Syria’s official news agency said two of its warplanes were shot down by Turkish forces inside northwest Syria on Sunday, amid a military escalation that has led to increasingly direct clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces.
The Syrian Arab News Agency added that the jets were targeted over the Idlib region, and that the pilots ejected with parachutes and landed safely. It also reported on Sunday that government forces had shot down three Turkish drones in total, one over the town of Saraqeb in northwest Idlib.
Turkey's state-owned Anadolu agency reported that the Turkish military targeted and disabled Syria's Nayrab military airport in the northern province of Aleppo.
These confrontations have added to soaring tensions between Turkey and Russia, which support opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.
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Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, speaking from military headquarters near the Syrian border, said Turkey aimed to confront Syrian government forces rather than Russian troops. He called on Moscow to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to withdraw to 2018 cease-fire lines on the edges of Idlib.
Ankara began using drones to strike at President Bashar al Assad's forces after the death last Thursday of 33 Turkish soldiers in an air strike by Damascus.
The Syrian opposition said the drone attacks have been instrumental in inflicting heavy losses on the Syrian army and allied Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside them.
Referring to losses inflicted on Syria, he said Turkey had “neutralized” more than 2,200 Syrian troops, 103 tanks and eight helicopters.
“The Spring Shield operation, which was launched following the abominable attack in Idlib on February 27, continues successfully," Akar said, referring to air strikes that killed 33 Turkish soldiers.
The operation is Turkey's fourth in the war-torn country since 2016.
The heavy fighting in northwest Syria has also triggered a humanitarian catastrophe and the single largest wave of displacement in the nine-year Syrian civil war.
Ankara is worried it might come under renewed international pressure to open its now sealed border with Syria and offer refuge to hundreds of thousands more Syrian civilians. Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday announced his country had opened its western borders to migrants and refugees hoping to head into the European Union. The United Nations said Sunday that at least 13,000 people were massed on Turkey’s land border with Greece.
Erdogan did not explicitly link his decision to open the gates to Europe to the military escalation in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. However, he has warned that Turkey “can’t handle a new wave of migration,” an apparent reference to Idlib where hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrian civilians fleeing Syrian troop advances moved toward the Turkish border.
The decision made good on a longstanding threat to let refugees into the continent. His announcement marked a dramatic departure from the current policy and an apparent attempt to pressure Europe into offering Turkey more support in dealing with the fallout from the Syrian war to its south.