‘The Turkish Nation Should… Begin Planning Now To Enter Damascus’ – Turkish Politicians And Media React To Fighting Between Turkish And Syrian Militaries In Idlib
Leading Turkish politicians, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, and many journalists have made statements and commented on the recent fighting in Idlib between the Turkish military and Turkish-backed jihadi factions on one side and the Syrian military on the other. Devlet Bahçeli has since 1997 been leader of the Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (MHP), which is part of the Cumhur İttifakı (“People’s Alliance”), a political coalition formed in February 2018 comprising the MHP and President Erdoğan’s ruling AKP.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry published four press releases on February 3 describing an exchange of fire that day between Syrian government forces and Turkish forces in Idlib. The statements reported that seven Turkish soldiers and one civilian as well as 76 Syrian government “soldiers and personnel” were killed in the exchange. President Erdoğan said the same day that “30-35 regime elements had been neutralized” and that “of course there will be consequences for the [Syrian] regime.”
Defense Ministry statements on February 10 said that Syrian military artillery fire in Idlib had killed five Turkish soldiers and wounded five more, and that “101 regime elements have been neutralized, three tanks and two artillery/mortar positions were destroyed, and one helicopter had been struck.” A February 11 statement said that “51 regime elements have been neutralized, two tanks, one antiaircraft position, and one munitions depot had been destroyed, and one tank had been seized.” A February 12 statement said that “55 regime elements have been neutralized.”
The following report will review government and media reactions to the fighting.
“The Turkish Nation Should… Begin Planning Now To Enter Damascus… Let Syria Burn, May Idlib Collapse, Down With Assad”
On February 11, 2020, Turkish politician Devlet Bahçeli said: “The Turkish nation should, if necessary, if there is no other option, begin planning now to enter Damascus… Let Syria burn, may Idlib collapse, down with Assad… Syria, though it may not be official, has in practice become a colony of Russia. Assad’s bridle is tied to Moscow. The [responsibility for the] violence against our martyrs, as much as it is on the aggressor Syria, is on the shoulders of Russia, which set the scene for this and encouraged and aroused [the Syrian government] behind the scenes. It is a requirement that this reality be faced… There will be no tranquility, neither in Syria nor in Turkey, unless Assad is taken down from his throne.”
On February 12, President Erdoğan said: “I am declaring here that if [even] the smallest harm comes to our soldiers in the observations points or elsewhere, without being limited to Idlib or to the restrictions of the Sochi Memorandum, we will strike the regime forces everywhere.”
“Anywhere In Syria Is Fair Game! The Time For Military Operations Is Now Over; We’re Now At War”
In a February 12 column titled “Devlet Bahçeli Is The Translator Of All Of Our Feelings” in the daily Sabah, Turkish columnist Mehmet Barlas wrote: “The news, which burns the heart, of martyrs and the events in Idlib really force a person to think the same as Devlet Bahceli.” Journalist Akif Beki, writing in Karar under the headline “With Assad Or Without Assad: The Idlib Dilemma,” gave Bahçeli’s position as one of several possibilities for the government: “Above is Astana, below is NATO. To the right is Bahçeli’s call to march to Damascus and defeat Assad. To the left is [Vatan Partisi leader Doğu] Perinçek’s proposal of reconciling with Assad right than fighting with him.”
Ibrahim Karagül, editor-in-chief of the AKP mouthpiece Yeni Şafak, in a column titled in part “From Latakia To Qamishli, Anywhere In Syria Is Fair Game! The Time For Military Operations Is Now Over; We’re Now At War,” cheered for Erdoğan’s February 12 statement. Karagül wrote: “There is no such thing as Syria left. There is a country that has been divided and shared. We are busy protecting our country’s south against storms within this chaos. In this case, Turkey is the country with the most legitimate right to defense. Of course we defend Syria’s territorial integrity. Yet, we are also defending the people of Syria. We defend Syria and the people of Syria, not the Duchy of Damascus or the Latakia minority government that has waged war against two-thirds of its population.”
Columnist Batuhan Yaşar, in a column titled “Countdown To The Idlib Operation,” in Türkiye, wrote: “The Turkish soldiers did not go to Idlib for a picnic!” The article mentions how President Erdoğan said on February 5: “We hope that their withdrawal will be complete by the end of February. If the regime does not withdraw in that timeframe Turkey will be forced to do this work itself.”
