Turkey has warned Russian authorities to avoid confrontation with the Turkish military in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, as the country retaliates the Bashar Assad regime's recent attack that killed seven Turkish soldiers, and a civilian staff and left seven others wounded, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Monday. On the same day, the defense ministry announced the cancelation of a scheduled Turkish-Russian joint patrol in Syria’s Ayn al-Arab province shortly after a statement from Moscow, which was later rejected by Turkish officials.
The president noted that Turkish officials have spoken with Russian authorities regarding the situation in Idlib and have told them to avoid confronting Turkish forces in the area during an operation to prevent incessant attacks by the Assad regime.
Erdoğan noted that Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has already spoken with his Russian counterpart, while Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and National Intelligence Organization (MIT) head Hakan Fidan are planning to discuss the issue with their counterparts.
“More importantly, if we do not see the desired results then I will speak with my counterpart and convey to him the critical nature of the matter,” the president said.
He continued by adding that the ongoing Turkish operation is being carried out based on frequent correspondence between Turkish and Russian generals on the ground.
Erdoğan noted that around 30 to 35 regime troops were killed after Turkey retaliated against the Assad regime for attacking Turkish troops in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, where attempts to establish a cease-fire have failed numerous times.
Expressing determination to stop Assad regime attacks in the area, Erdoğan said there is an ongoing operation to ensure the safety of Turkey’s borders and the Syrian people.
"We are determined to continue our operations to ensure the safety of our country, our nation and our brothers in Idlib," Erdoğan said.
Soon after Erdoğan's statements that Turkey would continue its operations to eliminate threats near its borders, it was reported that Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) artillery targeted the positions of YPG/PKK terrorists in the village of Khalidiya and in the vicinity of Ain Issa area north of Raqqa.
“Those who test Turkey’s determination regarding Syria’s Idlib with such treacherous attacks will realize their mistake,” Erdoğan said.
He noted that Turkish F-16 fighter jets and howitzers continue to carry out attacks against regime targets in Idlib.
“We are targeting around 40 places,” the president said.
Later in the day, Erdoğan said that developments in Idlib gradually reached an unbearable level due to Russia turning a blind eye to regime attacks.
During a joint news conference with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv, Erdoğan reiterated that Turkey is taking necessary steps against attacks on Turkish forces in the region.
He also reminded that nearly 1 million people have moved toward the Turkish border, fleeing regime attacks in Idlib, where there are approximately 10,000 damaged buildings that Turkey will restore.
Seven Turkish soldiers and civilian staff were killed and seven others were injured after shelling by Assad regime forces.
There are 12 Turkish observation posts that were established as part of a deal signed between Turkey and Russia to prevent Assad regime attacks in Idlib.
Idlib, the last opposition enclave in Syria, had a prewar population of 1.5 million. The number swelled to around 3 million with new refugee waves after it was designated a "de-escalation zone" under the Astana agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran in May 2017. The agreement was intended to pave the way for a permanent political solution in Syria. The Turkish military set up 12 observation posts in Idlib's de-escalation zone after the ninth round of Astana-hosted peace talks.
Although Turkey and Russia agreed to stop acts of aggression and turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone, the Syrian regime has consistently violated the cease-fire, launching frequent attacks inside the de-escalation zone.
Following eight months of relative calm provided by the Sochi deal, the Assad regime intensified its attacks starting April 26, under the pretext of fighting Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militants holed up in Idlib.
As a guarantor state for Damascus, Moscow is responsible for preventing attacks by the Assad regime and Iran-backed militia groups, which have repeatedly violated last year's Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia.
Turkey has become the primary destination for civilians fleeing Syria as a result of the ongoing conflict in the country. While supporting a political solution to the crisis, Turkey has also been fighting terrorist organizations like Daesh and the PKK/YPG in Syria, which pose a national security threat.
Ankara has long complained about the Western countries’ and the international community’s lack of support for the humanitarian crisis and the anti-terror fight in Syria, frequently claiming that the country is “left alone.”
