The Slatest

Russia-Backed Airstrike Killing Dozens of Turkish Troops in Syria Reignites Fears of Direct Confrontation

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sit at the same table looking away from one another during a meeting in Istanbul.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend a meeting on Jan. 8 in Istanbul. Alexey Druzhinin/Getty Images

An airstrike in northwestern Syria late Thursday inflicted significant casualties on Turkish forces stationed there, killing at least 36 and raising fears of direct conflict between NATO-allied Turkey and Moscow. Turkish officials, however, were quick to emphasize that the bombing in Idlib province was carried out by Syrian government forces, as both sides attempted to tamp down tensions. Russian forces, however, have been providing extensive support for the Syrian military offensive to retake the region from opposition rebels, and the Washington Post reports, Russian jets have been largely carrying out most of the recent airstrikes themselves.

The Syrian government’s military push in Idlib has intensified over the past several months, sparking a massive influx of refugees on the Turkish border. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with backing from Russia and Iran, is attempting to retake what is the final outpost of rebel forces in the country.* Turkey, which has backed the rebels against the Assad regime throughout the nine-year conflict, has thousands of forces on the ground to try to halt the offensive.

The Russian bombing campaign has displaced hundreds of thousands as it targeted hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings. Turkey’s support of the rebels, meanwhile, has been hindered by a lack of air support. “Turkey has asked the United States for Patriot missiles to help defend its troops, and called for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone to protect the nearly three million civilians in Idlib Province,” the New York Times reports. “But Washington and NATO members have so far refused to engage militarily in northwest Syria out of reluctance to confront Russia, Western officials said. The United States is withholding Patriot missiles until Turkey agrees to render its Russian S400 missile system inoperable.”

In response to NATO reluctance, Turkey is threatening to open its borders to another wave of Syrian refugees en route to Europe, saying it is “no longer able to hold refugees.” Camera crews in Turkey have captured refugees very publicly piling in buses and ferries and heading for the EU border with Greece and Bulgaria. It appears to be an orchestrated campaign to bolster Turkey’s threat.

Correction, Feb. 28, 2020: This post originally misspelled Bashar al-Assad’s first name.