This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Turkey says at least 33 of its soldiers have been killed in an air strike by Russia-backed Syrian government forces in northwestern Syria, rising tensions between Ankara and Damascus ally Moscow.
Rahmi Dogan, governor of Turkey’s Hatay Province bordering Syria, said on February 28 that 32 wounded troops were being treated in hospitals after the strikes in Idlib Province.
In response to the attack, Syrian government targets “have come and will continue to come under fire from the air and ground,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun.
A war monitor reported that the Turkish reprisals killed 16 Syrian soldiers.
Syria’s government has made no immediate comments on the latest escalation in Idlib, which Russia-backed Syrian forces are trying to retake from rebels. A total of 54 soldiers have been reported killed in the province since the beginning of the month, including the latest fatalities.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said that Turkish troops who came under fire by Syrian troops were among “terrorists.” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar rejected the claim, saying “there were no armed groups around our military units” during the attack.
Russia’s Black Sea Fleet said it was sending two warships equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles to the Mediterranean Sea toward the Syrian coast.
The United States said that “we stand by our NATO ally Turkey” and demanded that Syria and Russia end their “despicable” offensive in Idlib.
“We are looking at options on how we can best support Turkey in this crisis,” a State Department spokeswoman said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart spoke by phone to discuss the recent flare-up in Idlib, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Earlier, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke by phone to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and “condemned the continued indiscriminate air strikes by the Syrian regime and its backer Russia in Idlib Province.”
Stoltenberg “urged all parties to de-escalate this dangerous situation and avoid further worsening of the horrendous humanitarian situation in the region,” he added.
NATO’s top decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, is to meet later in the day at Turkey’s request to discuss the situation in Syria, Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter.
Altun tweeted that the international community “must act to protect civilians and impose” a no-fly zone over Idlib.
Turkish media reported that hundreds of migrants were flocking to Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria, after a senior official was quoted as saying Ankara had decided “not to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe.”
Police, coast guard, and border security officials were ordered to stand down on refugees’ land and sea crossings toward Europe, the unidentified Turkish official told Reuters.
At the UN, France also said it “condemns with the greatest firmness the intense bombardments by the aviation of the regime and its allies, in particular Russia,” he said, citing a humanitarian disaster caused by attacks on hospitals, schools, and refugee shelters.
Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s UN ambassador, downplayed widespread reports of a humanitarian disaster in Idlib, saying the “only long-term solution [to conflict in Syria] is to chase the terrorists from the country.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison called on the Turks to learn from the fighting in Syria “who is their reliable partner and who isn’t.”
“I hope that President Erdogan will see that we are the ally of their past and their future,” she said, adding that Ankara needs to cancel its purchase of the sophisticated S-400 missile-defense system from Russia.
Turkey has sent thousands of troops and heavy military equipment into northwest Idlib Province to support rebels looking to hold back an offensive by Syrian government and Russian air forces aimed at recapturing the rebel stronghold.
The fighting has raised concerns that NATO member Turkey could come into direct combat against Russian forces in Syria.
Russia, along with Iran, has provided crucial political, military, and financial support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the country’s long civil war, which has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions since it began with a crackdown on anti-government protesters in March 2011.
The United States and Turkey have backed differing rebel groups, while extremists linked to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State also entered the conflict, although they have mostly been driven from their strongholds.