In a March 4 interview on the Russian state news channel Rossiya 24, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asserted that the U.S. was behind Turkey’s recent string of artillery and air strikes against Syrian regime forces near Idlib.
"Obviously, Erdogan threw all his forces [at Idlib], of course on the orders of the Americans,” Assad told the interviewer. “There is no doubt about that."
In fact, there are multiple reasons to doubt that Turkey retaliated at Washington’s behest.
For one, Turkey’s recent military action came after it suffered losses from Syria regime attacks on Turkish observation posts in the area.
On Feb. 3, Turkish soldiers were killed by regime artillery, prompting a counterstrike. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan then demanded that Syrian forces pull back from Idlib by the end of February or be driven back from a de-escalation zone around the city.
That didn’t happen. Regime forces continued to attack Turkish positions, and by Feb. 27, a reported 33 Turkish soldiers had been killed. The Syrian offensive continued, with heavy fighting in and around the town of Saraqeb.
Al Jazeera reported that some 950,000 civilians fled the fighting. An estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees now reside in Turkey, the result of years of civil war.
As Turkey’s NATO ally, the U.S. has declared support for Turkey’s latest military response. After the Feb. 3 mortar attack, the U.S. Secretary of Mike Pompeo called the event a “grave escalation” that followed “ongoing vicious attacks impacting civilians, humanitarian workers, and infrastructure.”
“We stand by our NATO ally Turkey … and fully support Turkey’s justified self-defense actions in response,” Pompeo said.
U.S. diplomats also visited Turkey’s southern border area, where many refugees are located, and voiced support for military and humanitarian aid to Turkey.
Rather than encourage retaliation, Pompeo on March 5 said that the U.S. State and Defense Departments and were working to “figure out how best to deliver less violence, more peace” in Syria.
The Turkish troops who have been killed were stationed at observation posts in the Idlib area established under an agreement reached in Astana, Kazakhstan, between Turkey, Iran, and Russia in 2017, and reaffirmed by subsequent talks in Sochi, Russia. The United States was not a party to the agreements.
In addition, since 2014, Turkey and the U.S. have often been at odds over the U.S. support for the Kurdish YPG/YPJ militias in northern Syria that fought against the Islamic State. Turkey sees those militias as an arm of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, the European Union, Australia and Japan.
Also on March 5, Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to negotiate an end to the recent fighting with Turkey. After several hours of talks, Erdogan announced a new ceasefire to take effect after midnight that day. Since then, a tense calm has been reported in the area, although Erdogan said his forces would retaliate if attacked again.