Disagreements between Moscow and Ankara over Syria’s Idlib will have no impact on the deliveries of S-400 missile defense systems, nor on the two countries’ ties in general, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said.
“We can not change the principle-based positions we hold or our politics over individual disagreements with one country or another. We must not allow the problems in Syria to undermine our co-operation and relations,” Çavuşoğlu said on Feb. 15 after his talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
Turkey took delivery of a first batch of the S-400 missile defense batteries last July and has said it plans to activate them in April. Washington says they are incompatible with NATO defenses and has halted Turkey’s purchase of F-35 stealth fighter jets, which it says would be compromised by the S-400s.
Also on Feb. 15, Turkey dismissed Russian accusations that it has flouted de-escalation agreements with Russia and Iran in Idlib and threatened to take military action in the area if diplomatic efforts with Moscow fail.
Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria’s war, agreed in 2018 to set up a de-escalation zone in the northwestern province. But their fragile cooperation has been disrupted by a Syrian government offensive in Idlib, in which 13 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the past two weeks.
Ankara has said it will use military power to drive back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of February and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said Turkey will strike government forces anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt.
Erdoğan discussed the situation in separate phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday and U.S. President Donald Trump on Feb. 15, but there was no immediate word of a diplomatic breakthrough.
Erdoğan and Trump exchanged views on an immediate halt to fighting in Idlib, the Turkish presidency said. The two leaders agreed by phone that Syrian government forces’ attacks in the northwestern province were unacceptable, it said in a statement.
Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, says Turkey, which has poured military forces into Idlib, has aggravated the situation and failed to neutralize militants there.
But Turkey blames the situation on the advances by Syrian government forces in Idlib.
“We cannot overlook the cruelty happening in our neighbor,” Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay told broadcaster NTV. “Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities in Idlib.”
Çavuşoğlu said Turkey wanted to resolve matters with Russia over Idlib through diplomacy.
“If it won’t work through diplomatic channels, we will take the necessary steps,” he also said.
Ankara has been angered by the seizure by Syrian government forces of Turkish military observation posts established in Idlib under the 2018 deal.
“It is impossible for us to remain silent against their siege. We are doing what is necessary against them,” NTV quoted Erdoğan as saying on a flight back from Pakistan.
Erdogan also chided the United States, a NATO ally, saying U.S. statements of support did not instill trust.
Speaking in Istanbul later on Feb. 15, Erdoğan again said Turkey would drive back Syrian forces unless they withdrew to the borders outlined by Ankara and Moscow in 2018. But he also appeared to bring forward his end-of-February deadline.
“The solution in Idlib is the [Syrian] regime stopping its hostility and withdrawing to the borders in the agreements. Otherwise, we will handle this before the end of February,” Erdoğan said.
“We would like to do this with the support of our friends. If we have to do it the hard way, we are also up for that,” he said, apparently referring to Ankara’s Western allies.
“Until we clear Syria of terrorist organisations and the cruelty of the [Syrian] regime, we will not rest easy.”
Talks between Russia, Turkey ongoing
Despite the tough rhetoric, Russian and Turkish officials are talking behind the scenes. Turkish and Russian officials held talks in Ankara on Feb. 15 and Çavuşoğlu said a Turkish delegation would go to Moscow on Feb. 17 for talks.
Çavuşoğlu also had talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Munich on Feb. 15 – the first ministerial level meeting between Ankara and Moscow since the situation deteriorated in Idlib.
Çavuşoğlu tweeted that he had a “positive meeting” with Lavrov but that Turkey would not be “making an evaluation” until after the talks on Feb. 17 in Moscow.
Erdoğan said his phone call with Putin – his second since the Turkish troops were killed – had been positive and that statements by other Russian officials that criticized Turkey did not reflect the tone of the call.
However, Erdoğan later criticized Russia for its support of Assad in the conflict.
“Russia’s efforts to capture land for a regime that is the enemy of its own people is nothing more than extending its life through a respirator. Soon even a respirator won’t work and, God willing, the regime will suddenly turn into a corpse.”
In the conflict in Syria, which began in 2011, Turkey has supported rebels looking to oust Assad. Erdoğan said this week the Turkey-backed rebels launched an offensive to retake some areas they had lost to Syrian forces.
State-run Anadolu Agency said buses carrying commandos and trucks with more military equipment had been sent to reinforce the Turkish observation posts.
The increased violence in Idlib has caused hundreds of thousands of people to abandon their homes and head north to the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, has said it cannot handle a new influx.
Syrian state media said Syrian troops had began clearing barricades from a highway between Damascus and Aleppo after recovering full control of the road for the first time in more than seven years.
Syrian state media also reported advances by Syrian government forces towards rebel-held Atarib, some 24 km west of Aleppo, and three towns to its northwest.
On Feb. 14, Turkish and Syrian state media reported Turkish-backed Syrian rebels shot down a government helicopter west of Aleppo in the Idlib region.
A senior U.S. official, meanwhile, said that strains between Turkey and Russia over Idlib appear not to have shaken Turkish plans to deploy the S-400s, despite a threat of U.S sanctions.
The falling-out has offered the United States a rare opportunity to highlight its common ground with NATO partner Turkey, after years of worsening relations which could deteriorate further if Turkey goes ahead with plans to activate the Russian S-400 missile system in coming months.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted support for Turkey. Special envoy James Jeffrey, speaking in Turkish in the capital Ankara, referred to the fallen Turkish soldiers as “martyrs.”
Turkey was defending its interests in Idlib “in a manner that is appropriate and one that the United States supports,” the senior U.S. State Department official, who spoke on condition he was not further identified, told reporters.
Washington has also sought to emphasize Moscow and Ankara’s divergent goals – not just in Syria but also in the Libyan conflict, where the two countries also support opposing sides.
“What we are seeing in Syria and Libya in particular is demonstrative of the way in which Turkish and Russian interests do not overlap,” he said. “I’m hopeful that our Turkish partners will take that message away from this.”
Turkey’s course ‘is set’
The official, speaking after talks in Turkey, said Russia’s “destructive role” was having an impact on Turkish authorities, but had not led to a change of policy on the S-400s.
“I have not seen that translate into a rethink of Turkey’s position specific to the S-400s. It is my expectation that Turkey’s course on this is set,” he said.
Until the latest escalation of fighting in Idlib, Turkish and Russian troops had carried out regular joint patrols in northeast Syria as part of an accord between Ankara and Moscow under which militants of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) withdrew from the border.
A Turkish security source said a planned patrol last week had been postponed because of “harsh weather,” but the U.S. official said the Idlib dispute could be having an impact.
“I assess that that is spilling over into Turkish-Russian cooperation in the northeast as well. The one has to complicate the other. You cannot isolate them.”