ISTANBUL - Tensions between Turkey and Russia escalated Thursday with the killing of the two Turkish soldiers in a Syrian airstrike. Moscow, which backs the Damascus government, accused Ankara of supporting terrorists in Syria.
In a statement, the Turkish Defense Ministry said the airstrike in Syria's Idlib province also injured five people. The report didn't identify who was responsible for the attack, but it said immediate retaliation was carried out against "more than 50 [Syrian] regime targets," including tanks and artillery.
Turkish presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun pointed directly at Damascus. "Turkish soldiers in Idlib, there to establish peace and manage humanitarian aid operations," were killed by "an attack carried out by the [Syrian] regime," tweeted Altun.
Damascus so far has not commented. But the Russian Defense Ministry announced that its air force had carried out airstrikes against Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib, who broke through the lines of Damascus forces.
Neither Moscow nor Ankara gave details of where Thursday's airstrikes occurred.
Rebels secure village
Thursday, Turkish-backed rebels launched a series of assaults in Idlib to push back Damascus forces. Turkish media said the rebels had secured a key village on the strategic M4 highway.
In the last few weeks, Turkey deployed large amounts of military hardware and soldiers into Idlib to prevent Damascus forces from overrunning the last rebel stronghold.
"We will end the aggression of the regime in Idlib," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his parliamentary party on Wednesday. "These are the last days for the regime to withdraw; we are giving our last warnings.”
Erdogan is demanding that Damascus forces withdraw behind 12 Turkish military observation posts set up under a 2018 Sochi agreement with Moscow, which created a de-escalation zone in Idlib.
Ankara fears if Damascus captures Idlib, it will trigger an exodus of refugees into Turkey.
"I am sure Erdogan would undertake a military operation," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University, "because he needs a success domestically to prevent the migration. The biggest, biggest issue is the possible 2 million migration into Turkey."
'Deeper and deeper into war'
Thursday's killing of the two Turkish soldiers followed the deaths of 13 others at the hands of Damascus forces earlier this month. "It appears we are getting deeper and deeper into war with the Syrian military, and who knows what can come out of that," said international relations teacher Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University.
The escalating violence came as Turkish-Russian diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict remained deadlocked. While Ankara and Moscow support rival sides in the Syrian civil war, the two have been cooperating to try to end the conflict. That cooperation is the impetus for a deepening of bilateral relations, a relationship that is causing alarm among Turkey's traditional Western allies.
However, Idlib is now seen as threatening the Turkish-Russian rapprochement. "There is a break of confidence, definitely," said Bagci.
"The statements from Turkey have created a great danger to the Russian relationship," he added. But statements by Dimitri Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “indicate they are not afraid of Turkey and they will continue to support Damascus. There is no retreat, neither in political nor military terms."
But Moscow is continuing to reach out to Ankara diplomatically. "We are ready to work at any level, including at the highest level," Peskov said Wednesday. "So far, I have not seen any instructions to prepare the presidential meeting."
Erdogan and Putin have developed what is widely seen as a good working relationship that is understood to have facilitated the deepening bilateral ties. While the much-touted personal chemistry of the two leaders helped to resolve previous impasses, analysts suggest differences over Idlib may be irreconcilable.
"The trust between Putin and Erdogan is one thing," said Bagci. "But the political interests differ, and who is going to make the compromise is an open question. The Americans taking Turkey's side are strengthening Tayyip Erdogan's position toward Putin. Putin is very careful toward Erdogan because their relationship is not as strong as it used to be."
U.S. President Donald Trump backed Erdogan's Idlib stance during a telephone call earlier this month. U.S.-Turkish relations have been strained, in part because of Ankara's deepening ties with Moscow. Washington's latest overtures are being viewed with suspicion.
"If the U.S. shows this approach because of the problem we have with Russia, this sincerity is questioned," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday. "But we can say that they are sincere when they approach us like a true ally."
Analyst Ozel said statements from U.S. and NATO authorities have indicated increasing support for Turkey, “and Turkey is edging closer and closer to the United States."
Ankara is looking for more than diplomatic support, however, with reports that it requested that America deploy its Patriot missile system to offer protection of Turkish forces from airstrikes in Idlib — a sign that Ankara could be preparing for the risk of further clashes in Syria.
"It will be a worst-case scenario. Theoretically, it is possible. But we have to try diplomatically until the end. But if military clashes happen with Russia, then the game is over," said Bagci.