Turkey officially announced its fourth military operation in Syria in as many years in a bid to reverse gains by the Russian-backed regime of president Bashar al-Assad as clashes escalated in the Syrian province of Idlib.
Turkey’s defence minister Hulusi Akar said that operation Spring Shield had been launched after the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers on Thursday, the deadliest day Turkey has suffered in Syria since the start of the country’s civil war nine years ago.
Turkish-made armed drones launched hundreds of strikes on Syrian targets in the wake of the attack. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor, said 74 Syrian soldiers had been killed since Friday.
Frontlines in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held enclave, have shifted quickly, with gains by both Turkish-backed rebels and regime forces supported by Russia.
On Sunday, Turkey said it had shot down two Su-24 fighter jets belonging to Damascus. The Syrian government, which hours earlier had declared it would enforce a no-fly zone over the north-west of the country, confirmed two of its planes had been targeted and said the pilots had survived.
In comments that underscored Turkey’s careful stance towards Russia, Mr Akar said the aim of the Turkish offensive in Idlib was not to “face off against” Moscow. “Our sole aim [in Idlib] is to put an end to the carnage by the regime and thus prevent radicalisation and migration,” he said.
Mr Akar added that Turkey expected Russia to “deliver on its commitments” as set out in the 2018 Sochi agreement aimed at halting the violence in Idlib. He said the Russians “must use their influence on the regime to halt regime attacks and ensure the withdrawal [of regime forces] to the Sochi agreement borders”.
Moscow accuses Turkey of failing to uphold the agreement by failing to halt attacks by jihadi groups that dominate militias in Idlib.
The mounting Turkish death toll of more than 50 troops in the province in February alone has placed strain on the close partnership forged between Mr Erdogan and Russian president Vladimir Putin in recent years. The casualties have pushed relations to their tensest point since the Turkish military downed a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border in late 2015.
Four journalists from Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news service were detained by police following the publication of a story that drew strong criticism in Turkey. The arrests were condemned by Russia’s foreign ministry. The journalists were later released.
Despite their differences, Turkey — which has also faced strains with its Nato allies — has shown little sign of wanting to sever ties with Russia. Mr Erdogan has pushed for a face-to-face meeting with Mr Putin and is expected to travel to Moscow to meet him on March 5 or 6.
The Syrian regime’s offensive to retake Idlib, part of Mr Assad’s campaign to reclaim “every inch” of his country, has triggered the worst humanitarian catastrophe of Syria’s almost decade-long civil war, according to the UN.
Almost 1m people have been forced to flee in search of safety. Open areas near the Turkish border are crowded with people and there is a shortage of tents and other shelter.
Turkey, which is already home to more than 4m refugees from Syria and other nations, has said that it cannot take any more people in. Its calls for international support to create a buffer or no-fly-zone inside Idlib to protect the province’s 3m civilians have fallen on deaf ears.
Following last week’s deadly attack, Turkey has sought to dial up the pressure on the EU by following through on a longstanding threat to open its borders to Europe for refugees, prompting alarm in European capitals.
Thousands of people from countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Syria have streamed into a buffer zone between Turkey and Greece in recent days. Most have found themselves trapped as Athens has strengthened security on the border.
Police said at least 500 people had arrived by sea on the chain of Greek islands off Turkey’s western coast within a few hours on Sunday morning — the highest daily figure so far this year, according to UN statistics. But the Greek foreign ministry has said Ankara’s claims that more than 70,000 people had left Turkey in recent days are “entirely false and misleading”.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration estimated on Saturday that about 13,000 people were gathered at various points along the Greek-Turkish border.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter that the EU was following the situation “closely and with concern”, adding that the bloc was ready to provide “additional support” to Greece as well as Bulgaria, which also shares a border with Turkey.
Margaritis Schinas, the EU commission vice-president responsible for migration policy, has requested an extraordinary meeting of EU home affairs ministers. EU diplomats said a meeting had not yet been confirmed and discussions were ongoing.
Additional reporting by Jim Brunsden in Brussels and Henry Foy in Moscow