Turkey retaliates after regime shelling kills troops
Photo by National Defense Ministry via AA
Turkey said it retaliated on Feb. 10 after intense shelling by Syrian forces killed five soldiers and wounded five others in Syria's northern Idlib province, a marked escalation a week after a similarly deadly clash between the two sides.
The exchange of fire came as a Russian delegation held a second round of talks in the Turkish capital of Ankara to discuss the fighting in Idlib province, which has uprooted more than a half-million people in the past two months. No statement was issued at the end of the talks.
The fighting led to the collapse of a cease-fire brokered by Turkey and Russia in 2018. Turkey supports the Syrian opposition, while Russia heavily backs the Syrian regime's campaign to retake the area, which is the last rebel stronghold in Syria.
The fighting has led Turkey to send hundreds of military vehicles and troops into Idlib province in the past week, bringing both countries' forces into direct confrontation, a rarity in the Syrian conflict.
Eight Turkish soldiers and civilian personnel and 13 regime soldiers were killed in a clash in the province last week. Turkey has warned Syria to retreat to cease-fire lines that were agreed in 2018.
The Turkish Defense Ministry said its five troops that were killed and those who were wounded were reinforcements that had been sent to Idlib.
"Our fire support vehicles immediately fired on the targets with intensity and the necessary response was given," the ministry said.
The statement did not say where the attack took place but local media reported that it was at Taftanaz.
A later statement said the retaliation was in line with Turkey's rules of engagement and its right to self-defense.
At least 115 Syrian positions were targeted in the retaliatory strikes, the ministry said, adding that more than 100 Syrian forces were "neutralized.''
Turkish officials often use the term "neutralized" to imply that the people in question have either been killed, captured or surrendered.
In addition, three tanks and two artillery positions were destroyed, while a helicopter was hit, the ministry said. The claim could not be independently verified.
Ömer Çelik, the spokesman for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said it was out of the question for the Turkish troops to vacate the observation posts in Idlib, adding that Turkey would continue to respond to "systematic" Syrian regime attacks
Çelik also said Turkish troops would continue trying to ensure that the Syrian regime's forces withdraw to previous positions.
“Turkey will keep doing what it has to until the Assad regime withdraws behind the violated line in Idlib," Çelik said.
Çelik also called on NATO to "stand in solidarity" with Turkey.
Turkish, Russian delegations discuss Idlib
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Turkish and Russian delegations exchanged proposals over Idlib at a first meeting on Feb. 8 in Ankara.
The Russian team returned to Ankara on Feb. 10 from a visit to Jordan and held talks with İbrahim Kalın, the presidential spokesperson.
During the meeting, Kalın "emphasized the need for the attacks against Turkish soldiers and the observation to be stopped."
The delegation was led by Russia's Syria envoy and included military and intelligence representatives.
In the two-hour meeting, Kalın condemned the Assad regime attacks on Turkish troops in Idlib – including two over the last eight days – and said they must stop.
Kalın said the Syrian regime is clearly violating the 2018 Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia, which bans acts of aggression in the area.
He added that Russia should do what it has to do as a guarantor state under the agreement.
Kalın stressed that Turkey is determined to take a variety of measures against such attacks, which aim to sabotage the political process.
Erdoğan holds meetings
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with state officials early on Feb. 11.
In the meeting, it was decided that the attack would be retaliated as many times as possible "so the blood of the martyrs would not be shed in vain."
The meeting was attended by Vice President Fuat Oktay, Foreign Minister Çavışooğlu, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler, head of National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Hakan Fidan, Communications Director Fahrettin Altun and President of Defense Industries İsmail Demir.
It was emphasized that no kind of attack can deter Turkey from its commitments in Idlib, including preventing any kind of conflict, providing border security and preventing a new wave of migration and human tragedy.
US extends condolences to Turkey
The U.S. embassy in Ankara published a condolence message on Feb. 10 for the attack on Turkish soldiers.
"We send our condolences to the friends and families of the five Turkish soldiers killed today and [wish a] speedy recovery to those wounded," the embassy said in a tweet.
"We stand by our NATO ally Turkey and will continue to oppose the normalization of the Assad regime into the international community," it said.
Regime continues attacks on Idlib civilians
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime has vowed to continue its campaign.
An early morning airstrike on the village of Ibbin in a rebel-held region of Aleppo province near Idlib killed nine people, including six children, according to activists from the Observatory and the Step news agency, an activist collective. At least 10 people were wounded.
The Syrian regime's campaign appears aimed at securing a strategic highway in rebel-controlled territory for now, rather than seizing the entire province and its densely populated capital, Idlib.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media released a map of the area of fighting showing that Syrian troops only have 15 kilometers left from seizing full control of the strategic highway, known as the M5. The highway links the national capital of Damascus with the country's north, which has for years been divided between government and opposition forces.
Meanwhile, a car bomb in a Syrian town controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters killed at least four people and wounded 15, the Anadolu Agency reported.
An explosive-laden vehicle detonated in the center of the city, killing four civilians and injuring 15 others, some of whom are in critical condition, said the sources who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
Turkey in January 2018 launched a major military offensive, "Operation Olive Branch," with the stated aim of purging Afrin of YPG/PKK terrorist elements.
Afrin was freed from the terrorist group on March 18, 2018, on the operation's 58th day.
100,000 civilians displaced in a week
A U.N. official said the number of people displaced by the violence since Dec. 1 reached nearly 700,000, up from 600,000.
"That's more than 100,000 people in just over a week,'' said U.N. regional spokesman David Swanson.
"This could well prove to be the largest number of people displaced in a single period since the Syrian crisis began almost nine years ago,'' Swanson said, reiterating the call for an immediate truce.
The U.N. "remains deeply alarmed about the safety and protection of over 3 million civilians in Idlib and surrounding areas, over half of whom are internally displaced, as reports of airstrikes and shellings continue in Syria,'' U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said in New York.
At least 49 civilians were killed between Feb. 1-5, with at least 186 civilians killed in January, he said.
Most of the displaced are living in open-air shelters and temporary homes in rain, snow and freezing temperatures near the Turkish border. Half of the displaced are believed to be children.
Food, shelter, water and sanitation, hygiene, health, education and protection assistance are all urgent priorities, Haq said, with the humanitarian community seeking $336 million to help 800,000 people in northwestern Syria for six months.
Germany condemns regime attacks
Germany on Feb. 10 strongly condemned the Syrian regime for its aerial bombardments and ground attacks in Idlib, a northwestern province under a nominal cease-fire.
Speaking at a news conference in Berlin, German Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Rainer Breul expressed grave concerns over the escalating situation in the region.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the regime's military offensive, and call for an immediate cease-fire,” he said.
Breul urged all conflicting parties to contribute to de-escalation, and expressed hope that recent talks between Turkey and Russia could help ease the conflict.
He underlined Russia's special responsibility as one of the main supporters of the Assad regime.