Turkey shot down two Syrian fighter jets over Idlib on Sunday and hit a military airport far beyond its front lines in a sharp escalation in military operations after the deaths of dozens of Turkish soldiers last week .
Ankara has intensified its attacks, including drone strikes, against Russian-backed Syrian forces since Thursday, when 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike from Damascus.
It has already deployed thousands of soldiers and military vehicles to Idlib province in northwestern Syria last month to stem the advances of Syrian government forces, which have displaced 1 million people near the southern border of Turkey.
Already hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Ankara is determined to prevent any further influx from Syria. It has also allowed migrants to cross its borders into the European Union, in an apparent effort to pressure the EU to support the Syrian crisis.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in the past four days that Turkish forces have destroyed eight helicopters, 103 tanks, 72 howitzers, rocket launchers, a drone and six air defense systems. He dubbed the Turkish Operation, his fourth foray into Syria in four years, “Operation Spring Shield”.
In response, the Syrian military said it had shot down three Turkish drones and warned that it would shoot down any aircraft entering airspace over the northwest, which has been controlled for years by the main ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia.
Despite the warning, Turkish fighter planes shot down two Syrian warplanes, while Turkish state agency Anadolu said the Turkish military had targeted and rendered unusable Nayrab airport to the west of the city of Aleppo.
Turkish-backed opposition commanders also said that Kuweires airport, east of Nayrab, had been bombed since midnight. The two airports are well within the Syrian government-controlled territory, marking a significant expansion of Ankara’s targets.
The fighting risked causing a direct conflict between Russia and Turkey, who had cooperated for years to contain the fighting despite the support of rival sides in the nine-year war in Syria.
“We have neither the intention nor the notion of facing Russia. Our only intention is that the (Syrian) regime will end the massacre and thus prevent … radicalization and migration,” said the Turk. Akar.
He said 2,212 members of the Syrian forces had been “neutralized”, a term used to refer to the killed, wounded or captured. The Syrian Observatory, a war observer based in Britain, said that 74 Syrian government soldiers and pro-Damascus fighters had been killed since February 27.
Fifty-five Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib in February.
Diplomatic efforts by Ankara and Moscow to defuse tensions have failed to conclude a ceasefire in Idlib, which is part of the last great Syrian rebel stronghold.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday that if talks between the Turkish and Russian delegations progress, the Idlib issue will only be resolved between Presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin.
A senior Turkish official and a security official said the meeting would be held in Moscow on Thursday. Officials said the two leaders would discuss measures to be taken at Idlib and that they should reach a mutual agreement.
The Kremlin has said it hopes Erdogan and Putin will 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, said the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The latest fighting in Idlib has uprooted 1 million civilians since December, including many women and children fleeing to the Turkish border.
Turkey has said it will allow migrants to enter Europe in anticipation of another imminent influx of migrants from Idlib, lifting movement restrictions in place since 2016 under an agreement with the European Union.
Greek police fired tear gas to repel Sunday hundreds of stone-throwing migrants who attempted to force the crossing of the Turkish border on Sunday, witnesses said, with thousands more behind them after Ankara relaxed travel restrictions.
Turkey’s borders with Europe were closed to migrants under the agreement between the Turkish-EU agreement which ended the 2015-2016 migration crisis, when more than a million people entered in Europe.