Two Turkish Officers Killed in First Clash with Syrian Army

Growing focus is now turning to the strategic Syrian Manbij in rural Aleppo – some 30 miles from the borders with Turkey, and a front line city only a few miles from Turkish soldiers and Turkish-backed militias in full control of nearby Jarablus – after it was retaken by the Syrian army in the recent deal with SDF a couple of days ago. Reports by some Syrian journalists in the Manbij area speak of at least one Turkish lieutenant being killed and a general being injured during the first such direct clash with the newly positioned Syrian army there. The Turkish defence ministry, however, has admitted that a soldier who was wounded in a mortar attack carried out from the city of Manbij had died, raising the death toll in the assault to two.

This brings the number of Turkish soldiers killed to six since the beginning of the one-week-old Turkish offensive into northeastern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who confirmed the new fatalities among his servicemen added that 16 Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters were killed in action. More importantly perhaps, are the indications and ramifications of this serious incident, since it fuels fears of a direct military confrontation between the Syrian and Turkish armies, particularly in the wake of SAA’s current redeployment across thousands of kilometers covering border cities, town, villages, installations and front line positions, some extremely close or even bang opposite Turkish invading forces.

Pressure mounts on intransigent Erdogan

Amid growing regional as well as international condemnation of the Turkish offensive in Syria, several EU nations have frozen arms exports to Ankara, as some leading US legislators put final touches on their punitive measures against Turkey. Republican US Senator Lindsey Graham said he will introduce a bill on Thursday sanctioning Turkey for its offensive. “I will be introducing sanctions against Turkey Thursday and I do appreciate what the [Trump] administration has done against Turkey through executive action but more is to follow,” Graham told reporters in Washington. US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Ankara on Wednesday to urge Turkey to halt its offensive, the White House said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Erdogan has ruled out a ceasefire with Kurds despite mounting condemnation and international outrage at his ongoing offensive in Syria. Turkish NTV network reported that Erdogan said he told US President Donald Trump that Turkey would never declare a ceasefire in northeastern Syria, telling reporters on a flight back from Baku, Azerbaijan, that “talks with Washington and Moscow on Syria’s Kobani and Manbij towns continued”.  He added that it was “not negative” for the Syrian army to enter Manbij as long as fighters in the area were cleared, and that he had told the US president that Turkey would “not negotiate with a terrorist organisation” in response to Trump’s mediation offer. “Turkey’s operation in northeastern Syria would contribute to counter-terrorism efforts, Syria’s territorial integrity and a political solution process,” Erdogan was reported to have told Russian president Vladimir Putin in a phone call.

Moscow assumes a bigger role, disapproves Turkish action

Six Russian petrol vehicles were seen patrolling the disengagement line near Manbij between the Syrian and Turkish armies as part of Moscow’s growing mission as guarantors preventing warring parties, especially the Turks, from crossing the agreed red lines and stopping any direct military confrontation between the two armies of Syria and Turkey, now face to face in various locations in the north and northeast of the country. Russia has also given Syrian Kurds assurances in the above-mentioned deal that should they hand over cities, towns and installations under their control, back to the Syrian army, it will prevent any Turkish attempt to displace the Kurdish and Arab civilians from their homeland. Despite Erdogan’s insistence that his operation “Spring Peace” will continue  with or without support” until a 20-mile deep safe corridor is established along 420 km of the borders, some Syrian army units are now positioned only four km from the borders with Turkey in some northern areas. No one needs major war that could get out of control with unpredictable consequences;

Russia appears to be firmly in charge of this mission.

Speaking to journalists in Abu Dhabi about the Turkish military offensive, Russia’s presidential envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said Turkey has no right to deploy its forces in Syria permanently. According to earlier agreements, the Turkish military can only cross into Syria and go 5-10 km (3-6 miles) into its territory- (as agreed in the 1990’s Adana Agreement between Damascus and Ankara).  “We didn’t agree with the Turks on any aspects of their presence in Syria and we don’t approve of their actions,” he added.

More complications are on their way for Erdogan and his Syrian operation as serious disagreements between Russia and Turkey in Syria keep coming to the surface. The two countries are supposed to be working together to keep things under control until a political solution to the conflict is worked out. How far can Erdogan go in his defiance of international will power, and can Turkey put up with the fallout from his intransigence and precarious adventures that threaten regional security? are some of the open questions that remain unanswered for the time being.