombers can't carry out a night attack, which is when the fatal strike occurred.
With Turkish forces claiming to have killed more than 2,000 Syrian soldiers and destroyed more than 100 battle tanks, Moscow's patience appears to be running out. On Monday, the Kremlin, in a thinly veiled warning, told Ankara it could not guarantee the safety of Turkish planes after Damascus announced the closing of Syrian airspace over Idlib.
The United States is stepping up its diplomatic effort to exploit Russian-Turkish tensions in a bid to coax Ankara toward its traditional Western allies. U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey, Special representative for Syrian engagement, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft visited Turkey on Tuesday. Jeffrey is also the special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
Craft and Jeffrey, accompanied by Turkish officials, went to Turkey's border with Idlib. They symbolically stepped inside Syria in a move to show solidarity with Ankara in its campaign against Damascus. Craft announced $108 million in additional humanitarian assistance for the people of Syria while Jeffrey said, "We are ready to provide munition for Turkey in Idlib."
Jeffrey gave no further details on the nature of the munitions. Analysts suggest, given the intensity of the Turkish military offensive and the heavy use of smart bombs, Ankara would welcome new munitions.
"This offer of munitions is positive for Ankara, not only militarily but also diplomatically. It will strengthen Erdogan's hand when he sits down with Putin. It shows Putin Washington is behind Turkey," said Professor Bagci.
Jeffrey's offer, however, falls short of Erdogan's call for Washington to enforce a no-fly zone to protect Turkish forces in Idlib.
"I think Turkey is sobering up about the relationship with Russia, and at the end of the day, cozying up to Russia doesn't solve its security needs," said Aydintasbas. "On the other hand, there has been a reluctance on the part of both the United States and NATO to commit militarily in Syria."