Turkish Soldiers Killed in Syria — Threats of Escalation

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Two Turkish soldiers were killed Thursday in an airstrike in northwestern Syria, Turkey said. The deaths came after the Turkish president threatened to expand his nation’s involvement in Syria if another one of his troops was hurt.

At least 15 Turkish soldiers have been killed in Syria this month in a crushing offensive by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces aimed at recapturing remaining opposition-held areas in the region.

Turkish-backed rebel fighters fire a howitzer toward Syrian government forces near the village of Neirab in Idlib province, Syria, on Thursday. (AP photo)

Turkey and Russia have closely coordinated their moves in recent years in Idlib province. Turkey maintains observation posts in northern Syria that were set up to monitor a 2018 ceasefire agreement with Russia. The truce collapsed in late 2019, leading to the current Syrian offensive, backed by Russia.

Russian officials have said they hold Turkey responsible for the collapse of the ceasefire deal, saying Ankara had not held up its end to rein in militants who continued attacking Syrian and Russian targets.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar on Thursday rejected the Russian assertion, saying Ankara was making progress against radical groups in Idlib when the Syrian government launched its offensive.

Ankara sent in thousands of additional troops and armored vehicles in recent weeks, vowing to halt the government’s advance.

“We are delivering our final warnings. We have not reached the desired results as yet,” Erdogan said Wednesday. “The operation in Idlib is a matter of time. We could enter (Idlib) suddenly one night.”

Akar said Turkey’s military has prepared “plans A, B and C” for a possible offensive in Idlib.

So far, talks between Turkish and Russian officials have failed to reach agreements that would ease tensions there.

“While both Russia and Turkey likely seek to maintain their cooperation across Syria more broadly, growing tensions in Idlib between the two countries threatens to derail that cooperation,” said Mona Yacoubian, in an analysis for the United States Institute for Peace.

Akar said Turkey had no intention to come “head to head with Russia,” insisting that Turkey’s aim was to ensure that the Syrian government abides by the ceasefire agreement for the province.

Asked how Washington can support Turkey in Idlib, he said the United States or other NATO countries could deploy Patriot missile defense systems on the Turkish border with Syria to guard against possible attacks from Syrian territory.

“In the past, they sent us air defense batteries. Our country faces a missile threat. … In this way, there could be a support (through the deployment) of Patriot batteries,” Akar said.

In Washington, a U.S. official said the United States was aware of Turkey’s request for Patriot missiles for use on the border with Syria. But no decision has been made, said the official, who agreed to comment on the matter on condition of anonymity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Idlib in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Kremlin said, noting the leaders emphasized the need to avoid “negative humanitarian consequences for the civilian population.”

In the call, Putin “underlined the need to take efficient measures to neutralize the terrorist threat while respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria,” it said, adding that the leaders of France and Germany offered to help reduce tensions.

The French offered a slightly different version of the conversation, saying in a statement after the call that Merkel and Macron “warned President Putin about the humanitarian situation for the civilian population in Idlib,” and called for an immediate stop to hostilities and an end to the blocking of humanitarian aid. Macron and Merkel said they were available to meet quickly with Putin and Erdogan to find a political solution.

The region is seeing 900,000 people on the run in Idlib during a bitterly cold winter with nowhere to go. Aid organizations said they were overwhelmed and facing severe shortages.

“We are burning through our supplies much faster than anticipated. We just do not know how long this will continue, how many more people will need help and for how long, a level of emergency that is impossible to comprehend,” said Mercy Corps country director Kieren Barnes.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said a massive cross-border operation was underway in Syria’s northwest to assist civilians.

“A total of 1,227 trucks of humanitarian assistance crossed from Turkey through Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam cross-border checks last month compared to 928 trucks in December,” Dujarric said. “This is the largest amount of aid the United Nations has sent across the Syrian-Turkish border in (any month) since the operation was authorized in 2014.”

In the attack on the village of Nairab, the Anadolu agency said the opposition moved in after Syrian government targets there were hit by artillery fire. They destroyed a tank and an armored personnel carrier belonging to Syrian forces and seized a second tank, according to the report.

Syrian opposition activists confirmed the report, saying Turkish-backed insurgents stormed the village near the strategic town of Saraqeb, both of which were held by Syrian troops.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said the clashes and bombardment in and near Nairab left two Turkish soldiers dead and killed 14 insurgents and 11 pro-government fighters. It said the opposition forces withdrew from the village by evening.

Syrian state TV reported that government forces have repelled the attacks on Nairab.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Russian and Turkish delegations would hold more talks on reducing tensions in Idlib province and that the Turkish and Russian leaders could meet too, if needed.

“It is true that at the moment, there are differences in the (two sides’) positions,” Cavusoglu told state broadcaster TRT. The delegations narrowed their differences a bit but “are not yet at the point we want” to be, he said.

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