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Turkish Military Pours Into Syria to Block Idlib’s Fall

Selcan Hacaoglu and Firat Kozok

(Bloomberg) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has put NATO’s second-largest army on a collision course with Russian-backed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to try to prevent the fall of Idlib province, Syria’s last rebel stronghold.

The Turkish military ordered hundreds of tanks and armored cars dispatched to Idlib and struck about 170 targets in Syria in retaliation for attacks by Syrian forces that killed at least 12 Turkish soldiers in the northwestern province this month. Russia demanded a halt to attacks on Russian forces and their allies in the northwestern province, who’ve been conducting a months-long advance on the opposition bastion.

Retaking Idlib would give Assad a major strategic victory, but it could give Turkey less of a say in postwar Syria, where it’s been backing rebels since the conflict began in 2011. The fighting there is straining the uneasy contract between Turkey and Russia in Syria, where the two regional powers have carved out areas of control.

An agreement by Turkey, Russia and Iran three years ago choked off a planned offensive on Idlib and allowed for the stationing of Turkish troops there. But Syria and its foreign backers have come close to Idlib’s center as they take control of strategic highways, and are now poised to vanquish an opposition force made up of onetime al-Qaeda affiliates and Turkey-backed rebels.

Raising the volatility, a key Erdogan ally said the Turkish president needs to review ties with Russia after the deaths of the Turkish soldiers by Moscow-backed Syrian troops.

“For Erdogan, Idlib is existential,” Charles Lister, director of the Extremism and Counterterrorism Program at the Middle East Institute, said on Twitter. “As Turkey-Russia talks appear to have stalled or broken down, it’s hard not to imagine some form of Turkey pushback.”

Turkey’s increasing military foray into Idlib is adding to the nation’s geopolitical risks, increasing pressure on markets.

Turkish stocks and bonds plunged following reports of new Turkish fatalities on Monday. The benchmark Borsa Istanbul 100 Index closed down 2.2% on Monday, its biggest drop since October, and declined a further 0.5% Tuesday. The yield on 10-year government bonds surged 60 basis points to 11.27% in two days. The lira weakened 0.6% against the dollar on Tuesday, even after authorities curbed liquidity in the offshore market this week to deter short sellers.

Read more: Erdogan Threatens to Force Syria to End Siege of Turk Troops

Back-to-back talks with a Russian delegation in Ankara on Saturday and Monday yielded no tangible results, Turkish authorities said, adding that Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin may possibly meet to discuss the situation.

While there are no plans so far for such a meeting, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, the situation “concerns the Kremlin.”

“We haven’t hidden our concern that for a long time, these terrorist groups have felt quite at ease in the Idlib zone,” he said. “They do not just feel at ease, but also organize attacks and aggressive actions against both Syrians and our facilities” in Syria.

In Ankara on Tuesday, Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahceli, a key Erdogan ally in parliament, said Turkey must review its ties with Russia after the deaths of the Turkish soldiers. Turkish and Russian interests in Syria don’t overlap, and Ankara “must plan on confronting Damascus if there is no other option left,” Bahceli said.

The fighting in Idlib marks the lowest point in relations between Moscow and Ankara since the 2015 downing of a Russian warplane by Turkish fighter jets. It comes as Putin and Erdogan jostle for dominance in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, while operating within the rough boundaries of their difficult alliance.

Erdogan last week threatened to break the siege of some Turkish outposts by Assad’s forces if they don’t withdraw by the end of February. It was unclear whether an artillery attack by Syrian government loyalists that killed five Turkish soldiers on Monday will force him to act sooner.

The reprisal that followed struck three Syrian tanks, two artillery units and a military helicopter, and dozens of pro-Assad troops may have been killed, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said. It’s impossible to independently confirm casualties in Syria’s complex civil war.

Erdogan met with military brass late Monday as armored vehicles were pouring across the border, and his office later said Turkey won’t be deterred in its efforts to prevent fighting in Idlib and a new refugee wave, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

Read more: Syria Showdown Looms as Third Turkish Base Besieged in Idlib

Idlib has an estimated population of about 3 million, including those who fled Aleppo, and they have nowhere to go but Turkey if chaos ensues. Turkey already shelters about 4 million Syrians, and says it can’t cope with the 1 million to 2 million more it estimates may flee toward its border if Idlib falls.

Erdogan also fears that a new refugee exodus would diminish the chances of securing a meaningful role for rebels in future peace talks.

(Updates with Moscow demanding halt to attacks on Russian, Syrian forces in second paragraph.)

--With assistance from Ilya Arkhipov.

To contact the reporters on this story: Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara at shacaoglu@bloomberg.net;Firat Kozok in Ankara at fkozok@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Onur Ant at oant@bloomberg.net, Amy Teibel, Mark Williams

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