Turkey’s military struck 115 Syrian military targets in retaliation against an artillery bombardment by the Syrian regime forces that killed five Turkish soldiers.
The Turkish Defense Ministry claimed that 101 “regime elements were neutralized”.
According to Syrian state media and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) respectively 13 Syrian soldiers were killed.
“The attacks by the [Syrian] Regime on our troops, who were sent as reinforcements to the Idlib region, were immediately responded to within the framework of the rules of engagement and legitimate defense. After 115 regime targets were identified in the region they were fired upon. According to the initial information obtained from various sources, 101 Regime elements have been neutralized. Three tanks and two gun/mortar locations have been destroyed, and one helicopter has been hit,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian side.
The Syrian attack targeted Turkey’s military observation post at an airfield in Taftanaz which was reportedly not covered by Astana and Sochi agreements concluded with Russia and Iran.
The Turkish retaliation struck the Syrian positions in Idlib, Latakia and Hama provinces.
“The Turkish Armed Forces, who tirelessly serve the cause of peace and stability around the world, will continue to crush anyone who dares to target our flag, to reassure our friends, and to strike fear into the hearts of our enemies,” tweeted Turkey’s Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun.
Last Monday, another Syrian shelling had killed seven Turkish soldiers and a civilian contractor in Saraqeb, a Syria-recaptured major town, south of Taftanaz, straddling the intersection of the strategic M4 and M5 highways.
Since then, there have been movements from the Turkish side into the region in an attempt to reinforce Turkey’s military observation outposts with troops there.
The Turkish defense ministry said in its statement that Syria’s “intense assault” on Monday had targeted those newly deployed reinforcements to the region.
“Targets identified in the region were immediately targeted intensively… The targets were destroyed and the blood of our martyrs was not left on the ground,” the ministry statement read.
With its observation posts, Turkey backs the opposition fighters trying to avert an offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Russia-backed forces which advance slowly to retake the rebel-held Idlib region.
The ministry said the troops were in the region with an aim “to prevent clashes, to ensure our border security and to stop migration and human tragedy.”
However, Russia, Syria, and Iran accuse Turkey of supporting jihadist groups in the region and not fulfilling its task defined in Astana-Sochi deals to clear the province of the extremists.
Last week, Russian state-run news agencies reported that Turkey was supporting the jihadists who are linked to al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
According to the Russian reports, the HTS militants taken captive by Syrian government forces said Ankara had played a role in the formation of the group by forcing Syrians to join its ranks and by furnishing it with supplies.
One of the detained militants also claimed that his family members had been taken hostage by the Turkish officials in order to force him to fight alongside the jihadists to ensure their safety.
On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave an ultimatum to the al-Assad regime to withdraw its forces from the Turkish observation posts until the end of February.
“We hope that the process of the regime pulling back behind our observation posts is completed in February. If the regime does not pull back during this time, Turkey will have to do this job itself,” Erdogan said.
Monday’s clashes came while a Russian delegation was holding the second round talks in Ankara to discuss the de-escalation situation in the region.
The first round of the talks ended inconclusively on Saturday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a news conference on Monday.
The United States (U.S.) Embassy in Ankara released a message of support on Twitter late on Monday, saying: “We send our condolences to the friends and families of the five Turkish soldiers killed today and speedy recovery to those wounded. We stand by our NATO Ally #Turkey and will continue to oppose the normalization of the Assad regime into the international community. #Idlib”
We send our condolences to the friends and families of the five Turkish soldiers killed today and speedy recovery to those wounded. We stand by our NATO Ally #Turkey, and will continue to oppose normalization of the Assad regime into the international community. #Idlib
— U.S. Embassy Turkey (@USEmbassyTurkey) February 10, 2020
The Embassy also announced on Twitter that U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey, Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, together with Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn, will hold talks with the Turkish officials in Ankara on Tuesday on the current situation in northeast Syria and the efforts on enduring defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.