Syrian regime forces in the country’s northwestern city of Idlib are now seen as “targets” following the deaths of five Turkish soldiers, a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party has said.
Omer Celik made the assertion barely hours after Ankara said that four of its soldiers were killed during shelling by Syrian regime forces in the town of Saraqeb. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan later declared the number as five soldiers killed along with three civilians.
Celik accused the Syrian government of “acting like a terrorist organization” and signaled that Turkey would hold talks with Syria’s key ally, Russia.
Erdogan told reporters earlier on Monday that Turkey will retaliate against the Syrian attack, which wounded nine other Turkish soldiers in Idlib, where Russia and Syria conduct airstrikes.
He said Turkey warned Moscow not to become involved and should “stand aside” in the conflict.
“We have responded in kind to these attacks and will continue to do so, whether it is with our artillery or mortars,” he added.
Erdogan also said Turkish warplanes were involved in Turkey’s retaliation, targeting some 46 targets in the region — a claim that was subsequently denied by Russia.
The state-run TASS news agency that the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Opposing Sides in Syria, which is part of the Russian Defense Ministry, issued a statement on Monday saying aircraft did not enter Syrian airspace.
“Turkish Air Force aircraft did not violate Syria’s borders, no airstrikes on the positions of Syrian troops have been recorded,” Tass quoted the statement as saying.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that at least 13 Syrian government soldiers were killed by a Turkish counterattack Idlib, Latakia, and Hama later on Monday.
Idlib is the last major rebel-held area in Syria’s civil war, which started in 2011.
Syrian forces of President Bashar al-Assad are poised to retake Syria’s rebel-held town of Saraqeb in the country’s northwest following a two-week heightened bombardment, SOHR said on Friday.
The latest clashes have been taking place within two kilometers (a mile) of Idlib’ Saraqeb, a town lying on two essential highways – the M5 connecting the Syrian capital Damascus to Aleppo and the M4 running west-to-east across Idlib.
If recaptured by the Syrian regime, Saraqeb would be a second strategic loss for rebels and jihadists after Maarat al-Numan, another town of Idlib province, lying on the M5 highway.
Mostly in the western countryside of Aleppo province, 50 kilometers of the M5 highway currently remain outside regime control, the observatory said.
The monitor also reported that 425 people, including 220 rebels 205 regime fighters, were killed in Idlib and Aleppo during the past week.
Russia-backed forces of President Bashir Al-Assad in Saraqeb were pushing north, while the troops in Aleppo were moving towards them from the south, a regime commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP on Thursday.
The unnamed commander said the aim was to secure both key highways and corner the rebels in a shrinking pocket in central Idlib, the last significant swathe of Syrian territory that still serves as an anti-government stronghold.
The region is home to over two million locals and more than a million internally displaced people who had to flee other parts of Syria as the regime recaptured large areas of the country after Russia began to support his government in early 2015.
After eight and a half years of war, Damascus now controls more than 70 percent of the country and has vowed to reclaim the entire land.
The Syrian onslaughts on Idlib in 2019 have displaced at least 850,000 people, pushing them to flee toward the Turkish border, according to Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman and founder of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a London-based human rights monitor.
Backing the rebels, most of whom are former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters, Ankara has twelve military outposts in the region in line with previous Astana and Sochi agreements concluded with Russia and Iran.
According to the deals, Turkey is responsible for the removal of the radical militants and heavy arms from the agreed territory, a task which is deemed by Russia, Iran, and Syria not to have been fulfilled.
Chaired by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday, Turkey’s National Security Council (MGK) called the latest Syrian assaults “terror attacks” in a statement.
“The commitment of our country to take additional measures against terror attacks that continue to target our security forces and the civilian population in various parts of Syria, namely Idlib, despite the agreements with countries active in Syria was reiterated,” the statement read.
A day earlier, Erdogan also said Turkey had lost patience with the attacks on Idlib and that Russia was violating the agreements aimed at stemming conflict in the region.
Besides the said deals, many subsequent ceasefire attempts in Idlib remained inconclusive.
The trio argues that they are fighting Turkey-backed extremists, denying the claims of indiscriminate bombardment on civilians.
However, a recent report of an airstrike that hit a center for civil defense rescue workers came from Saraqeb on Friday, an AFP correspondent in the area said.
At least six rescue workers, whose health conditions are now in stable, were wounded during the attack, Mustafa Abu Hamdou, a civil defense team leader in Idlib, said.
An already dire humanitarian situation in the region has been deteriorating, according to aid groups.
“The situation here in the northwest of Syria is unbearable for civilians. They are mentally and physically strained,” said Lorenzo Redalie from the International Committee of the Red Cross.