Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Turkey and Russia engaged in a tense dance of negotiation and threat on Friday in the wake of the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in an air strike the previous day. Russian sources maintained that the Turkish troops were “where they were not supposed to be,” and were nested among militant groups Russia and Syria consider terrorists. Russia denies having launched the air strikes on Bahun, but complained that Ankara had not told it about the Turkish troops being there. Turkey contradicts this assertion and says that the position of its troops had been communicated to Russia.
Russia sent two warships through the Bosporus Straits on Friday, in full view of the Istanbul populace, likely heading toward the Tarsus naval base in Syria, leased by Russia. Russian wire services RIA Novosti and Interfax reported that Russian Navy spokesman Aleksei Rulev announced that “The frigates Admiral Makarov and Admiral Grigorovich – armed with highly accurate Kalibr-NK missile systems – are carrying out a planned transit from Sevastopol.” The ships and their cruise missiles are certainly a warning to Turkey.
For its part, AFP reports, Turkey announced that it had retaliated by using drones and artillery to strike over 200 Syrian Arab Army targets, killing 45 Syrian soldiers and officers.
Nevertheless, the Syrian Arab Army continued to attempt to take territory in the south of Idlib (Syrian government positions are in red, fundamentalist rebels in green, below).
Syrian maps for Friday, 2/28/20.
A tale of three areas.
South Idlib. The SAA continues down the river valley toward the M4 south of Furaykah. It is open ground surrounded by two sets of hills. Sun Tzu would refer to this as "hemmed-in ground." The SAA need to be careful here. pic.twitter.com/Abxd5VD8v3
— Evergreen Intel (@vcdgf555) February 28, 2020
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone on Friday in an effort to reduce tensions, according to AP, and Erdogan may fly to Moscow early next week.
Fearing public panic over war, Turkey shut down social media services on Friday.
The Syrian and Russian campaign to take back much of Idlib province from Turkey-backed fundamentalist rebels has displaced some 900,000 civilians since last December. Turkey views the campaign as a violation of an agreement it made with Russia. But Russia says the agreement required Erdogan to curb the extremist militants in Idlib, who instead have attempted to expand their territory at the expense of the Syrian regime. Turkey’s Erdogan has threatened a major Turkish invasion if the Syrian army does not withdraw to its positions of last summer by the end of February (i.e. today). If Erdogan follows through on this threat he could come up against the Russian Aerospace Forces, which are giving air support to Syrian government troops.
Because Turkey is furious that NATO and Europe are offering no help against Russia (even the Trump administration has waffled), Erdogan has ordered Turkish border troops to stand down and allow migrants to try to get to Europe.
The Greek and Bulgarian governments upped their border security in anticipation of attempts by migrants to sneak in. Some 300 would-be migrants gathered at the Greek border near the Turkish city of Edirne. Syrians are said to be organizing buses to get out there in hopes of sneaking into Europe before Erdogan changes his mind. Others will attempt to go by boat to nearby Greek islands.
Turkey had permitted hundreds of thousands of migrants to pass through Turkey to Europe in 2015 and 2016, but took an over $6 bn. bribe from the European Union to halt this traffic. Since then the crisis has subsided somewhat. The refugee crisis played a role in Britain’s secession from the European Union and pushed the politics in Western Europe substantially to the Right, so that there are severe geopolitical dangers in what Erdogan is now doing.