Erdogan Threatens Syria: Any More Troops Hurt, We Will Strike Freely

The flare-up has given rise to some of the most serious confrontations between Ankara and Damascus ■ U.S. troops return fire on Syrian locals, killing one and injuring another

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Turkish military vehicles are seen in Hazano near Idlib, Syria, February 11, 2020.
Turkish military vehicles are seen in Hazano near Idlib, Syria, February 11, 2020. Credit: KHALIL ASHAWI/ REUTERS

Turkey will strike Syrian government forces anywhere it sees in northern Syria if another Turkish soldier is hurt, and it could use air power, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday.

Speaking in Ankara, Erdogan said Turkey is determined to push Syrian government forces beyond Turkish observation posts in the northwestern Idlib region by the end of February. "We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan discussed the escalating conflict in Syria's Idlib province by phone, the Kremlin said on Wednesday.

The Kremlin said in a brief readout of the call that Putin and Erdogan had agreed on the importance of implementing Russo-Turkish agreements on Syria and that contacts between Syria and Russia on Syria should continue through the relevant agencies.

Turkish delegation will go to Moscow in coming days to discuss the escalating conflict in Syria's Idlib region, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Wednesday, adding that around 1 million people had been displaced there due to Russian-backed Syrian attacks.

Speaking at a news conference in Tirana, Cavusoglu also said Germany had provided Turkey with 40 million euros ($44 million) in support of Turkish plans to settle Syrians fleeing from Idlib.

The Kremlin also on Wednesday accused Turkey of flouting agreements it had made with Russia to neutralize militants in the Syrian province of Idlib and said militant attacks on Syrian and Russian forces in the region were continuing.

Turkish military convoy is seen near the town of Idlib, Syria, February 12, 2020. Credit: Ghaith Alsayed,AP

The Kremlin made its comments after Erdogan said his country's military would strike Russian-backed Syrian forces by air or ground anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt as the Assad government tried to regain control of Idlib province.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said its troops opened fire on Wednesday at a checkpoint in northeast Syria after they came under small arms fire. In a statement the coalition said the situation was de-escalated and the patrol returned to the base.

Syrian media said that a Syrian civilian was killed and another was wounded when U.S. troops opened fire on locals who had tried to block a U.S. convoy from driving through a checkpoint in a village in the country's northeast.

The state SANA news agency said the locals had gathered at the army checkpoint in the village of Khirbet Ammu, east of the town of Qamishli, pelting the U.S. convoy with stones and taking down a U.S. flag from one vehicle. At that point, U.S. troops fired with live ammunition and smoke bombs at the residents, the report said.

The reported incident marks a rare confrontation involving U.S. and Syria troops in the crowded region where Russian troops are also deployed — and is sure to further escalate tensions.

On Tuesday, Turkey said 51 Syrian soldiers were killed in northwest Syria as Turkish-backed rebels struck back against Russian-supported government forces who had made gains in their campaign to eliminate the last insurgent bastion in the country. The rebels also downed a Syrian army helicopter.

Internally displaced Syrians from western Aleppo countryside, ride on a vehicle with belongings in Hazano near Idlib, Syria, February 11, 2020.Credit: KHALIL ASHAWI/ REUTERS

The Turkish Defense Ministry cited sources on the ground for the information, adding that two Syrian tanks and one ammunition store were destroyed as well.

Hours before, a war monitor reported that Syrian government forces seized control of the main Aleppo-to-Damascus highway running through the embattled northwest province of Idlib for the first time since the early days of the civil war in 2012.

The flare-up of fighting has given rise to some of the most serious confrontations between Ankara and Damascus in the nine-year-old war in which Russia and Iran have backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But Syrian state media made no mention of this and rebel sources later said fighting was continuing in some northern areas near the M-5 highway, which links Aleppo with the capital Damascus and ultimately Deraa in the far south.

Relief agencies meanwhile said an exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians from the afflicted areas was the largest such movement in the war and marked a new humanitarian crisis.

Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot absorb any more. It said it would halt any new refugee waves from Idlib and its military would remain deployed there.

Talks in Ankara between Turkey and a Russian delegation ended on Monday without agreement on halting the fighting, a Turkish diplomatic source said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.