Turkey said on Sunday it had destroyed air defence systems, more than 100 tanks and downed two planes belonging to the Syrian army as part of an operation it launched after an air strike killed dozens of its soldiers last week.
Tensions in northwest Syria have escalated sharply as fighting between Turkey-backed rebels and Russian-backed Syrian government forces risks bringing the two regional powers into direct confrontation.
Ankara has ramped up its attacks, including drone strikes, against the Syrian army since Thursday, when 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Damascus. Another soldier was killed on Friday, bringing February’s death toll to 55.
Syria’s army warned on Sunday it would take down any planes or drones breaching the air space over the northwest, which has been controlled for years by its ally Moscow.
But within a few hours, Turkey’s Defence Ministry said that it had shot down two Syrian military aircraft. which were on a combat mission, a statement confirmed by the Syrian military.
“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, stop radicalisation and migration,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said.
He dubbed the operation, Turkey’s fourth in Syria, “Spring Shield”. Akar said Turkey had destroyed a drone, eight helicopters, 103 tanks, 72 howitzers, rocket launchers, and six air defence systems among other military equipment since February 27.
Akar added that 2,212 members of the Syrian forces had been “neutralised”, a term used to designate killed, wounded or captured. The Syrian Observatory, a Britain-based war monitor, said 74 Syrian government troops and pro-Damascus fighters had been killed since February 27.
Diplomatic efforts by Ankara and Moscow to defuse tensions have so far fallen short of achieving a ceasefire in the Idlib region of northwest Syria, the country’s last major rebel stronghold after nine years of civil war.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday that while there was progress in talks between Turkish and Russian delegations, the Idlib issue would only be resolved between presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin.
One senior Turkish official and one security official said the meeting would be held on Thursday in Moscow. The officials said the two would discuss steps to take in Idlib and that they were expected to reach a mutual agreement.