Syrian and Turkish forces on Monday exchanged fire in another deadly clash in northwest Syria, where nearly 700,000 people have fled escalating violence in the last major opposition bastion.
Turkey, which backs Syrian rebel factions, said that five of its soldiers were killed by Syrian regime fire in Idlib Province, adding that it “neutralized” 101 Syrian soldiers in response.
It was not possible to verify the claim and neither Syrian state media nor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, immediately reported casualties among Syrian army ranks.
The exchange was the second in eight days and took place in the area of Taftanaz, where Turkey recently sent in troops, the Britain-based observatory said.
Regime shelling a week earlier killed eight Turkish soldiers, prompting a deadly response by the Turkish army.
The clashes are further straining relations between Damascus and Ankara, while also increasing tensions between Russia and Turkey — the conflict’s chief foreign protagonists.
Syrian government forces backed by Moscow have pressed a blistering assault against the last major rebel bastion in Syria’s northwest for more than two months.
Violence in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo has displaced 689,000 people, said David Swanson, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“The number of people being displaced in this crisis is now spiraling out of control,” he told reporters on Monday.
The exodus is one of the largest of the nine-year civil war and risks creating one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the conflict.
It has sparked alarm from Turkey, which already hosts about 3.7 million Syrian refugees and fears another influx.
The Turkish Ministry of National Defense said that the troops targeted on Monday had been sent “as reinforcement to the region with an aim to prevent clashes in Idlib, ensure our border security, and stop migration and human tragedy.”
The ministry warned that Ankara would respond “in the strongest possible way” to any new attack.
In a sign of growing tensions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday night convened a meeting in Ankara of Cabinet ministers, the army chief of staff and the country’s intelligence chief to review the situation in Idlib, local media reported.
Since Friday last week, large convoys of vehicles carrying commandos, tanks and artillery pieces have reinforced 12 Turkish military posts in Idlib, installed by Ankara under a 2018 deal with Russia to stave off a regime offensive.
However, the agreement has failed to stop the government’s advance, with Turkey saying that regime forces have surrounded three of its outposts.
Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s top press aide, wrote on Twitter that “Turkey retaliated against the attack to destroy all enemy targets and [avenge] our fallen troops.”
Erdogan has given Damascus until the end of the month to retreat from its outposts and urged Russia to convince the regime to halt its offensive.
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