Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 February 2020

Turkey threatens major escalation in Idlib if Syria continues deadly attacks

Ankara has warned it will strike regime forces everywhere if its soldiers are attacked again in rebel-held province

Turkey will strike Syrian regime forces “everywhere” if its soldiers come under renewed attack, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday

He also criticised Syrian ally Russia for its actions in Idlib, comments he made a day after Ankara said rebel groups it backs in Syria’s north-west killed 51 regime soldiers and shot down a military helicopter.

“I hereby declare that we will strike regime forces everywhere from now on, regardless of the Sochi deal, if any tiny bit of harm comes to our soldiers at observation posts or elsewhere,” Mr Erdogan told a meeting of his ruling party in Parliament.

The latest threat comes after more than a dozen Turkish soldiers were killed in regime shelling in the north-west province of Idlib, the last rebel bastion in Syria.

Syrian regime forces have pressed ahead with an offensive to retake the province from rebel groups, despite the 2018 Sochi ceasefire deal agreed between Moscow and Ankara.

Recent direct clashes between Turkish soldiers and forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad have significantly raised the stakes, and heightened tension between Russia and Turkey, the chief foreign brokers of the conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Mr Erdogan on Wednesday about the need to de-escalate the Syrian crisis.

“The importance was noted of the full implementation of existing Russian-Turkish agreements including the Sochi memorandum,” the Kremlin said after the phone call.

Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan reviewed “various aspects of the settlement of the Syrian crisis, first and foremost in the context of a flare-up in the Idlib de-escalation zone”, Moscow said.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry also said a delegation would travel to Moscow for more talks with Russia.

The Turkish Defence Ministry said two Syrian tanks and one ammunition store were also destroyed on Tuesday.

A Syrian war monitor reported that at least three people – a pilot, a co-pilot and a weapon specialist – were killed when insurgents took down a regime helicopter near Al Nayrab.

Rebel forces then advanced through the area, which the Turkish Defence Ministry said had been abandoned by the Syrian regime.

The Syrian armed forces have also made substantial gains in their campaign to remove the rebel forces from Idlib.

Regime forces reportedly seized control of the main Aleppo-Damascus motorway, which runs through Idlib, for the first time since the early days of the civil war in 2012.

Yet Syrian state media made no mention of this and rebel sources later said fighting continued in some northern areas near the main road.

Syrian regime forces on Wednesday pushed on with their offensive in the province, securing areas along that key national highway.

A Turkish official said the rebels, bolstered by Turkish artillery, had begun “a full-fledged attack” in Saraqib, which was lost to the government last week.

The city is at a crossroads near the Aleppo-Damascus highway. A rebel commander told Reuters they were pushing back government forces there.

The regime’s aerial bombardment on Idlib continued on Tuesday, with 45 casualties reported in Idlib city by a Syrian war monitor.

On Wednesday, air strikes killed four civilians in the south of Aleppo province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

Syrian state news agency Sana said a journalist and two photographers with pro-government outlets were wounded on the other side of the front line in the west of the province.

The Syrian army, since launching its new offensive in December, has recaptured more than 600 square kilometres of territory, and in recent days wrested control of dozens of towns and villages.

The flare in fighting has given rise to some of the most serious confrontations between Ankara and Damascus in the nine-year war.

Updated: February 13, 2020 02:56 PM

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