In an escalation over the skies of Syria, Turkey shot down two Su-24 Syrian warplanes (dubbed Fencer by NATO) over Idlib on Sunday. It further struck a military airport near Aleppo thus expanding its military operations following the Assad attacks that killed dozens of Turkish soldiers last week. The escalation indicates that Erdogan secured NATO backing to further escalate in Syria.
Ankara has ramped up its attacks, including drone strikes, against the Russian-backed Syrian forces since Thursday.
It has already deployed thousands of troops and military vehicles in northwest Syria’s Idlib province in the last month to stem advances by Syrian government forces. These advances displaced 1 million Syrians close to Turkey’s southern border.
Already hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Ankara is determined to prevent any further influx from Syria. It has also let migrants cross its borders into the European Union, in an apparent effort to press for EU support in tackling the Syria crisis.
OPERATION SPRING SHIELD
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in the last four days Turkish forces destroyed eight helicopters, 103 tanks, 72 howitzers, rocket launchers, a drone and six air defense systems. He dubbed Turkey’s operation, its fourth incursion in Syria in four years, “Operation Spring Shield”.
In response, Syria’s army said it shot down three Turkish drones. It further warned it would take down any aircraft breaching the air space over the northwest, which Russia has controlled in years.
Despite the warning, Turkish warplanes downed two Syrian warplanes. Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu agency said the Turkish military had targeted and rendered unusable Nayrab airport, west of Aleppo city.
Turkey-backed opposition commanders also said that they bombed Kuweires airport, east of Nayrab. Both airports are well inside Syrian government controlled territory. Assad air force uses both to bomb civilians. This marks a significant expansion of Ankara’s targets.
The fighting has risked drawing Russia and Turkey, who cooperated for years to contain the fighting despite backing rival sides in Syria’s nine-year war, into direct conflict.
Turkey’s Akar said:
We have neither the intention nor the notion to face Russia. Our only intention there is for the (Syrian) regime to end the massacre and thereby prevent … radicalization and migration.
He said that Turkey neutralized 2,212 members of the Syrian forces, which means killed, wounded or captured.
Assad forces killed fifty-five Turkish troops in Idlib in February.
TURKEY AND RUSSIA ARE ON A COLLISION COURSE
Diplomatic efforts by Ankara and Moscow to defuse tensions have failed to agree a ceasefire in Idlib.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that while there was progress in talks between Turkish and Russian delegations, only presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin could resolve the issue.
A senior Turkish official and a security official said the meeting would be held on Thursday in Moscow. The officials said the two leaders would discuss steps to take in Idlib.
The Kremlin said it hoped Erdogan and Putin would meet on Thursday or Friday. Cavusoglu and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov agreed on the need to create a “favorable atmosphere” to improve working relations between their countries, Russia’s foreign ministry said.
The latest fighting in Idlib has uprooted 1 million civilians since December. Many of them women and children fleeing towards the Turkish border.
Turkey said it would allow migrants to cross into Europe in anticipation of an imminent new migrant influx from Idlib. Thus, it lifted any restraints on migrant movement in place since 2016 under a deal with the EU.
Greek police fired tear gas to repel hundreds of stone-throwing migrants. The migrants attempted to force their way across the border from Turkey on Sunday. Thousands more are streaming towards the EU after Ankara relaxed curbs on their movement.
Reuters contributed to this article.