“There Is No ‘State’ [In Syria], There Are Putin And Bashar’s Marauders – Bashar Is A Colonial Governor”
Yaşar also wrote in his column: “But land forces will not be enough on their own, there must be air support for the troops. Turkey must observe and protect its soldiers from the air. In the coming Idlib operation, Syrian airspace will certainly be used.” Justifying the potential operation in Idlib, Yaşar wrote: “Those who say: ‘What business do we have in Syria?’ must understand this: If these operations are not done today, then tomorrow the fight against terror will be meaningless. In the 1980s and ’90s we had many martyrs. We were always struck from abroad, from Iraq, from Syria, about which it was said: ‘Don’t enter there, it is a sizzling swamp.’ For this reason, we must be pioneers in Syria and in Libya.”
Arslan Tekin wrote in Yeni Çağ: “There is no ‘state’ [in Syria]. There are Putin and Bashar’s marauders. Bashar is a colonial governor.” Tekin favored the jihadi seizure of Idlib, saying: “In March 2015, the Ahrar Al-Sham, Jabhat Al-Nusra, Liwa Al-Haqq, Sham Brigades, Jund Al-Aqsa, Jaysh Al-Sunna, Ajnad Al-Sham, and Faylaq Al-Sham organizations came together under the name ‘Jaysh Al-Fath,’ and took Idlib from Bashar’s marauders.”
Mehmet Acet, writing under the headline “Are We Headed For Wholesale War With The Damascus Regime?” in Yeni Şafak, commented on a video that appeared on the internet on February 11, reportedly showing a Syrian government helicopter in flames and crashing after having been struck by opposition forces in the town of Saraqib. Acet wrote: “We asked security sources in Ankara, and learned that the support given to the forces working with the Turkish military in Idlib had been intensified. In the Syrian war, there have not been many examples of aircraft such as helicopters and warplanes being shot down.”
A video reportedly shows a Syrian military helicopter crashing after having been struck in Idlib.
“It Is Likely That A Set Of Weapons Able To Strike Regime Aircraft Has Also Entered The Equation”
“How should we interpret this new situation? In this way: The Turkish Armed Forces’ being targeted by the regime in two bloody attacks a week apart has given Ankara the legitimacy and ability to mobilize every kind of military capability… It is likely that a set of weapons able to strike regime aircraft has also entered the equation… The Defense Ministry announced that regime elements had left the village of Nayrab west of Saraqib. Though it was not in the announcement, it has been said that more than ten regime soldiers were killed in that village. President Erdoğan said of these developments: ‘The regime has found its curse, but it is not enough. As they attack our troops, they will pay the price very, very heavily.'”
Sedat Ergin in Hürriyet also commented on what he interpreted as “the U.S.’s flexible perspective on Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).” Ergin quoted recent statements by James Jeffrey, who is special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, about HTS, such as that from January 30: “The HTS has not – we have not seen them planning or carrying out international terrorism attacks. We’ve seen them focusing on basically maintaining their position in Idlib. The Russians claim that they constantly launch attacks on the Russians. While HTS did not accept or was not part of the Sochi ceasefire agreement from 2018, we have seen only intermittent and not very strong or significant military actions on their part against the Russians.” The Russians use this as an excuse. Basically, they’re on the defensive, they’re just sitting there, and the Russians claim that they’re being attacked or the Syrians are being attacked in order to launch these massive attacks against the civilians.”
“If It Goes On Like This, Turkey’s Border Could Turn Into Peshawar” – A Pakistani City Near The Border With Afghanistan Known For Its Jihadi Activity
Ergin wrote in his column: “In what manner this group [i.e., HTS], which controls a large section of Idlib, will be liquidated or whether its identity will be changed will be one of the critical questions of the coming period. Along with this, when looking at the future of Idlib, let’s not forget the threat that other terror organizations such as Hurras Al-Din and the Islamic State (ISIS) will pose right on Turkey’s border.”
Güneri Cıvaoğlu, writing in Milliyet, speculated on the jihadi groups in Idlib and the migrants moving toward the Turkey-Syria border and, referring to a Pakistani city near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border known for its jihadi activity, wrote: “If it goes on like this, Turkey’s border could turn into Peshawar.” Mustafa Balbay, writing in Cumhuriyet, warned: “It may be harder to get out of Syria than to get into it!” Arslan Bulut, wrote in Yeni Çağ: “The U.S. encourages Turkey to fight Syria west of the Euphrates while the PKK establishes a state east of the Euphrates because this is in Israel’s interest!”
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 Sham Brigades is a direct translation of Tekin’s phrase “Şam Tugayları.” It is not clear to which group he is referring here.
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