Turkey Seeks U.S. Patriot Missiles to Deter Russia in Syria
(Bloomberg) -- Turkey has asked the U.S. to deploy two Patriot missile-defense batteries on its southern border to free it to punish any future attacks by Russian-backed Syrian troops, according to a senior Turkish official in Ankara.
The disclosure was almost immediately followed on Thursday by a spasm of violence that left two Turkish soldiers dead and five wounded in Idlib, underscoring the risks as two regional powerbrokers assert their influence in northwestern Syria.
The fighting increased the number of Turkish troops killed in the Idlib area over the last three weeks to at least 15 as pro-government forces, supported by Russian air power, seek to crush the last major pocket of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.
The official, who’s familiar with Turkey’s policy in Syria, said Ankara could use F-16 warplanes to strike units loyal to Assad in Idlib if the Patriots were deployed in Hatay on Turkey’s border to provide protection.
“There may be a Patriot battery support,” from the U.S., Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told CNN-Turk television in an interview on Thursday. If there is similar support from European allies, Turkey would consider it too, he said.
“Turkey is determined to use force to ensure a cease-fire in Idlib,” Akar said. “Russia should not intervene in Turkey’s actions in Idlib, Turkey has no intention to face off with Russia.”
Waiting for Response
Turkey is yet to receive a U.S. response to the request, which was relayed last week to James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria engagement, the official said, asking not to be identified discussing sensitive information.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, citing an unnamed U.S. official in Washington, said the U.S. has confirmed receiving the request from Turkey but that no decision has yet been made.
The U.S. Embassy in Turkey declined to comment. Spokespeople for the White House and U.S. National Security Council didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry said an airstrike was responsible for killing and wounding Thursday’s casualties, without pinning the blame on Russian or Syrian aircraft. Its counterpart in Moscow said in a statement that Russian Su-24 jets had carried out strikes to stop an offensive by Syrian rebels backed by Turkish artillery.
The escalating standoff in Idlib between Russia and Turkey is now developing “according to the worst scenario,” warned Elena Suponina, a Middle East expert based in Moscow.
By lending air support to the Syrian army, “Russia has demonstrated it’s ready to respond harshly,” Suponina said by phone. “This signal should be understood correctly by Turkey. It would be good if it pushed the sides toward a compromise.”
Ankara, on the other hand, is also preparing for a possible showdown with Russia.
“Turkey can shut down the straits, and its air space to Russia to block military shipments to the regime forces,” said Mesut Hakki Casin, a professor at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University and a member of the foreign affairs board that advises President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an interview with TRT television.
While Turkey is requesting the deployment of U.S.-operated Patriots, the two countries have wrangled for years over Turkish requests to buy the missiles. The Trump administration has refused to agree to a deal unless Turkey first scraps its purchase of advanced Russian S-400 missile-defense system it made last year, which Washington considers a threat to NATO’s capabilities.
Turkey doesn’t see the Patriot request -- made to a NATO ally at a difficult time for the country -- as requiring any concessions on its part, the official said.
“Without doubt, Turkey will activate the S-400s in spring,” Akar said.
Turkey is trying to halt the Syrian government advance because it’s threatening Ankara’s efforts to establish a zone of control in Idlib and could unleash an exodus of as many as 2 million refugees toward the Turkish frontier.
It has sent thousands of troops to the area, and President Erdogan on Wednesday said his military had finished preparations for an offensive to protect its interests in Syria.
Turkey is determined to push back Syrian forces before the end of this month even at the cost of straining ties with Russia in tourism and trade, said the official, adding that about 40,000 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels as well as 20,000 al-Qaeda linked extremists were holed up in Idlib.
Throughout the standoff, Ankara and Moscow have kept channels of communication open in an effort to keep alive their uneasy partnership in Syria, where they are backing opposing sides. But Moscow and Damascus haven’t been deterred by the Turkish troop buildup, and on Wednesday, the Kremlin retorted that a Turkish military operation would be “the worst option.”
The confrontation between the two is threatening a rupture in their relationship and prompting Turkey to reboot ties with the U.S. after years of tensions. Turkey has refused Russian demands to move its military outposts further north in Idlib.
Turkey and Russia are also facing off through proxies in the Libyan conflict.
Turkey has sent thousands of Syrian rebels to shore up the United Nations-recognized administration of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
Lined up against them are hundreds of mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner security contractor, which is controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. They’ve been hired to support Khalifa Haftar’s now-stalled offensive on the capital, Tripoli, according to Western officials and people close to the organization.
--With assistance from Ilya Arkhipov, Henry Meyer and Mario Parker.
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