In Depth

Turkey fires on Syrian forces: what is going on?

Turkish airstrikes ‘neutralise’ 76 Assad fighters as Ankara claims retaliation

Turkey has launched deadly airstrikes against Syrian forces in what it says is retaliation for shelling aimed at Turkish soldiers in Idlib.

Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar said the country had “neutralised” 76 Syrian army troops, despite Syrian state media denying any casualties.

Turkish F-16 fighter jets hit Syrian army targets on Monday after five Turkish soldiers and three civilians were killed by Syrian army shelling.

Why did Turkey attack Syrian troops?

Turkey claims that the Syrian army shelled Turkish troops that had been sent to Idlib province in north-western Syria to prevent clashes between opposition and Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

Akar said Turkey had struck 54 targets in reply to Syria’s attack, “neutralising” 76 Syrian soldiers – a term the Turkish military uses to describe combatants who have been killed, captured or wounded, says the BBC.

“We are determined to maintain the operations that we carry out to ensure the security of our country, our nation and of our brothers and sisters in Idlib,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Those who test Turkey’s determination with such heinous attacks will understand they have made a huge mistake,’’ Erdogan said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based monitoring group, reported that Turkish fire killed eight Syrian soldiers in Idlib, three in neighbouring Latakia province, and two in Hama province.

Why did the Syrian army attack Turkish troops?

The Russian defence ministry, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said Turkish military units came under shell fire near Saraqeb after they “made advances inside the Idlib de-escalation zone… without notifying the Russian side”.

Turkey says local authorities were aware of their location. A spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, Omer Cerlk, said: “Turkey gives regular and instant information to Russia. The information was given in this latest incident too.”

What’s the context?

Turkey and Russia agreed a de-escalation deal for the Syrian province of Idlib in 2017, but the agreement has been repeatedly violated.

The situation has deteriorated over the past two months as Moscow and Assad have intensified their push to bring opposition-held Idlib under Syrian government control. Idlib is the last province in Syria still held by opposition forces, says The New York Times.

Turkey wants a de-escalation zone in the province, warning that it cannot handle a fresh influx of displaced people on top of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it currently hosts. Hundreds of Turkish troops have been posted to observation posts in Idlib since 2018, as part of an agreement with Russia.

Turkey has long supported opposition forces fighting against Assad’s brutal regime, and its support has extended to backing some radical Islamists in an effort to stall the Russian-Syrian advance to capture Idlib.

Russian and Syrian forces have been carrying out an offensive on the major thoroughfare in the province, displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The UN has said that half a million people had been forced to flee their homes since 1 December, on top of 400,000 people displaced between April and August, says Al Jazeera.

Video seen on social media showd residents setting fire to their homes before fleeing the town of Saraqeb, ahead of the advancing Syrian forces, reports the New York Times. “We don’t want to leave anything behind for the thugs,” a voice in the background reportedly says.

The SOHR has reported that at least nine civilians were killed in an air strike on a vehicle carrying refugees in Aleppo on Monday.

Syria Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, said the victims were members of the same family and that the strike was carried out by Russian warplanes, reports the BBC.

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