Erdogan vows to press on in Idlib as soldiers die in first major clash with Syrian army

The incident was the first time Turkish and Syrian ground troops clashed directly on Syrian territory since the start of the Syrian war in 2011.
Monday 03/02/2020
A Turkish military convoy of tanks and armoured vehicles passes through the Syrian town of Dana, east of the Turkish-Syrian border in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, February 2. (AFP)
A Turkish military convoy of tanks and armoured vehicles passes through the Syrian town of Dana, east of the Turkish-Syrian border in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, February 2. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday his military would push on with a military incursion into the Syrian border province of Idlib despite the death of four Turkish soldiers in the first major clash with the Syrian military in almost nine years of war.

Erdogan, speaking before embarking on a visit to Ukraine, said Turkish artillery and F-16 warplanes were involved in ongoing retaliatory attacks after the clash in Idlib that also wounded another nine Turkish servicemen. The Turkish leader said around 40 Syrian targets were being hit and that 30 to 35 Syrian soldiers had been killed. There was no immediate comment by the Syrian government.

“We have responded in kind to these attacks and will continue to do so, whether it is with our artillery or mortars. We are determined to continue our operations for the security of our country, people and our brothers in Idlib,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul.

“Those who question our determination will soon understand they made a mistake,” Erdogan added. He stressed that Turkey’s actions were not directed against Russian forces supporting the Syrian army. “You are not our goal, it’s only the regime,” Erdogan said, addressing Russia.

The incident was the first time Turkish and Syrian ground troops clashed directly on Syrian territory since the start of the Syrian war in 2011. Ankara sent tanks, troops and armoured vehicles into Idlib on Sunday in an apparent effort to stop a Syrian government offensive there that threatened to send hundreds of thousands of refugees over the border into Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria.

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.

Erdogan warned last Friday that Turkey would send troops into Idlib to counter the Syrian army’s advance, days after the Syrian military had driven rebels out of the town of Maraat al-Numan. Turkey staged three large-scale military interventions into Syria in 2016, 2018 and last year, but those moves were cleared with Syria’s partner Russia and avoided direct confrontations between Turkish and Syrian troops.

Turkey has 12 military observation posts around Idlib, set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran. Several of them have since been surrounded by advancing Syrian government forces.

Idlib is the last major rebel-held stronghold in Syria’s war and Erdogan, whose country supports some rebel groups in the province, accuses Russia of violating agreements to reduce the fighting in the region, a charge which Moscow denied on Friday.

Ankara did not specify where the soldiers died but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, said the clash took place near the town of Saraqib, around 30 kilometers deep into Idlib province from the Turkish border. The Observatory has said on Sunday a Turkish military convoy had reached an area east of Saraqib. Syria’s state news agency Sana reported on Sunday that Syrian army units had advanced towards Saraqib.

The town sits on the confluence of two important highways, the M4, which connects Latakia on the Mediterranean with Aleppo in the north of Syria, and the M5, which runs between Aleppo and the capital Damascus in the south of the country. Syrian troops want to reopen the M5, which has been under rebel control and closed since 2012.