Tuesday, March 31, 2020 | ePaper

Airstrike hits Turkish forces in Syria

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Syrian fighters load an artillery near Idlib, Syria February 27, 2020. REUTERS

Carlotta Gall, The New York Times: The Turkish army suffered mass casualties in an airstrike in northwest Syria late Thursday, an attack that could dramatically change the course of the Syrian war as fears grow of a direct conflict between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member.

At least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed and more than 30wounded, said Rahmi Dogan, the Turkish governor of the southern province ofHatay, where the Turkish casualties were arriving.

Turkish officials said the strike had been carried out bySyrian government forces, but Russian jets have been conducting most of theairstrikes in the area in recent weeks. Turkish protesters in Istanbulconverged on the Russian Consulate there early Friday, chanting “MurdererRussia! Murderer Putin!”

Turkish officials have avoided blaming the Russiangovernment for aggression against their forces in Syria, hoping to avoid adirect confrontation with Russia’s much stronger military and to keep a lineopen for talks with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Russian officials could not be reached for comment lateThursday.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan convened an emergency meetingThursday evening in Ankara, Turkish media reported. Turkish forces began retaliatingThursday against Syrian government forces in northeastern Idlib province.

Turkey has long supported opposition forces in Syria’snine-year civil war against the government of President Bashar Assad. Assad,backed by Russia and Iran, has largely defeated the uprising, but at the costof hundreds of thousands of lives and the creation of millions of refugees.

The Syrian government, backed by Russian warplanes, isfighting in Idlib to retake the country’s last rebel-held province. In the pastthree months, the fighting there has driven nearly 1 million people from theirhomes, creating a humanitarian crisis on Turkey’s border.

In recent days, tensions between the two sides have beenrising, increasing fears of a hot war breaking out between Turkey and Russia,which controls the airspace in northwestern Syria.

Erdogan has called for Syrian government and Russia forcesto cease their offensive in Idlib and to pull back from Turkish positions,which have been encircled and cut off by Syrian government forces.

Turkey has deployed thousands of troops into the province tostem the Syrian government advance but has been severely hampered by the lackof air support. Russia has been conducting a blistering air campaign across theprovince, bombing hospitals, schools and residential buildings, killing atleast 300 people in three months.

Turkey has asked the United States for Patriot missiles tohelp defend its troops, and called for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone to protectthe nearly 3 million civilians in Idlib province.

But Washington and NATO members have so far refused toengage militarily in northwest Syria out of reluctance to confront Russia,Western officials said. The United States is withholding the supply of Patriotmissiles until Turkey agrees to make the Russian missile S400 system itpurchased inoperable.

The United States has about 500 troops in northeastern andsouthern Syria, whose main mission is to prevent the Islamic State fromreturning there and to guard Syrian oil fields.

Turkey is a NATO member, prompting fears in the West that anattack on Turkey could require allies in Europe and North America to respond,dramatically escalating an already complex war in Syria.

“The attack against Turkey is an attack against NATO,” OmerCelik, the spokesman for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, said on theCNN Turk news channel. “NATO should have been with Turkey, not starting todaybut from before these events. We are expecting concrete actions on the safezone and no-fly zone.”

There was no immediate comment from the White House, butPresident Donald Trump has made it clear that he would like to keep out of theconflict, and has previously ordered US troops to leave.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Mark T Esper told members ofthe House Armed Services Committee that the United States was not looking toreassert its presence in Syria.

``There has not been that discussion about re-engaging in thecivil war,`` he said. “We think the best path forward is through the UN processthat is underway.``

Several American officials, however, reacted to theairstrike on Thursday with alarm.

``The prospects of a direct military confrontation betweenTurkey & Russia in Syria are very high & increasing by the hour,`` Sen.Marco Rubio, R-Fla, said in a tweet. Erdogan, he said, “is on the right sidehere. Putin & Assad are responsible for this horrific humanitariancatastrophe.”

Kay Bailey Hutchison, the American ambassador to NATO, toldreporters in Washington on Thursday that ``everything is on the table.``

``This is a big development,`` Hutchison said, “and ouralliance is with Turkey, it is not with Russia.” She added, “We want Turkey tounderstand that we are the ones that they’ve been allied with.”

Before the airstrike on Thursday, Turkey had lost 13soldiers in Syria in recent weeks. The main opposition party has questioned thewisdom of Turkey’s involvement without air support, or US or NATO backing.

The attack on Thursday occurred on Turkish troops betweenthe towns of Al Bara and Balyoun, south of the city of Idlib. Turkish troopshave been positioned in 12 Turkish observations posts set up over a year ago aspart of a de-escalation agreement with Russia.

A Turkish military convoy traveling to resupply troops onThursday came under aerial attack first, and then a building where the troopswere based was struck, Abu Yahya, a senior official of the Turkish-backedSyrian fighting force in Idlib province, said in an interview.

The Turkish-backed Syrian fighters have made significantgains in battles against Syrian government forces farther east recently. Theycaptured the town of Saraqib on the main M5 highway through the province onWednesday and were engaged in fierce battles farther south on Thursday.

The Turkish army called on its Syrian proxies to raise theirreadiness for operations, a Syrian media group reported.

Emotions were running high in Reyhanli, on the Turkish sideof the Syrian border, where the casualties were brought. People gathered todonate blood and a crowd chanted “God is Great” outside the main hospital.

The escalation came as Western members of the UN SecurityCouncil in New York implored Russia and Syria to decree a humanitariancease-fire in the Idlib region.

``There is more this council can and must do to stop thesuffering,`` Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of Germany and Deputy Prime MinisterAlexander De Croo of Belgium told the council in a joint statement on Thursdaymorning.

Ursula Mueller, the assistant secretary-general forhumanitarian affairs, told council members that the deprivations facingcivilians in northwest Syria were ``not humanly tolerable.`` Henrietta Fore, theexecutive director of UNICEF, who is to visit Syria this weekend, said ``wedesperately need a cessation of hostilities in northwest Syria.``

But the Russians, who have vetoed 14 Security Councilresolutions on Syria since the insurgency began in 2011, rejected the entreaty.

Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the global body,said the only long-term solution in Idlib and the rest of Syria was “a finaland irreversible expulsion from the country of all terrorists.”

Idlib`s 3 million people include about 1.5 million opponentsof the Syrian government, who have fled to Idlib from other parts of Syria, aswell as a mix of jihadi and rebel groups. The Syrian government and Russiarefer to members of the civilian opposition and the rebel and jihadi groups asterrorists.

Russian state news services did not report on the strike bylate Thursday, but they cited military officials blaming Turkey for supportingmilitants who are targeting Russian positions.

``The Turkish side continued to support illegal armedformations with artillery fire and reconnaissance and attack drones,`` Interfaxcited a rear admiral, Oleg Zhuravlev, as saying. Zhuravlev said the Russian airforce shot down a Turkish drone.

Rossiya 24, a state news channel, reported that Turkey wastargeting Syrian army troops with artillery and Russian helicopters withanti-aircraft fire in response to the strike that killed Turkish soldiers. Thereport cited only unspecified ``information`` it had received, not an officialsource.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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