(Bloomberg) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to drive Russian-backed Syrian government forces from the last rebel stronghold of Idlib, escalating his threats against Damascus after being buoyed by rare public support from the U.S.
Erdogan has massed tanks and commandos in Idlib after at least 14 Turks, most of them soldiers, were killed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and on Wednesday threatened to hit Syrian targets “anywhere” if Turkish troops are harmed again.
“We’re determined to drive away regime forces until the end of February” from the vicinity of Idlib, he said. At least three Turkish army outposts have been cut off in the area.
Assad’s attempt to crush Turkish-backed rebels and al-Qaeda militants in the final major opposition holdout after nine years of war has triggered fierce Turkish military retaliation, while testing key strategic alliances.
Turkey and Russia have so far maintained an uneasy partnership in Syria, where they back opposing sides, but disagreements over who should control Idlib have brought them to the brink of a standoff.
A recapture of the province would mark a major strategic victory for Assad and threatens to give Turkey less of a say in postwar Syria, where it’s been backing rebels since the conflict began in 2011.
Walking a fine line, Erdogan has been careful not to alienate Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is backing Assad. The two spoke by phone Wednesday about the “aggravation of the situation” in Idlib, and noted the need for “full implementation” of agreements between Russia and Turkey to contain hostilities in Syria’s northwest, according to a Kremlin statement.
Erdogan said he and Putin decided that military and civilian officials from both sides would hold further discussions.
But Turkey’s openness to international support also lays bare the power imbalance in Syria, where Russia controls the air space above Idlib.
Erdogan said he might soon talk with President Donald Trump on events in Syria after Ankara secured support from a visiting U.S. official in its tussle with the Assad regime.
James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria engagement and its special representative to the global coalition to defeat Islamic State, said he had traveled to Turkey to discuss whatever support the country needed to defend its soldiers against “a threat in Idlib from Russia and the Assad government.”
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said on Twitter that he had dispatched Jeffrey to “coordinate steps to respond to this destabilizing attack.”
The U.S. and Turkey are finding rare common ground over the conflict in Syria despite a lengthy dispute between the NATO allies over Turkey’s purchase of an advanced Russian missile-defense system.
Putin and Erdogan struck a deal at Sochi in September 2018 that provided for the creation of a demilitarized zone in Idlib between Syrian government troops and opposition groups.
It required “radical militants” to withdraw from the area and provided for Turkish and Russian forces to conduct joint monitoring of the zone, as well as allowing the restoration of key transit routes to Aleppo, Syria’s shattered commercial hub.
Moscow has demanded a halt to attacks on Russian forces and their allies in the northwestern province, who’ve been conducting a months-long advance on the opposition bastion.
“We continue to regret the fact that these groups are attacking Syrian troops from Idlib and carrying out aggressive actions against our military infrastructure. This is unacceptable and goes against the Sochi agreements,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.
Erdogan, however, said the Syrian offensive on Idlib was aimed at forcing civilians to flee. Turkey, which already hosts the world’s largest number of Syrians who escaped the war, fears from a new influx of refugees.
Turkey’s increasing military foray into Idlib is adding to geopolitical risks and unsettling investors. Turkish stocks and bonds plunged following reports of new fatalities on Monday. The yield on Turkey’s 10-year government bond and two-year notes rose as the lira slipped to an almost eight-month low against the dollar.
–With assistance from Tony Halpin.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Onur Ant at [email protected], Mark Williams, Amy Teibel
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