Syrian government forces killed three Turkish soldiers in northwest Syria’s Idlib region, the President Tayyip Erdogan announced on Thursday.
This came a day after Turkey announced a plan to push Syrian government forces away from its military observation posts in the region this week.
Following advances by Russian-backed Syrian military in the region, President Tayyip Erdogan vowed to push back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad forces with the help of thousands of troops and truckloads of equipment Ankara had sent in Syria’s northwest corner bordering Turkey.
“We are planning to liberate our observation posts from the surrounding (Syrian government forces) by the end of this month, one way or another,” Erdogan told his party’s lawmakers.
Hours after the announcement, the Turkish defense ministry said on Wednesday two of its soldiers were killed and two other wounded during an assault by the Syrian forces.
The ministry said the Turkish military opened fire on Syrian government targets in response, adding that according to various sources in the region 114 members of the Syrian forces were “neutralized.”
Erdogan updated the count on Thursday saying that the death toll was three.
Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced in the last three months by fighting between Turkish-backed rebels and Syrian forces trying to recapture the last major insurgent-held region in Syria after nine years of war.
But Assad’s forces made fresh gains in southern Idlib province where they took a number of villages on Wednesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, and a military news outlet run by Assad’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
The pro-government forces’ immediate objective is to reach the town of Kafar Aweed, the capture of which would force rebels to withdraw from a wider tract of territory including their last remaining foothold in Hama province, Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman said.
The Syrian army said it had seized numerous villages and towns in the last few days in the south of Idlib province, describing the captured territory as an important crossroads between rebel-held territories.
Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish military said on Thursday they had recaptured the strategic town of Saraqeb in what would be the first major reverse for the Syrian army in a Russian-backed offensive that had made swift gains.
Three weeks ago, the armed opposition lost the northwestern town at the junction of two main highways, following advances by the Syrian army in its push to retake the last large, rebel-held region in Syria after nine years of war.
Erdogan first demanded on Feb. 5 that Assad’s forces pull back behind a line of Turkish observation posts by end-February, or Turkey would drive them back.
Turkey set up 12 observation posts up around a “de-escalation zone” in Idlib under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran, but several now find themselves behind Syrian government front lines.
Turkish and Russian officials began a third round of talks in Ankara on Wednesday aimed at reducing tensions in the region. Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency said the talks would continue on Thursday.
Two previous rounds in Ankara and Moscow have failed to yield any tangible progress.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry expected positive results, RIA news agency cited Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov as saying, but a Turkish official was not optimistic.
“At the moment, solely military diplomacy is being carried out and it is not possible to solve the problem on the ground like this,” the Turkish official told Reuters.
He said clear results were unlikely until a planned Turkey-Russia-Iran summit on March 6. A summit a day earlier between Russia, Turkey, France, and Germany had been proposed, but Moscow has not sounded receptive to the idea.
Erdogan said in Wednesday’s speech that he hoped the issue of using the air space over Idlib will be resolved soon.
Russia controls the region’s air space and has been bombing Turkish-supported rebels on a daily basis in support of the offensive by Syrian government forces.