Turkey hit targets in northern Syria, responding to shelling by Syrian government forces that killed at least four Turkish soldiers, the Turkish president said Monday. A Syrian war monitor said six Syrian troops were also killed.
The exchange, which came hours after a large Turkish military convoy entered the northwestern province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, is likely to further increase tensions between the two neighboring countries as such direct clashes have been rare.
Earlier, Turkey’s National Defense Ministry said the Turkish forces were sent to Idlib as reinforcement and were attacked there despite prior notification of their coordinates to the local authorities. It said Turkish forces responded to the attack, destroying targets. Along with four killed, nine Turkish troops were wounded.
Speaking to reporters before departing for a visit to Ukraine, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish artillery hit some 46 targets. Erdogan said Turkish warplanes were also involved and claimed that there were between 30 and 35 casualties on the Syrian side but offered no evidence.
“Those who test Turkey’s determination with such vile attacks will understand their mistake,” Erdogan said. He suggested Turkey would not accept attempts by Russia to calm the tensions, saying Moscow was told that Ankara would not stand for any “situation where we are prevented.”
“It is not possible for us to remain silent when our soldiers are being martyred,” Erdogan said.
The exchange occurred near the Syrian flashpoint town of Saraqeb, according to the the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group.
It comes amid a Syrian government offensive into the country’s last rebel stronghold, located in Idlib and parts of the nearby Aleppo region. Turkish troops are deployed in some of those rebel-held areas to monitor an earlier ceasefire that was agreed to but that has since collapsed.
Relations between Turkey and Syria have deteriorated sharply since Syria’s civil war began in 2011. Syria accuses Turkey of undermining its security by allowing thousands of foreign fighters to come battle the Syrian army. Idlib province is currently dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants.
With Russian backing, the Syrian government has been on the offensive since December to capture and reopen a strategic highway held by the rebels since 2012. The offensive ignored a ceasefire deal brokered late last year between Russia and Turkey. The deal has since collapsed.
Syrian government forces captured the key Idlib town of Maaret al-Numan from the rebels last Wednesday, and have now set their sights on Saraqeb. The strategic highway passes through both towns.
The province of Idlib is home to some 3 million people, many of them displaced from other parts of Syria in earlier bouts of violence. The United Nations has estimated that about 390,000 Syrians have been displaced there over the past two months — 315,000 in December and 75,000 in January.
Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and the current wave of violence in Idlib has raised concerns of a new surge in displaced civilians fleeing toward the Turkish border.