Erdoğan says Ankara retaliating after Syrian shelling killed Turkish troops
Turkey will continue to retaliate against attacks on its forces in Syria’s northwest Idlib region, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Feb. 3, after six Turkish soldiers were killed and seven others were wounded in Syrian government shelling.
“Turkey has responded in kind to the attack in Idlib, and will continue to do so,” Erdoğan told reporters before departing for Ukraine.
The president said Turkish artillery hit some 46 targets in Syria.
Erdoğan stated Turkish warplanes were also involved and claimed that there were between 30 and 35 casualties on the Syrian side.
“Those who test Turkey’s determination with such vile attacks will understand their mistake,” Erdoğan said. He noted Russia was told that Ankara would not stand for any “situation where we are prevented” from responding to Syrian assaults.
“We can’t remain silent when our soldiers are being martyred,” he said.
The president said Turkey had told Russian counterparts “they need to stand aside” in the escalating conflict, in which Ankara and Moscow are back opposing sides.
Syrian regime’s forces, backed by Russian airpower, have recently made advances in Idlib.
Erdoğan said on Jan. 31 that Turkey may launch a military operation there unless the fighting is halted.
The exchange between Ankara and Damascus came hours after a large Turkish military convoy entered the northwestern province of Idlib. Turkey has reinforced Idlib, which lies just across its southern border with Syria, in a challenge to Damascus and its Russian backers.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry said the Turkish forces were sent to Idlib as reinforcement and were attacked there despite prior notification of their coordinates to the local authorities. It said Turkish forces responded to the attack, destroying targets.
Initially, four Turkish soldiers died at the scene while two others died later in hospital.
The exchange occurred near the Syrian flashpoint town of Saraqeb, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said Turkish military units came under fire overnight after moving within Idlib without notifying Russia, contradicting Ankara’s claim that it coordinated movements.
Defense chief heading to Syria border
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar visited the Syria border in the wake of a regime attack on Turkish troops in Idlib.
Hulusi Akar had been scheduled to accompany Erdoğan during his official visit to Ukraine. He abandoned the delegation due to the attack on Turkish troops.
Akar departed from Ankara to visit the Turkish-Syrian border.
Syrian forces now 'targets' around Idlib posts
In the meantime, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) spokesperson Ömer Çelik said Turkey will view Syrian regime forces as "targets" around Turkish observation posts in Idlib.
"The [Syrian] regime is from now on a target for us in the region after this attack," Çelik said.
"We expect Russia not to shield the regime or protect them because after the clear attack on our armed forces, regime forces around our posts are targets," he added.
Turkey condemns regime attack
Meanwhile, Turkey's presidential spokesman condemned the attack on Turkish soldiers in Idlib.
"I wish Allah's mercy on our four soldiers who were martyred in Idlib in the regime forces' attack, condolences to their families and quick recovery to the wounded. This attack on the Idlib agreement was immediately retaliated," İbrahim Kalın said in a tweet.
Kalın added that the perpetrators of the attack will pay the price.
Turkey's communications director also condemned the attack and extended his condolences to the families of the martyrs.
Turkey will bring perpetrators to account for the “treacherous attack,” Fahrettin Altun wrote on Twitter.
Bahçeli slams Syrian regime attacks
The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli said that diplomatic and military responses are required.
“We should make the life miserable for the enemies in Idlib and the surrounding area using our political and diplomatic initiatives as well as our military deterrence to this end,” Bahçeli said in a statement.
“The security of the [TSK's] observation posts and its surroundings, must be ensured. Assad must be regretted for his bloody attack," Bahçeli said
"It is clear that Turkey is not the one who violates [cease-fire] agreement on Idlib,” Bahçeli added.
Russian, Turkish military in contact on Idlib
The Russian and Turkish militaries are in close contact over the situation in Idlib, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Feb. 3.
"Russian and Turkish military are in close contact. There has not been yet a high-level conversation [on the situation in Idlib], but there is no doubt that if the presidents deem it necessary, it can be agreed upon within a short time," Peskov told reporters in Moscow.
Idlib is the last major rebel-held stronghold in Syria's nearly nine-year war and Erdoğan accuses Russia of violating agreements to reduce the fighting in the region, a charge which Moscow denied on Jan. 31.
Turkey, which already hosts over 3.6 million refugees from Syria, fears a fresh wave of migrants from Idlib.
It has 12 military observation posts around the region, set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran. Several of them have since been surrounded by advancing regime forces.
The defense ministry had previously said Turkish forces would retaliate "in the strongest way, without hesitation" against any attack on its observation posts in Idlib by Assad's forces.
Turkey, which has a 911-kilometer (566-mile) border with Syria along its southern frontier, has 12 military observation posts in the region, under a deal with Moscow and Tehran in 2017.
The Syrian regime’s forces on Dec. 23, 2019, surrounded one of 12 Turkish observation posts in the region. After the regime’s capture of Al-Surman town, in the southeast of Idlib, the eighth observation post of Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in the village was surrounded. Another Turkish observation post in the town of Morek was also surrounded in August, leaving two TSK posts within the regime’s territory.
With the regime's capture of Maarat al-Numan town last week, a total of three Turkish observation posts were left within regime territory.