By Associated Press
BEIRUT — More than two dozen Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Syrian government forces in northeast Syria, a Turkish official said Friday.
The deaths mark a serious escalation in the direct conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces that has been waged since early February.
Rahmi Dogan, the governor of Turkey’s Hatay province bordering Syria’s Idlib region, said 29 troops were killed and others were seriously wounded in the attack late Thursday.
In addition to three Turkish soldiers killed in Idlib earlier Thursday, the casualties mark the largest death toll for Turkey in a single day since Ankara first intervened in Syria in 2016. At least 50 have now been killed in Idlib since the start of February.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was holding an emergency security meeting in Ankara, state-run Anadolu news agency reported. Meanwhile Turkish Foreign Minister Mevult Cavusoglu spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg by telephone.
Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, who plays a senior role in foreign affairs, also spoke to U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.
The air strike came after a Russian delegation spent two days in Ankara for talks with Turkish officials on the situation in Idlib, where a Syrian government offensive has sent hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing towards the Turkish border.
The offensive has also engulfed many of the 12 military observation posts Turkey has in Idlib.
Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director, said “all known” Syrian government targets were under attack by Turkish air and land forces in response to the deaths.
Turkish television news channels aired black-and-white footage of air strikes on Syrian targets.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in air strikes on Idlib on Thursday. It said the attacks occurred in an area between the villages of al-Bara and Baliun near the Jabal al-Zawiya region in the southern Idlib countryside. The Britain-based Observatory monitors the Syria war through a network of activists on the ground.
The air strike came after Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters retook a strategic northwestern town from government forces on Thursday, opposition activists said, cutting a key highway just days after the government reopened it for the first time since 2012.
Despite losing the town of Saraqeb, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces made major gains to the south. Assad now controls almost the entire southern part of Idlib province after capturing more than 20 villages Thursday, state media and opposition activists said. It’s part of a weekslong campaign backed by Russian air power into Syria’s last rebel stronghold.
Violence in Idlib province also left three more Turkish soldiers dead, according to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, raising the number of Turkish troops killed in Syria this month to 21. Thousands of Turkish soldiers are deployed inside rebel-controlled areas of Idlib province, which is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants.
Turkey’s U.N. Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioglu told the Security Council on Thursday that Turkey was committed to upholding a fragile cease-fire agreement that Turkey and Russia reached on Idlib in 2018.