(MOSCOW) — Russia’s military has denied it is responsible for airstrikes that killed dozens of Turkish soldiers Thursday night in the Syrian province of Idlib, an incident which threatens to cause a major escalation in Syria’s civil war.
Turkey has said at least 33 of its troops were killed and almost 40 more injured in the strikes. It said the airstrikes were carried out by the Syrian government.
The deaths, the worst loss of life for Turkey’s military since it became involved in Syria, occurred amid rising tensions and a spiraling humanitarian crisis in Idlib. This comes as Turkey seeks to halt a ferocious two-month Russian-backed offensive by the Syrian government as it seeks to retake the province.
In recent weeks, Turkey’s military has been supporting Syrian rebels as they mount a counter-offensive. Intense fighting has been raging for days as Turkey has backed the rebels using artillery and other heavy weaponry, while Russia has conducted airstrikes in support of the Syrian government forces.
The strike on Thursday came after the rebels retook the key town of Saraqeb.
Rahmi Dogan, the governor of Turkey’s Hatay, told the state-run Anadolu news agency that he and other Turkish officials blamed the strikes on the Syrian government.
There had quickly been speculation that the strikes that killed the Turkish troops could have been carried out by Russian warplanes. Russia has been conducting the majority of airstrikes in the area in recent days, despite Turkey’s statement that the planes had belonged to the Syrian government.
Russia’s defense ministry on Friday denied its aircraft had carried out any airstrikes in the area and said the Turkish troops had come under fire from Syrian government forces and had been deployed alongside jihadist fighters. The Russian ministry, in a statement, blamed Turkey for the deaths, saying it had failed to inform Russia of their location despite Russian requests that it do so in order to avoid such incidents. It said as soon as Russia became aware of the Turkish casualties, it immediately took “exhaustive measures” to have the Syrian government forces cease-fire and allow Turkey to evacuate its dead and wounded.
“On 27 February, in the area of the village of Behun, Turkish servicemen came under fire from Syrian troops, while they were located among terrorist formations,” the ministry said in the statement. The ministry said that Turkey had informed Russia that “no units of the Turkish armed forces were in the area of the village of Behun and they shouldn’t have been there.”
The incident is the most serious so far as the proxy war between Russia and Turkey in northeast Syria has intensified and as the two countries’ forces have increasingly come into direct contact. It occurred on the same day that a Russian delegation met with Turkish officials in Ankara to discuss the situation, but which ended without any public results.
Turkey’s president, Tayyip Recep Erdogan, convened an emergency meeting of his security council in response to the Turkish soldiers’ deaths. Following the meeting, his top spokesman said that Turkey would retaliate against the Syrian government and announced that it has been “targeting all regime positions from the ground and the air.”
“We had a national security meeting under the leadership of our President Erdogan following the cowardly attack on our troops. Turkey decided to respond to the illegitimate Assad regime responsible for this attack and the murder of hundreds of thousands of Syrians,” spokesman Fahrettin Altun wrote on his Twitter account.
He wrote that Turkey calls on Russia and Iran, as well as the broader international community, to “honor their responsibilities” to the Astana peace process, which designates Idlib a de-escalation zone.
“A repeat of past genocides such as those in Rwanda and Bosnia cannot be allowed in Idlib,” he wrote.
NATO announced that it would hold an emergency council meeting on the situation in Syria after Turkey triggered the Article 4 mechanism of the alliance’s charter, which permits members to seek consultations when their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.
NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke with Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu by phone, the Turkish state-run news agency Anadolu reported.
Turkey has been calling for the international community to help halt the Russian-backed offensive in Idlib as the humanitarian crisis there worsens. The offensive has already sent hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing towards the border with Turkey. Huge numbers of people are sleeping in tent camps in freezing temperatures.
“The world is sitting on its hands and watching the destruction of Idlib by Assad, Iran, and the Russians,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a statement. “I very much appreciate Turkey’s intervention in Idlib. It is now time for the international community to establish a no-fly zone to save thousands of innocent men, women, and children from a horrible death.”
Around 950,000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes in Idlib since late December, according to the U.N., and around 300 have been killed in the fighting.
The U.N. Secretary-General has reiterated his call for an immediate cease-fire and expressed serious concern about the risk to civilians from escalating military actions,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Turkey has previously warned that if the offensive succeeds, it will not try to prevent a new exodus of refugees leaving Idlib from trying to reach Europe.
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