An airstrike by Syrian government forces killed 29 Turkish soldiers in northeast Syria, a Turkish official said Friday, marking the largest death toll for Turkey in a single day since it first intervened in Syria in 2016. The deaths were a serious escalation in the direct conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces that has been waged since early February.
Rahmi Dogan, the governor of Turkey’s Hatay province bordering Syria’s Idlib region, said 29 troops were killed and others were seriously wounded in the attack late Thursday. He said 39 injured people were being treated in Turkish hospitals.
Three Turkish soldiers were killed earlier Thursday in Idlib. At least 50 have now been killed in Idlib since the start of February.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was holding an emergency security meeting in Ankara, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported. Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevult Cavusoglu spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg by telephone.
Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, who plays a senior role in foreign affairs, also spoke to U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.
The air strike came after a Russian delegation spent two days in Ankara for talks with Turkish officials on the situation in Idlib, where a Syrian government offensive has sent hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing towards the Turkish border. The offensive has also engulfed many of the 12 military observation posts Turkey has in Idlib.
Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director, said “all known” Syrian government targets were under attack by Turkish air and land forces in response to the deaths. Turkish television news channels aired black-and-white footage of air strikes on Syrian targets.
Omer Celik, spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling party, said NATO should stand by Turkey’s side. Ankara recently called for U.S. Patriot missiles to be deployed to defend its forces in Syria.
In a message seemingly aimed at Europe, he added: “Our refugee policy is the same but there’s a situation there, we’re no longer able to hold refugees.”
Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and under a 2016 deal with the European Union agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. Since then Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates” in several disputes with European states.
Angry crowds gathered outside the Russian consulate in Istanbul, Anadolu said. Standing in front of a line of riot police and a water cannon, they chanted “Murderer Russia, murderer Putin.”
The air strike came after Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters retook a strategic northwestern town from government forces on Thursday, opposition activists said, cutting a key highway just days after the government reopened it for the first time since 2012.
Despite the loss, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces made major gains to the south. Assad now controls almost the entire southern part of Idlib province after capturing more than 20 villages Thursday, state media and opposition activists said. It’s part of a weeks-long campaign backed by Russian air power into Syria’s last rebel stronghold.
Turkey’s U.N. Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioglu told the Security Council on Thursday that Turkey was committed to upholding a fragile cease-fire agreement that Turkey and Russia reached on Idlib in 2018.
The Syrian government troops’ “deliberate attacks on our forces has been a turning point. We are now determined more than ever to preserve Idlib’s de-escalation status.”
The Syrian government’s military campaign to recapture Idlib province has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe and the war’s largest single wave of displacement. According to the United Nations, almost 950,000 civilians have been displaced since early December, and more than 300 have been killed. Most have fled farther north to safer areas near the Turkish border, overwhelming camps already crowded with refugees in cold winter weather.