Countercurrents | February 28, 2020
At least 33 Turkish soldiers have been killed and an unspecified number of soldiers were injured in an airstrike in Syria’s Idlib province. Turkish officials blamed the strike to the Syrian military. Casualties from the strike were being treated at hospitals in the border town of Reyhanli.
Turkish officials have called the NATO secretary-general and the U.S. national security adviser in relation to the events in Idlib, Turkish Anadolu Agency (AA) reported.
Citing Hatay province Governor Rahmi Dogan the AA said: “In Idlib, Turkey’s armed forces were targeted by the regime elements in an airstrike.” The governor was talking to media on Thursday.
Hatay is the Turkish province bordering Idlib.
The Hatay governor earlier said that nine soldiers had been killed. But minutes later the death toll was revised to 33.
Speaking to the AA, Dogan stressed that there was no shortage of blood at the hospitals.
The governor noted that medics have been “taking all necessary interventions” to treat the wounded.
Dogan’s statement comes amid a high-level Turkish security meeting chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It has been presumed that the high-level security meeting focused on the incident.
Other reports on social media claimed Thursday that dozens of Turkish troops were killed in a “Russian” airstrike and dozens more were injured.
The reports also said: The hospitals in Hatay were struggling to cope with the influx of the wounded.
But none of this has so far been confirmed by Ankara.
Erdogan’s press secretary Fahrettin Altun told reporters in the early hours of Friday that Turkey is retaliating to the “illegitimate regime that has pointed the gun at our soldiers,” by launching air and artillery strikes against Syrian targets.
Altun described the events in Idlib as genocide, saying Turkey will now allow the repetition of “what happened in Rwanda and Bosnia” there. “The blood of our heroic soldiers will not be left on the ground,” Altun said, according to AA. “Our activities on the ground in Syria will continue until the hands reaching for our flag are broken.”
The situation in Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria, has escalated dramatically in the recent weeks with Syria ramping up its offensive against Islamist militants to reclaim strategic towns, which prompted Turkish military to send thousands of its own troops and hardware to back its allies, fighting against the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Turkey using artillery fire, says Russia
Shortly before Turkey’s announcement, the Russian military accused the Turkish side of using “artillery fire” as well as “reconnaissance and attack drones” to target the Syrian army positions, without specifying when the strikes have taken place.
While Turkey ruled out its pullout from Idlib, demanding Russia withdraws its support from advancing Syrian troops instead, Russia has accused Turkey of supporting militants there in violation of the previously agreed arrangement to set up a de-escalation zone.
Damascus to pay heavy price, says Turkish VP
Turkey’s vice president Fuat Oktay has vowed revenge on Syrian forces after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in the rebel-held Idlib province.
Ankara earlier said it had launched air and artillery strikes in retaliation.
Oktay unleashed a scathing verbal attack on Syrian President Bashar Assad and the forces loyal to Damascus shortly after a 6-hour marathon emergency security meeting chaired by Erdogan concluded in Ankara in the early hours of Friday.
Oktay spoke plainly, referring to the Syrian leader as “the head of a terror state” who “would go down in history as a war criminal” in a written statement reported by the AA, adding that Damascus would “pay [a] heavy price” for what he called a “treacherous attack on Turkish troops.”
Footage purportedly capturing recent air raids by the Turkish military on Syrian positions has circulated in Turkish media alongside reports that some 1,709 targets were destroyed within the last 17 days of Turkey’s onslaught in Idlib.
Despite suffering casualties, Turkey previously said it would not withdraw from Idlib province until the Syrian government pulls the plug on its offensive. Damascus has refused to do, arguing that its armed forces are targeting terrorists there.
An attack on NATO, says AKP
“An attack on Turkey is an attack on NATO. We expect that certain steps will be taken to [create] a no-fly zone” in Idlib, spokesperson for the ruling AKP party, Omer Celik, told reporters in Ankara early on Friday.
Social media in Turkey blacked out
Social media platforms across Turkey winked out after reports of an airstrike in Syria killing dozens of Turkish soldiers fueled rumors of an all-out war. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and YouTube were all reported down.
Twitter was the first to go, with national provider Turk Telekom shutting off access around 11:30 pm local time on Thursday. This was shortly after news broke that at least nine – the number has continued to rise since – Turkish soldiers were killed in Syria’s Idlib province.
This was followed by all other social networks, clustered by provider, according to multiple services monitoring internet outages across the globe.
Accounts of major media outlets remained active as they flashed updates about the alleged Syrian airstrike and the Turkish response.
Among the rumors circulating on social media in the aftermath were reports that Turkey will open its borders for Syrian refugees to cross into Europe, and the parliament in Ankara intended to declare war on Syria in the morning.
Turkey goes to NATO
It has been officially confirmed that Turkey has reached out to NATO and Washington.
There is speculation that Turkey might invoke Article 5 and get the alliance involved in a shooting war with Syria and Russia.
Phones were also ringing at the NATO headquarters, the White House and the Pentagon, as Turkish media reported contacts with alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
Esper and his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar were “exploring ways the United States can work together with Turkey and the international community,” Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah said on Thursday, giving no further details.
“We stand by our NATO ally Turkey and continue to call for an immediate end to this despicable offensive by the Assad regime, Russia, and Iranian-backed forces,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
“Oh my gosh,” was the response of U.S. envoy to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson, when journalists told her about the airstrike on Thursday. “This is a new development. This is a big development,” she said, adding that “Of course, everything is on the table.”
Her comments led to speculation that NATO might be considering invoking Article 5, the provision of its charter that says an attack on one member is an attack on them all.
Trouble with Article 5
The trouble with Article 5 is that it does not cover actions of alliance members in foreign territory, which Idlib is.
“Nothing has been really brought up for a decision in NATO,” Hutchinson said. However, she quickly shifted to expressing hope that Ankara now understands the U.S. and NATO are its true and real allies – not Russia, with whom Erdogan has been increasingly cooperating in recent years.
NATO’s Stoltenberg “condemned the continued indiscriminate air strikes by the Syrian regime and its backer Russia in Idlib province,” the alliance’s press service said.
He also called on Russia and Syria to “stop their offensive, to respect international law and to back UN efforts for a peaceful solution” in Syria and urged “all parties to de-escalate this dangerous situation.”
Rubio and Graham calls for intervention
Hawkish US senators such as Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) have already called for intervention. Graham released a statement on Thursday evening – Washington time – calling for the US to lead the way in establishing a no-fly zone over Syria.
“The world is sitting on its hands and watching the destruction of Idlib by Assad, Iran, and the Russians,” Graham said. “I am confident if the world, led by the United States, pushed back against Iran, Russia, and Assad that they would stand down, paving the way for political negotiations to end this war in Syria.”
Rubio repeated his endorsement of the Washington Post’s editorial call for U.S. intervention in Syria from the day before, also blaming Russia and Syria while declaring that “Erdogan is on the right side here.”
Rubio and Graham have advocated U.S. intervention in Syria for years, however – while President Donald Trump has sought to withdraw from the country after the demise of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS).
Trump is yet to comment on the situation in Turkey. His most recent tweet was on Thursday morning, announcing a campaign rally in South Carolina.