The United States may come to Turkey’s aid in Idlib in exchange for dropping plans to deploy Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems.
United States ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison floated the idea of providing an unspecified assistance “package” during a press briefing on Wednesday.
“We hope that Turkey will also not put the Russian missile defence system in their country; that is deterring some of the capabilities that we would be able to give them to fight against the Syrian aggression,” she said, without elaborating on what that package might comprise.
“We do want the area in Idlib, where the civilians are really trapped, to be protected, and I think the Turkish soldiers agree with that; they’re trying to do it,” Hutchison added.
“So we hope that the Turks, because they’re being the victims of Russian-Syrian aggression, will take out the missile defence system that is in the middle of Ankara and let us have the freedom to help them completely to protect those innocent civilians in Syria.”
Russia’s advanced S-400 surface-to-air weapons systems have long been a thorn in the side of US and NATO military strategists. Turkey signed up for the delivery of four S-400 batteries in December 2017 as part of a $2.5-billion deal.
Both the US and NATO have actively opposed the deal, claiming the systems are incompatible with the alliance’s own systems and could allow Moscow to obtain intelligence on US-made F-35 fighter jets – an argument Ankara disputes. Several bills have been introduced in Congress in the US to punish Turkey for buying S-400s, and Turkey has been removed from Lockheed Martin’s F-35 programme.
Despite the pressure, the weapons have been shipped to Turkey, which is expected to deploy the anti-aircraft shield later this month. The US has recently renewed its efforts to see the S-400s out of Turkey in the wake of an armed confrontation in Idlib.
Aside from Kurdish-controlled areas which have reached a tentative agreement with Damascus, Idlib is the largest Syrian territory outside of Syrian government control; it is mostly run by the extremist group HTS and Turkish-backed rebels. Since mid-December, the Syrian army has been conducting an offensive in the region to drive out extremist groups and militias. Turkey has pushed back, and the fighting that ensued has resulted in dozens of casualties on both sides.
The escalation was halted in early March due to a Russian-brokered ceasefire deal. It established a security corridor along the crucial M4 highway, which runs parallel to the Turkish border in northeast Syria connecting Aleppo with Latakia, and joint Russian-Turkish patrols along the highway.
Ankara requested a rare emergency NATO meeting in late February, after a Syrian army air strike killed 33 Turkish soldiers. NATO publicly condemned the Syrian air strikes, but stopped short of providing military assistance to Turkey, a member of the alliance, or triggering the collective defence mechanism.