Twenty-two Turkish troops have been killed in an attack in Idlib, marking a major escalation in the mounting conflict between Turkey and the Russian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The governor of the Turkish border province of Hatay, Rahmi Dogan, announced the losses, which he blamed on an air attack by Syrian regime forces. He said that an unspecified number of other soldiers were badly wounded.
The attack is the single deadliest incident suffered by Turkey, a Nato member, since the start of the civil war on its border nine years ago. The losses bring the Turkish death toll in Idlib this month alone to 43, underscoring the mounting risks of Ankara’s efforts to stem an assault by pro-Assad forces as they seek to reclaim Syria’s last remaining rebel-held province with the help of the Russian military.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan convened an emergency national security meeting at around 9.30pm local time on Thursday.
Local media reported that the country’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, spoke with Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general.
Following the news, a senior Turkish official told Reuters that Turkey had decided not to prevent Syrian refugees from reaching Europe by land or sea. Ankara’s pleas to western allies for help to hold back a Syrian assault and avoid creating hundreds of thousands more refugees have so far drawn little response. Turkey is already home to 3.6m Syrians and has warned that it cannot take any more people.
The attack risks pushing Turkey closer to all-out conflict with the Syrian regime and its Russian allies. Mr Erdogan had already set an end of February deadline for Mr Assad’s forces to withdraw from newly captured territory, warning that Turkey would use force to push them back if they refused to comply.
It will also prompt fresh calls from Turkey for assistance from its Nato allies as it seeks to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib and prevent a wave of refugees from flooding across its border.
Nato partners have yet to formally discuss triggering Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which determines an attack on one member is an attack on all.
While EU nations and the US have provided words of support and some humanitarian assistance to Turkey, there has so far been little western appetite to respond to Turkey’s calls for help to enforce a buffer zone to protect civilians or a no-fly zone to prevent Russian and Syrian aerial bombardment.
Ties between Ankara and its western allies have been deeply strained for several years by a series of disagreements including Turkey’s growing closeness with Moscow and its decision to buy a Russian S-400 air defence system that western allies say put their own systems at risk.
Speaking shortly before Turkish authorities provided official confirmation of the casualties, the US ambassador to Nato, Kay Bailey Hutchison, said she hoped that Turkey “sees who is their reliable partner and who isn’t” and urged it to abandon its purchase of Russian military equipment.
Ankara has already asked the US for Patriot missiles to help defend Turkey near the Syrian border, but a US official said no decision had been made. “Everything is on the table,” said Ms Hutchison. “If [Russia is] attacking Turkish troops then that should outweigh everything else that is happening between Turkey and Russia.”
Thursday’s attack is likely to draw fresh criticism from Turkish opposition parties, who have questioned why Turkish soldiers are dying in Idlib.
Authorities appeared to attempt to limit access to social media as unconfirmed reports of the Turkish casualties toll spread on Thursday night, with the web censorship monitor NetBlocks reporting that Twitter was unavailable for users of Turk Telekom.
The Turkish lira, which has come under pressure in recent weeks partly due to growing tensions in Idlib, fell to its lowest level since April last year as initial reports emerged of the casualties.