A serious conflict is brewing between two Middle Eastern dictators. Turkish forces have been deployed in the Syrian province of Idlib, which is still controlled by Islamist militants, including ISIS. It was into this province that Assad’s forces drove the defeated opposition forces and caliphate supporters.
Now, at a time when the dictator Assad has regained control of most of Syria with the support of Russian troops, his army has approached Idlib. However, Turkey has effectively created a protectorate there, building “observation posts” which Syrian troops cannot pass without a fight, and attacking the Syrian army every time a Turk gets caught in the crossfire.
Apparently Erdogan is hoping to prevent Assad from gaining control of a sizable portion of Syria, and to maintain Turkish influence over Idlib using the Islamists entrenched in the region, especially the Al-Nusra Front, just like Iran is spreading its influence in several countries simultaneously through the Shiite militia it controls.
Russia, which has helped keep the Syrian dictator in power and crush the insurgent locals, clearly does not wish to get caught up in a more serious Middle Eastern feud or intervene in the explosive relations between Syria, Iran, Israel and Turkey, which could result in considerable losses and affect Russia’s image as a military force to be reckoned with.
Last week Erdogan said that “it would make no sense to fight with Russia over Idlib in light of the existing joint initiatives of a strategic nature”. This happened after seven Turkish soldiers at an observation post were killed in an artillery bombardment of Islamist positions on the evening of February 2. The following day, the Turkish government reported that the country’s armed forces had “eliminated more than 70 Syrian soldiers”, and that Turkish aircraft had attacked Assad’s army’s facilities in Syria.
However, the Russian military, which controls the airspace over Idlib, reported that during the time window in question, Turkish aircraft did not enter Syrian airspace at all.
New reports came from Syria on Monday that five Turkish soldiers at another observation post had been killed during the shelling of the Islamists’ positions.
The Turkish government again claimed to have carried out a powerful counterattack against Syrian government positions, attacking “115 Syrian army facilities, including three tanks, two artillery and mortar positions, and one Assad regime army helicopter”. The official Turkish news agency Anadolu published another report about the mysterious “neutralization” of 100 Syrian soldiers.
Sources in insurgent circles claim that the Turks have not carried out any such attacks against the Syrian army, and that Turkey merely sent helicopters to evacuate its contingent after the shelling had ended.
The Turks said in turn that they have “warned the Russian authorities who are assisting the Assad regime in the capture of Idlib that the attacks against the Turkish positions in the region must stop”.