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33 KIA in Airstrike on Turkish HQ in Syria. Russia Denies Ankara’s Request to Evacuate the Wounded by Air

Russia's reply to Turkey pushing the Syrian army from Syrian territory, severing the Damascus-Aleppo highway

November 2015 Turkey ambushed and shot down a Russian Su-24 over the Syrian-Turkish border in a pre-planned and pre-approved operation. Relations temporarily worsened but after the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey Putin and Erdogan made nice and Kremlin denied the Russian military satisfaction. Now they’ve been let off the chain and got themselves their pound of flesh. 

–UPDATED at bottom–

With a single strike, Turkish KIA in its Idlib incursion more than doubled from about 20 to over 50. 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike yesterday at around 10-11pm local time at a place called Balyun which is now near the southern end of the al-Qaeda-held territory in Syria.

Initially, the number was 9 then kept rising through the night, but 33 could remain the final number as supposedly everyone has been dug up from the rubble now, and the wounds of those still surviving are not life-threatening.

Regardless of who actually delivered the precision bombs (very likely the Russians), this was a joint Russian-Syrian op. If it was Russian warplanes and pilots they had to get permission from Assad. And if it was the Syrians (doubtful given their lack of experience with smart bombs and lack of night targeting capabilities) the Russians doubtlessly planned it and held the Syrians’ hand every step of the way (— but at this point, this would just be an unnecessary complication).

In any case, the strike was possible because Russia keeps Idlib skies closed to Turkey, and Russia’s attitude was demonstrated sufficiently with the refusal of the Turkish request to allow speedy medical evacuation of the wounded with helicopters, which doubtlessly contributed to more agony and possibly deaths of Turkish soldiers. (An aerial evacuation was allowed earlier this month when Turks were hit by Syrian counter-artillery fire but since then a video emerged of Turkish soldiers firing an anti-aircraft missile at a Russian plane.)

The strike came some 12 hours after a Turkish-rebel counter-offensive wrestled the control of the town of Sarabiq from the Syrian army. In other words, 12 hours after Erdogan had joined up with al-Qaeda to sever the Damascus-Aleppo highway — the key national transportation link of a neighboring state.

As news hit first Twitter, and later on Instagram and YouTube were taken down in Turkey:

For the next three days Turkey has opened its borders to displaced Syrians (and anyone else for that matter) who want to go on to Europe, only this time it’s not to shake down EU for money, but to seek its aid against Russia:

Turkey decided to immediately open its southwestern border with Syria and allow Syrians fleeing the pro-government forces’ assault free passage to Europe for the next 72 hours, Turkish official sources told Middle East Eye.

A senior Turkish official said Syrian refugees headed towards Europe won’t be stopped either on land or by sea.

The official said Ankara had ordered police, gendarmerie, border guards and sea guards to stand down on Thursday if they detected any Syrian refugees trying to cross into Europe.

Sadly, had it been up to Turkey’s secular opposition this would have never happened:

Turkey’s main opposition leader Kilicdaroglu (leader of Ataturk’s secular CHP) 2 hours before airstrike on Turkish soldiers:

“Erdogan wants regime forces to retreat from their own land, it is nonsense. There is no PKK presence in Idlib,why are we over there?”

If fact while some Turks are angry at Russia, others are angry at Erdogan for leading the Turkish army into Idlib.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s pro-government TV stations and other media are tirelessly reporting official claims of having killed hundreds of Syrian soldiers. One of the videos shared by the state-run Anadolu supposedly shows Turkish artillery “neutralizing 709 regime elements” in the past 17 days:

Well, when you invade a neighboring country and keep killing the soldiers of its national army you can expect some blowback, especially if that national army is backed by the Russian air force.

Turkey for its part is officially blaming Assad, while Russia hasn’t said a word (UPDATED below, Russian MoD has since issued a statement). Obviously both are still interested in containing this if possible.

In fact, the Turkish TV and press highlighting gruesome Turkish attacks on Syrian soldiers in the past days, is at least partly in the service of satisfying possible public bloodlust. This gives Erdogan some maneuvering space not to escalate further. But of course, whether he actually takes advantage of that is another matter.

While I think this was Russia’s reply to the Turkish-jihadi offensive on Saraqib specifically, Elijah J. Magnier, the venerable Middle East reporter, reckons it was primarily about MANPADs (Turkish Hand Suspected as 2nd Syrian Army Helicopter Shot Down in DaysVIDEO: Turkish Troops Fire Missile at Russian Strike Aircraft):

The US, of course, is taking advantage of the situation to tell Erdogan to come back to the reservation:

Well, if Washington wants to go back to being on the side of al-Qaeda that’s its business but I wonder what 9/11 families would have to say about that.

— UPDATE —

The Russian Ministry of Defense has finally spoken out only to deny Russian aircraft were involved (they claim it was Syrian “shelling”). Well, they were obviously never going to say it was them. Not at this stage yet. They did, however, claim that Turks were intermingled with militants of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is Russian for “you had it coming/it’s your own fault”.

According to the information provided by Ankara, there were no Turkish troops in the Behun area, the Defense Ministry stressed.

All the between-the-lines Russian messaging aside, their official story then is that after nearly a month of escalating Syrian-Turkish clashes in which the Syrians inflicted just 20 Turkish KIA combined, their artillery suddenly drove that up to over 50 in just one engagement? Just mathematically that’s not terribly likely.

It reminds one of 2014 when the Russian MoD similarly refused to acknowledge soldiers who had taken over the Simferopol International Airport in Crimea. A week later the entire peninsula was Russian.

Only in this case, the denial was issued for Turkey’s sake, to allow it to save some face. Turks will appreciate the denial since it confirms their own story, but they did not react well to the rest of the Russian MoD message. In fact, Turkey’s defense minister accused Russia of lying about everything else, saying the Russians knew the Turks were there, that attacks did no let up after Turks contacted the Russians, and that even medevac vehicles were targeted. In other words, the Turks are very upset with Russia. I wonder why?

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