Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned Russia not to “stand in the way” as it seeks to retaliate for the killing of six Turkish soldiers by Syrian government forces in the restive province of Idlib.
Mr Erdogan said that the Turkish military had already launched a series of counter-attacks after the “heavy shelling” on its forces on Monday. Turkish jets had struck dozens of targets in the north-western Syrian province, and that between 30 and 35 fighters for the Syrian regime had been “neutralised”, he said.
The attack has added to tensions between Moscow, which backs the Syrian regime, and Ankara, which has close ties with opposition groups in Idlib. In recent weeks, pro-regime forces have stepped up their assault on the last rebel-held province in Syria which is now run by jihadis.
At least 390,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, triggering warnings from Mr Erdogan of a dire humanitarian crisis on his nation’s doorstep. Already home to 3.6m Syrian refugees, Turkey has warned the international community that it cannot take any more people.
Mark Lowcock, a top UN official, told the Security Council last week that the fighting in Idlib “appears to be more intense than anything we have seen in the last year”.
Monday’s clash is the bloodiest confrontation between Turkey and Syria since the outset of the Syrian conflict in 2011, which saw Turkey back armed groups against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The fraying of a 2018 Turkish-Russian agreement aimed at halting the bloodshed in Idlib last week triggered a rare direct warning from Mr Erdogan. The Turkish president accused Russia of no longer being “loyal” to a peace process known as the Astana talks and urged Moscow to “give the regime the necessary warning”.
In a stony-faced appearance before departing on a trip to Ukraine on Monday, the Turkish president used careful language to address Moscow. “To the Russian authorities [we say]: our interlocutor here is not you, it is the [Syrian] regime,” he said. But he added: “Do not contemplate standing in our way.”
He said that Turkey was determined to continue its operations in Idlib, where the Turkish military has 12 observation posts. “Those who are testing Turkey’s resolve will understand their mistake,” he said.
Moscow confirmed the attack on the Turkish soldiers but said that Ankara had deployed the troops inside an agreed de-escalation zone around Idlib without informing the Kremlin.
“Turkish units were relocated inside the Idlib de-escalation area on the night of February 2 to February 3 without notifying the Russian side and came under fire from Syrian government forces,” the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in Syria, a monitoring group controlled by the Russian defence ministry, said in a statement on Monday.
Russian and Turkish military commanders were now “maintaining continuous contact”, the statement added. There was no official comment from the Syrian government but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said that 13 Syrian army soldiers were killed.
Desperate civilians had once hoped Turkey might be a partner “that could stop the bloodshed,” said Haneen, a 27-year-old artist. “But later we realised that after each meeting between the Russians and the Turks, the bombings are not stopping, so it was useless”.
Idlib and adjoining west Aleppo, adjacent to the Turkish-Syrian border, is crammed with 3m civilians, many of whom had already fled from other regions. Humanitarian organisations have warned that civilians are facing the worst of the violence.
“The cities close to the border are so crowded,” said Mazen Alloush, at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria. “You can’t find any empty house, the camps are full and there are tens of informal camps and there are still people living in shelters and mosques, they don’t have a place to stay.”
The border has been closed to the majority of civilians inside Syria for about five years. “People want to go to Turkey,” added Mr Alloush. But “they don’t [ allow] them to pass”.
Additional reporting by Asmaa al Omar in Istanbul