Two Turkish soldiers have been killed by an air strike in Syria, Turkey’s Defence Ministry said, following a large-scale attack by Ankara-backed opposition forces that targeted Syrian government troops.
The deaths brought to 15 the number of Turkish soldiers killed in clashes this month amid a crushing offensive by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces aimed at recapturing opposition-held areas in north-western Syria’s Idlib province.
Intent on halting the advance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had vowed on February 12 to take military action “everywhere in Syria” if another Turkish soldier was killed or wounded.
The multiple front offensive has triggered the biggest single wave of fleeing civilians in Syria’s nine-year war, displacing nearly one million people who have rushed towards the Turkish border and are now sheltering in tents or sleeping rough in harsh winter weather.
The Turkish Anadolu agency said the fighters destroyed a Syrian tank and armoured personnel carrier and seized a second tank.
The Russian military said the militants had launched a massive offensive on Syrian positions near Nairab, under the cover of Turkish artillery, adding that four Syrian soldiers were wounded in the shelling.
“The militants’ actions were supported by the Turkish artillery fire, which allowed the militants to break through the Syrian army’s defences,” it said.
The military added that at the Syrian military’s request, Russian Su-24 bombers then struck the militants to prevent them from advancing and allowing Syrian government forces to “successfully repel all attacks”.
It was not immediately clear whether it was the Russian air strikes that killed the two Turkish soldiers.
A Turkish Defence Ministry statement said as many as 50 Syrian government soldiers were killed and that five tanks, two armoured personnel carriers and other equipment were destroyed.
The exchange marked a serious escalation that risks escalating into a full-blown conflict between Turkey and Syria.
It also comes amid faltering talks between Turkish and Russian officials on restoring calm to the Idlib area.
Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in Syria’s civil war.
The Syrian government’s recent campaign against the rebel-held Idlib stronghold has strained co-operation between Moscow and Ankara and led to direct clashes between Syrian and Turkish troops recently.
Turkey maintains observation posts in northern Syria that were set up to monitor a 2018 ceasefire agreement with Russia.
It sent in thousands of additional troops and armoured vehicles in recent weeks and has threatened to attack Assad’s forces.
“We are delivering our final warnings. We have not reached the desired results as yet,” Mr Erdogan said on Wednesday.
“The operation in Idlib is a matter of time. We could enter (Idlib) suddenly one night.”