On the day of first anniversary of Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane last year, an incident that brought both countries to brink of a military confrontation, three Turkish soldiers in northern Syria were killed by an airstrike believed to be carried out by regime air forces.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim vowed that Turkey would retaliate to the attack that killed three members of the Turkish forces and wounded 10, in a new episode that reflects mixed entanglements by a number of outside actors in a web of wars within wars in Syria’s complex theater.
It was the first casualties of Turkish troops at the hands of regime forces that are struggling to defeat more than five-year-old insurgency and rebellion that sprang up in different parts of the country. The air strike took place around 3:30 a.m. while Turkish-backed Syrian rebels push deep to take over al-Bab, a strategic route north of Aleppo, the Turkish military said in a statement on Thursday.
It was the confirmation of fears that Turkey’s late August incursion into Syria might somehow plunge Turkey into a confrontation with regime forces or other actors on the battleground. After capturing border town of Jarabulus from Islamic State, or ISIS, in an operation both backed by the U.S. and Turkey, Turkish-backed rebels seized towns and villages across the border, clearing 55-mile stretch of the border from ISIS elements.
The Turkish military foray into combusted battlefield of Syria had two major objectives: one was to push back ISIS from border area by takeover of ISIS-held towns and villages; the other and equally significant goal was to keep Kurdish expansion on northern Syria in check by rolling back its gains.
Turkey was alarmed by steady advance of Syrian Kurdish militia toward west of Euphrates and warned a Turkish response if the U.S.-allied Kurdish forces failed to withdraw from Manbij which was taken over from ISIS in early August.
Turkish forces and Turkey-backed rebels sporadically clash with Syrian Kurdish militia, or People’s Protection Units (YPG), and jostle for widening areas of their influence. A similar power struggle is evidently on display over control of al-Bab, a key transition route and the only remaining place for YPG to connect its disparate cantons in northern Syria after Turkey sank their bid by blocking union of Kurdish zones through Jarabulus.
Turkey views YPG, a key U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria, as a terrorist group over its links to its domestic insurgent group, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The killing of Turkish soldiers in a Syrian airstrike adds a new layer to an already complex battlefield with so many actors with conflicting interests and objectives, risks opening of a new front in the war. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian side over Turkish military statement about the incident.
How Turkey will retaliate or whether it will respond to the attack remains to be unknown now. Russia and Iran back the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus and provides considerable military support that proved to be crucial in turning the tide of fighting in favor of Assad, or at least dooming the prospect of a rebel win by rolling back their battlefield gains. Turkey, U.S., Saudi Arabia and West back rebels to some degree, but with often conflicting priorities and interests. The U.S. is aligned with Kurdish militia to defeat ISIS, while Turkey pressed for removal of Assad regime as a priority until recently.
Turkey’s staunch anti-Assad position, however, has been softened and its major objective now is to curb Kurdish expansion in northern Syria to prevent another statelet in the Syrian side of its border.
On Friday, more than 10 Turkish troops have been wounded in armed skirmishes by ISIS militants north of al-Bab, the media said. Turkey’s push for the strategic town took an urgent air as Kurdish militants also eye for the same spot.
Russia and Turkey came closer to a risky military confrontation last year after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over its border after a brief violation of its air space. Moscow denied violation. Kremlin placed a series of economic sanctions against Turkey and deployed its cutting-edge S-400 air defense missile system in northern Syria in a sign of escalation of tension, and warned Turkey over any border-crossing operation.
Both sides overcame such a state of crisis after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter of apology to Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this summer in a bid to mend strained ties. Russia then gave green light to Turkey for its August intrusion to Syria when the Turkish military sent a contingent of tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and hundreds of special forces to assist rebels there.
But on the first anniversary of jet downing, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zacharova said she thinks that the Turkish side took the necessary lessons from the tragic incident.
And yet on the same day, Syrian air force killed Turkish soldiers in an airstrike. But it is not clear whether the two incident is linked or has any common ground except the date.