In an attack that came on late Thursday, 33 Turkish soldiers were killed by a Syrian government airstrike in north western Syria. These strikes have been the deadliest in terms of Turkish soldier casualties in a single day since Turkey first intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2016. They direct at a serious escalation of hostilities between Turkey and Russia-backed Syrian forces, that have been waging war since early February.
While Turkey has been the main backer of Syrian opposition forces, Russia has been giving military support to the weeks-long Syrian government offensive in Idlib that has displaced about 950,000 people and left hundreds of civilians dead. Russia, Syria’s key military ally, said the Turkish troops had been operating alongside jihadist fighters when they were attacked by Syrian forces. It also denied the involvement of its own air force in the fighting in the Behun area.
“Thirty-three of our soldiers were martyred as a result of the air strike… by the forces of the [Bashar al-]Assad regime,” Mr Dogan was quoted as saying by the state-funded Anadolu news agency. Russia clarified that it has been in constant contact with Turkey in order to ensure that no Turkish were targeted in Idlib, but they had not been informed about Turkish activity in Behun.
Russia backed government forces have been trying to take back Idlib from the rebels, which remains to be the last strong hold and Syrian province in the hands of the opposition. The air strike was a result of the rebels retaking the strategic town of Saraqeb.
While the Syrian authorities themselves have made no public comments on the latest escalation in Idlib so far, Turkey has vowed “to respond in kind” with attacks on “all” their positions. “The Assad regime represents a threat to our national security, the region and Europe since it began acting like a criminal network terrorising its own citizens,” Fahrettin Altun, the head of Turkey’s presidential communications department, told Al Jazeera.
The ongoing bombing and ground assault have posed another problem, that is the escalation in the Syrian refugee crisis. Since December, nearly one million people have been displaced, over half of those being children. Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and, under a 2016 deal with the European Union, agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. Since then, Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates” in several disputes with European states. Current media reports suggest Turkey, which is a key member of the NATO alliance, may be relaxing its border controls to allow Syrian refugees to transit to and seek shelter in Europe unimpeded.
Ambassadors from NATO countries were holding emergency talks on Friday at the request of Turkey. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke by phone to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and “condemned the continued indiscriminate air strikes by the Syrian regime and its backer Russia in Idlib province”