After a Face-Off in Syria, Turkey and Russia Try to Pull Back From the Brink

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SOCHI, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 22, 2019: Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss situation in Syria. Alexei Druzhinin/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Alexei DruzhininTASS via Getty Images)

With the United States scaling back its global role, the two nations are in a contest over which will become the pre-eminent regional power.

ISTANBUL — Turkey and Russia tried on Friday to step back from the brink of a war that neither side wants, after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in northwest Syria by forces backing the government in Damascus.

But tensions between the two nations — one a nuclear power, the other a NATO member — remained high, not just because of the fight in Syria, but more broadly as a contest over who will be the pre-eminent regional power as the United States scales back its global role.

Turkey wants to protect its border with Syria, while Russia wants show that its military intervention has preserved Syria as a client state. Both sides have said they want to de-escalate, but neither side has been willing to back down, leading to fears of sliding into war. Emotions are running high and the source of their antagonism — the fate of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria — festers dangerously.

Ivan Konovalov, a Russian military analyst in Moscow, predicted that, with Washington out of the game in Syria, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would, once again, pull back from open conflict and try to settle Syria’s future on their own.

Russia and Turkey, he said, “came to a critical point” but “we retain a relationship on the Syrian problem because we don’t have any other option, not for Russia, not for Syria.”

Russia and Turkey have been here before — teetering on the edge of all-out war, only to make up — but not with so much of their own blood spilled. Can the Kremlin and NATO’s easternmost member once again pull back from the brink?

That is the unsettling question after the deadly attacks Thursday on Turkish troops near Idlib. That is where the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, aided by Russian warplanes and troops, are battling to crush the only surviving remnant of an anti-government uprising that started nine years ago with backing from the West.

ImageAfghans arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos on Friday. Turkey has said the crisis in Syria will make it harder to control refugee flows.
Credit…Aris Messinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan support opposite sides in a Syrian war that has killed up to 400,000 people, and also in the conflict in Libya. Similar in their leadership styles and tough-guy personalities, they have endured nine years of wary cooperation interrupted by venomous breakups over the war in Syria.

Now tensions are high following air and artillery strikes on Thursday on Turkish forces that have plunged relations between Moscow, the Syrian government’s main backer, and Ankara into a crisis even deeper than a 2015 rupture precipitated by Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian warplane near the Turkish-Syrian border.

Turkey, desperate to keep Mr. Assad’s last foes alive and slow the tide of Syrian refugees flooding across its border, is determined to prevent Idlib from falling. But Mr. Putin is just as determined to see it conquered by Mr. Assad so that Moscow can declare victory and end, or at least scale back, an expensive and increasingly risky military operation that is now in its fifth year.

That the dynamic between the two leaders has become so decisive in determining the fate of Idlib, and Syria as a whole, is a measure of how far the United States under President Trump has pulled back not only from messy foreign entanglements but also from its former role as a pre-eminent world power.

With the United States on the sidelines, Russia and Turkey have been haggling over Idlib since September 2018, when Mr. Putin met Mr. Erdogan in Sochi, Russia, and reluctantly agreed that Mr. Assad’s forces, which are also supported by Iran, would hold off on a long-anticipated final assault.


A prayer for the Turkish soldiers who died in the airstrike was held in Ankara on Friday.
Credit…Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But Moscow’s impatience for an end to the conflict has grown steadily as the domestic political gains Mr. Putin enjoyed when he first sent warplanes and tanks to Syria in August 2015 have worn thin.

Reluctant to put Russian soldiers, many of them conscripts, in the line of fire in Syria, Russia has increasingly relied on mercenaries, scores of whom were killed by U.S. forces in February 2018, before President Trump ordered American troops out.

As NATO ambassadors met on Friday in Brussels in an emergency session and European leaders called for calm, Mr. Putin spoke by telephone with Mr. Erdogan in an effort to calm tensions. Mr. Trump also spoke by telephone with Mr. Erdogan and the leaders promised “additional steps to prevent the great humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the Idlib region,” according to the Turkish government.

Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said NATO would offer “plenty of moral support” to Turkey but that “no one wants to get militarily entangled with Russia.” This, she added, meant that “Erdogan will have to fix this with Putin.”

Russia said on Friday that it was sending two warships equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles toward Syria’s coast in the eastern Mediterranean, but insisted that its forces had played no role in the attack on Turkish troops. That contradicted reports from the scene that described a Russian jet striking a Turkish convoy, and then artillery strikes pounding Turkish troops in several buildings.

Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, sought to calm tempers in his daily briefing on Friday, insisting that Russia had honored a pledge to safeguard Turkish observation posts near Idlib. He said no Turkish servicemen had been hurt in these outposts, while suggesting that it was Turkey’s fault that some of its troops strayed beyond these designated areas into territory controlled by rebels.

“The tragic instances of deaths among Turkish personnel happened in the areas where terrorist gangs were conducting offensive operations,” Mr. Peskov said.

Turkish planes, artillery and drones retaliated after the attack, pounding Syrian government positions. “Our operations will continue until the bloody hands laid on our soldiers are broken,” said Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defense minister.

While he avoided placing direct blame on Russia, Mr. Akar noted that Thursday’s attack had been carried out even though Turkey had coordinated the location of its troops with Russian forces on the ground. He also said there were no rebel groups near the scene of the attack, as the Kremlin asserted.

Moscow denied that Turkey had shared coordinates of its troops with Russian forces, and said that it had tried to stop attacks by Syrian government forces as soon as it was told about them.

While Russia appeared eager to dial town tensions, Turkey bristled with fury at the killing of its troops.

“We will not leave the blood of our brave soldiers on the ground,” Fahrettin Altun, the director of communications in the Turkish presidency, wrote in a thread of comments posted on Twitter.

But no matter how intense its anger, Turkey has limited options. Its NATO allies, with which Turkey has had increasingly strained relations, particularly with the United States, have no appetite for a wider war.

“Turkey cannot fight Russia on its own,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He said Mr. Putin, fed up with a grinding war that has only weighed on his popularity at home, “was trying to intimidate Erdogan into submission with this attack.”

But, he added, “it might backfire on the Russian leader” by pushing Turkey back toward the West.

The two countries, rival empires since the 16th century and adversaries in multiple wars in the 19th century, have in recent years shown a capacity for brinkmanship followed by de-escalation.

Omer Taspinar, who teaches at the National Defense University in Washington, said Turkey’s public fury, though perhaps heartfelt, was also theater.

“No one in Turkey wants war with Russia,” he said. “It is much more convenient to do this Kabuki dance.”

He predicted that while news media outlets loyal to Mr. Erdogan have played up Turkey’s strikes on Syrian government positions, Turkey will need to reach an agreement with Russia that could reduce its presence in Syria to an even narrower strip than now exists along the Turkish border.

When Turkey downed a Russian SU-24 attack aircraft in 2015, Mr. Putin denounced the action as a “stab in the back” and a “crime,” stirring fears of all-out war.

Following the attack on the Russian plane and the death of the co-pilot, who ejected safely but was killed on the ground, demonstrators attacked the Turkish Embassy in Moscow and a Kremlin-controlled news outlet unleashed a torrent of incendiary abuse on Turkey and its president.

In the end, Russia limited its retaliation to economic sanctions and the storm passed — with Moscow then recruiting Turkey as a customer for Russian weapons. To the fury of NATO, Turkey spurned antiaircraft systems on offer from the United States and last year took delivery of the sophisticated S-400 air defense system from Russia.

Russia has also found in Turkey an eager partner in the energy business. Just last month, Mr. Putin was in Turkey to celebrate the opening of a natural gas pipeline running 580 miles underneath the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey, a project that the European Union and United States opposed for years because it undercut Ukraine’s energy business.

This week’s escalation of tensions between Moscow and Ankara prompted an exasperated we-told-you-so from Washington.

“I hope that President Erdogan will see that we are the ally of their past and their future and they need to drop the S-400,” Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Trump administration’s ambassador to NATO, told reporters in Washington.

By Carlotta Gall and 

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.

Source: NYT


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