“Turkey continues to take steps on the ground and at the negotiating table to ensure its and its neighbors’ border security and to re-facilitate peace in the region,” the Presidential Communications Directorate said in a statement Monday, noting that the establishment of the de-escalation zone in Idlib was one of the most important steps taken by the country, proving its determination for peace.
More importantly, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) contribute greatly to preventing further deterioration of the humanitarian crisis in the country through observation points in Idlib and facilitating the coordination of humanitarian aid, observation of migration waves and prevention of civilian losses, the directorate said.
Noting that the attack on Monday aimed to interrupt the military’s goals and activities in the area, the communications directorate warned that the attack does not only violate the de-escalation agreement but also threatens to increase the flow of refugees fleeing to neighboring countries and causing further humanitarian crises.
The directorate also urged the international community to offer a “strong response” to the regime attacks in Idlib.
“The Assad regime’s attack on our forces is the latest example of its cowardly actions in northern Syria. This regime has killed hundreds of thousands of its own people. Its belligerent actions against our military will not be tolerated”, Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said on Monday.
Releasing a series of statements from his official Twitter account, Altun stated that Turkish soldiers are currently conducting security and humanitarian missions inside Syria in line with the agreements with Russia.
“If Russia is unable to control the Assad regime from targeting us, we will not hesitate to take actions against any threat, just as we did today in Idlib,” he underlined.
“We grieve for our fallen martyrs today, but we will not be deterred by the threats of a criminal regime. We can’t compromise our national security. The Syrian crisis has to be brought to an end through serious involvement and robust support by the international community,” Altun continued.
He also warned that if the tension persists in Idlib, a new humanitarian crisis is on the way.
“If the international community does not stand with Turkey against instances of aggression like this one, it will be faced with yet another refugee crisis along our borders. We have been telling the world this is unsustainable, but they prefer looking the other way,” Altun said.
AK Party spokesman rejects Russian defense ministry claims
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Spokesperson Ömer Çelik rejected the Russian foreign ministry statement claiming that Turkey did not inform Russian authorities regarding the attack on the Assad regime in Syria's Idlib.
"The statement claiming that Turkey did not inform Russia is incorrect. Turkey informs Russia on a regular basis," Çelik said, adding that Turkey had also informed Russia on the latest attack on regime forces.
"The mechanisms in place have been utilized like always," Çelik added.
Earlier Monday, the Russian foreign ministry claimed the Turkish military was caught in the crossfire from Assad regime troops when the latter was allegedly targeting opposition forces in an area west of Saraqib.
"Turkish troops were changing locations at night in the Idlib de-escalation zone without informing the Russian side," the ministry said in a statement.
The Russian ministry also noted that Turkish fighter jets did not violate Syria's border and no attacks on regime troops were recorded.
Shortly after the Russian statement, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced that the joint patrols scheduled for Monday in Syria’s Ayn al-Arab were canceled, without providing further details.
Turkish and Russian troops have been carrying out joint ground patrols in northern Syria under a deal reached in October.
The Turkey-Russia agreement was reached after a series of talks between President Erdoğan and President Vladimir Putin in Russia. The deal had stipulated that Turkey will preserve a "safe zone" inside Syria that would be about 120 kilometers long and 32 kilometers deep. It also ensured that Russian military police and Syrian border guards would "facilitate the removal" of YPG terrorists and their weapons from within 30 kilometers of the border.
Turkish military retaliates in kind as death toll hits 6 following attack
The Turkish military immediately retaliated against the attack by the Assad regime forces in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, causing significant damage, according to Turkish officials, while the number of Turkish people killed in the attack was revised to six from four as two individuals who were injured in the attack succumbed to their injuries.
The military destroyed targets in the area, the defense ministry said in a statement. The regime targets involved in the attack on Turkish troops were destroyed in intense artillery fire. Initial reports noted that 35 regime soldiers were killed by the Turkish military.
While the initial death toll in the regime attack was announced as four, two soldiers injured in the shelling lost their lives while receiving treatment at a hospital in southern Hatay province near the Syrian border.
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