Spotlight: Strike on Turkish military post in Idlib conveys Moscow's message: analysts

Source: Xinhua| 2019-06-29 23:54:12|Editor: ZX
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ISTANBUL, June 29 (Xinhua) -- The recent deadly shelling of a Turkish military post in Syria's Idlib province may be aimed at both pressuring Ankara to withdraw its troops from the area and not to go back on the S-400 deal under U.S. pressure, analysts told Xinhua.

"Turkey could now consider taking action for Idlib to be handed over to Syria," said Hasan Koni, an international relations analyst.

On Thursday, a Turkish soldier was killed and three others wounded in the shelling that struck a Turkish military observation post in Idlib's de-escalation zone.

The Turkish Defense Ministry, saying the attack was deliberate, blamed it on Syrian government forces and said the Turkish military strongly retaliated in kind.

The Idlib issue, which Ankara says should be politically settled, risks turning into a trouble spot between Ankara and Moscow, partners in Syria since mid-2016.

"It's unthinkable this strike could have been carried out without Moscow's consent," said Ali Er, a former general.

Russia's military attache in Ankara was summoned to the Turkish General Staff Headquarters, the Turkish Defense Ministry said.

The Idlib province along the Turkish border is the last major bastion for rebels in war-torn Syria.

"Turkey should adopt a new Syria policy and sit at the negotiating table with Russia and Syria without delay," said Haldun Solmazturk, a former general.

In his opinion, the situation is getting riskier for Ankara.

Ankara actively backed, together with Washington, jihadist rebels fighting to topple the Syrian government until mid-2016, and still acts as a patron of the so-called moderate rebel groups in Idlib.

Until now Turkey refuses to have political dialogue with the Syrian government, which it says has lost legitimacy over the killings of its own people during the war.

"Turkey may now exert pressure over the rebels in Idlib to lay down arms," stated Koni who teaches at Istanbul Kultur University, though he noted that Ankara may find it hard to adopt such a policy change.

Turkey should not withdraw from Idlib before the terrorism threat against Ankara from the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in northeastern Syria is eliminated, argued Er.

The Turkish military sent hundreds of reinforcements as well as armored vehicles to its observation posts around Idlib, local media reported immediately after the attack.

Already hosting over 3.6 million Syrians, Ankara fears an all-out military offensive on Idlib would send hundreds of thousands of civilians as well as many jihadists to its border.

The Syrian army, backed by Russian air force, launched an offensive against the rebels in late April despite protests by Ankara.

Since then, attacks on the Turkish observation posts have very much increased, though they were rarely deadly until Thursday.

The Russians want to clear Idlib of the jihadists before winter and it is inevitable the situation will get worse in the days ahead, remarked Solmazturk who chairs the Incek debates at the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute.

Russia has long complained about attacks by the jihadists against its Hmeymim air base and Syrian army positions, underlining that the terrorism threat needs to be eliminated.

Ankara's efforts to stop the rebels, in line with a deal reached with Moscow back in September last year, from attacking Russian and Syrian army positions have failed so far.

Almost all of the Idlib province came under the control of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an al-Qaida-linked jihadist group, following clashes with Turkey-backed rebel groups at the beginning of this year.

The latest deadly attack on the Turkish military post came shortly before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met on Saturday with his Russian and U.S. counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump respectively, on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

It is widely argued for this reason that the strike should be taken as Moscow's message to Ankara, although the analysts differed on the message's content as well as on whether the strike should convey any message at all.

"Russia's message to Ankara is, 'You have failed to do your part, so step aside and let us settle the problem in Idlib," stated Koni.

Er feels that with this strike Moscow is warning Ankara against toeing the Washington's line by means of giving up the S-400 missile deal.

"'Or else I'll get you into trouble in Syria' is Moscow's message," he said.

Despite U.S. threat of sanctions, Turkey is scheduled to get the first batch of the state-of-the-art S-400 air defense system from Russia by mid-July.

Moscow sees it could create problems within NATO as Turkey would be perceived as an unreliable partner within the bloc if it buys the S-400s, remarked Er.

Solmazturk, however, does not think the attack on the Turkish observation post should have any particular message nor the post was deliberately targeted.

"Members of various rebel groups are moving around the area where the observation post in question is, so any shelling targeting these rebels may have mistakenly hit the Turkish post," he said.

"The HTS wants to draw Turkey into armed conflict with Syria," he added.

Turkey established 12 military observation posts around Idlib under a deal concluded in 2017 with Russia and Iran, its partners in the Astana process that seeks a political settlement of the Syrian conflict.

Signs emerged lately that pressure over Ankara may increase for it to agree to Idlib's takeover by the Russian-backed Syrian army.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem recently voiced hope that the Syrian and Turkish armies would not be involved in a fight.

Describing Turkey as "an occupying force" in Syria, he also said that Ankara was backing the terrorist groups Damascus and Moscow have been fighting against.

Other than in Idlib, Turkey has a sizable swath of land in northwestern Syria under its control, territory it captured from the Islamic State and the U.S-backed Kurdish militia in recent years.

Ankara sees the Kurdish militia in Syria as a terror group, arguing it had to militarily intervene to prevent terrorism threats.

Al-Moualem also said Damascus was expecting that the Syrian army's ongoing operation against the rebels would result in the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Idlib.

Turkey has repeatedly said it does not have an eye on anybody's territory, but top Turkish officials have stated that Ankara would hand over the lands under its control in Syria to local people rather than to Damascus.

"Turkey wants to establish principalities under its control in the areas it controls," said Solmazturk. "However, Turkey cannot possibly keep its military presence in Syria for long under the current global picture even if it should get Washington's support."