Turkey said on Thursday that two Turkish soldiers were killed and another five were wounded in Syrian government airstrikes near the northwestern region of Idlib on Thursday, adding that more than 50 Syrian forces had been killed in retaliation.
The attacks come a day after President Tayyip Erdogan warned of an imminent Turkish military offensive in Idlib, where Syrian forces, backed by Russia air power, have mounted an offensive to capture the region. Earlier this month, 13 Turkish soldiers were killed in Syrian attacks, prompting Erdogan to say that Turkey will strike Syrian forces "anywhere" in Syria if another soldier was hurt.
In a statement, the defense ministry said five tanks, two armoured personnel carriers, two armoured trucks and one howitzer were also destroyed in retaliation. Shortly after Turkey's Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said the soldiers, who were in Idlib to "establish peace and manage humanitarian aid operations," were killed by "an attack carried out by the (Syrian) regime."
Russia's defense ministry accused Turkey earlier on Thursday of providing artillery support to militants fighting Syrian government forces and said militants briefly broke through government defences in Idlib, Russian news agencies reported.
Russia's air force carried out strikes on the pro-Turkish militants who burst through Syrian government positions in two areas of Idlib province, allowing the Syrian army to repel the attacks, the ministry was cited as saying.
The Russian ministry's comments were reported by the RIA, Interfax and TASS news agencies.
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Turkey and Russia are discussing possible joint patrols around Syria's northwestern Idlib region as one option to ensure security there, a Turkish official also said on Thursday, as Ankara ramped up threats of a military offensive in the region.
Erdogan said on Wednesday a Turkish military operation in Idlib to drive back a Russian-led Syrian government offensive was a "matter of time" after talks with Moscow were unsuccessful. His foreign minister said on Thursday that talks with Russia were warming, but not at desired levels.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Iran, Turkey and Russia plan to meet in Tehran early next month to further discuss Syria, including Idlib. A Russian delegation may come to Ankara before that for further talks, the person said.
The Kremlin, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said a confrontation between Turkish and Syrian forces would be a "worst-case scenario" and Russia would keep working to prevent the situation from worsening.
Syrian troops supported by Russian warplanes and special forces have been battling since December to eradicate the last rebel bastions in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in what could be one of the final chapters of the nine-year-old civil war.
Nearly one million civilians have fled from air strikes and artillery barrages towards the frontier, overwhelming relief agencies and alarming Turkey, which is struggling to cope with the 3.6 million Syrian refugees already camped inside its borders.
Speaking to lawmakers from his ruling AK Party on Wednesday, Erdogan said Turkey was determined to make Idlib a secure zone even while talks with Moscow continued. Several rounds of diplomacy had failed to reach an agreement so far, he said.
"We are entering the last days for the regime to stop its hostility in Idlib. We are making our final warnings," said Erdogan, whose country has the second-largest army in NATO.
"Turkey has made every preparation to carry out its own operational plans. I say that we can come at any point. In other words, the Idlib offensive is only a matter of time."
The Turkish leader on Saturday appeared to move forward the end-of-February deadline for a Syrian withdrawal from Idlib that he had previously stated.
Assad, whose family dynasty has ruled Syria for nearly half a century, has showed no sign of bowing to the demand, saying on Monday that his military gains presaged the eventual defeat of his foes. They include Turkish-backed rebels and jihadist militants.
An opposition military source told Reuters that 15,000 Turkish soldiers were now in northwest Syria after numerous convoys of reinforcements and weaponry had poured into the territory in recent days.
"You can't imagine the scale of Turkish reinforcements, half of Reyhanli is now full of Turkish commandoes ready to enter Syria," he said, referring to a Turkish border town. "They are readying their forces for zero hour, operations are expected to start any time."