A Turkish tank is seen in Reyhanli district of Hatay, Turkey, on Feb. 14, 2020. Turkey has poured in the last few days thousands of troops and convoys of military vehicles across the border, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and radar equipment in order to bolster its 12 observation posts. (Photo by Mustafa Kaya/Xinhua)
by Burak Akinci
ANKARA, Feb. 13 (Xinhua) -- In response to the ongoing Russian-backed Syrian attacks in Idlib, Turkey has shifted its strategy by increasing its military presence in the northern province of Syria to push Damascus to abide by Russian-Turkish agreements, experts said.
"Turkey will strike Syrian forces anywhere" if one more Turkish soldier is hurt and could use air power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday in Ankara, in reaction to the killing of 13 Turkish military personnel by Syrian shelling in two separate attacks this month in Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold in Syria.
Turkey has poured in the last few days thousands of troops and convoys of military vehicles across the border into Idlib, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and radar equipment in order to bolster its 12 observation posts.
"Following the Syrian regime's attacks that killed Turkish soldiers, Turkey has moved from a diplomatic strategy aiming to protect de-escalation agreements to a military strategy of increasing its boots in Idlib," said Oytun Orhan, a senior analyst at the Ankara-based think tank Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
Ankara and Moscow agreed in September 2018 to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone where acts of aggression are expressly prohibited.
"Turkey wants Damascus, and also Moscow, to understand that it means business and will not back down to provocative attacks. This is a power struggle that Ankara absolutely wants to win," Orhan noted.
"It is a question of prestige. Turkey doesn't want to lose its gains on the ground in Syria and aims to keep its troops in Idlib at any cost. That is why so many troops have been dispatched there in recent days," he said.
Nevertheless, the Turkish expert saw a low risk of an all-out confrontation between Ankara and Damascus despite the recent mutual attacks from both sides.
With backing from Russia, the Syrian troops have been on the offensive for weeks in Idlib and parts of nearby Aleppo.
"The current situation in Idlib poses a threat to the civilians in the enclave and the security of Turkey which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees," Serkan Demirtas, a political analyst, told Xinhua, adding the Turkish position in Idlib is also supported by its NATO ally, the United States which has dispatched its Syria Special Envoy James Jeffrey to the Turkish capital.
"Further escalation will only lead to more displaced persons and could spark a new refugee influx toward Europe and elsewhere via Turkey," said Demirtas, urging the international community to take immediate action to support Turkey by increasing pressure on Russia and Syria.
The number of Turkish soldiers in Idlib has now reached some 9,000, with one armored brigade, two mechanized infantry brigades and a special forces team equipped with several howitzers and rocket launchers, said Metin Gurcan, a military expert, in a press article.
Turkey, however, doesn't have airspace control in Idlib, which adds to the military threat it's forces there are facing, according to observers.
Erdogan has set the end of February as the deadline for a return to stability in Idlib, while Ankara is testing the possibility of a new summit between Russia, Iran and Turkey to speed up the political process before (Syrian President) Assad's forces reach Idlib's center.
"Nobody wants a war between Turkey and Syria. However, this can only be prevented through a solid stance by all parties concerned. Turkey should not be left alone against the Syrian attacks and growing humanitarian tragedy," Demirtas told Xinhua.