Turkey launched a massive operation in Syria targeting government troops after the recent attack on Turkish troops last week left at least 34 Turkish soldiers dead, the country’s defense chief said on Sunday.
“Operation Spring Shield, which was launched following the heinous attack (on Turkish soldiers) on Feb. 27 is successfully being carried out,” Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said of this new operation.
Akar claimed that the Turkish forces had taken out a drone, eight helicopters, 103 tanks, 19 armored personnel carriers, 72 cannons/howitzers/multiple rocket launchers, three air-defense systems, 15 anti-tanks/mortars, 56 armored vehicles, and nine ammunition depots. He added that 1,212 regime soldiers and elements “have been neutralized” thus far. There hasn’t been any confirmation of those numbers yet.
Akar made it clear that Turkey’s only target during the operation would be regime soldiers and elements in Idlib under Turkey’s right to self-defense. The Turks are not targeting Russian forces and President Erdogan has urged Russian President Putin not to interfere with the ongoing operations and to respect the Sochi agreement signed in September of 2018, which was supposed to prevent any acts of aggression in Idlib.
The state-run Turkish Anadolu news agency claimed that Turkey shot down “a regime plane” over Idlib on Sunday. However, the official Syrian news agency, Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) denies this, stating that it was a “Turkish regime drone” that had been downed over the town of Saraqeb in Idlib. Several hours later, SANA said that Turkish forces “targeted” two Syrian aircraft in the region, but the pilots used parachutes and “landed safely.” Those aircraft are believed to be SU-24 Fencer Long-Range strike aircraft.
Shortly after this, the Syrian military announced: “the closure of the airspace for aircraft flights and any planes traveling over the northwestern region of Syria, especially over [the] Idlib governorate.”
A military source told SANA that “any aircraft that violates our airspace will be treated as a hostile flight that must be shot down and prevented from achieving its objectives.”
This spike in violence comes contrary to the September 2018 Sochi agreement whereby Turkey and Russia agreed to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone, in which acts of aggression would expressly be prohibited.
However, the Syrian regime and forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian airstrikes, have launched an offensive to capture Idlib from opposition rebel forces, who are backed by the Turkish military.
Since December, Syrian government forces have steadily advanced into Idlib province, seizing control of the strategic M5 highway as well as moving into parts of Aleppo province, which borders Idlib. Because of the heavy fighting in Idlib, more than one million more Syrians have been displaced and are streaming towards the Turkish border where Erdogan’s government already houses three and a half million refugees from the fighting. Over 1,300 civilians have been killed so far as a result of the violence in Idlib.
Erdogan asked for the EU and NATO for support. NATO, EU and United States troops have been supporting rebel forces and fighting ISIS inside of Syria in the nine-year civil war. But the Turks have grown frustrated with the lack of response by NATO and Erdogan has threatened to open his borders with Greece, Bulgaria, and thus Europe, to millions of migrants who are currently housed in Turkey.
Turkish President Erdogan has insisted that he will not back down, adding that his country could not handle another wave of refugees from northern Syria. “We opened the doors,” he said, “we will not close those doors. Why? Because the EU should keep its promises.”
The United Nations said on Sunday that at least 30,000 people were massed on Turkey’s land border with Greece, as a result of Turkey’s declaration that its western borders were open to migrants and refugees hoping to head into the European Union. Tensions rose as Greek police fired tear gas at migrants trying to push inside the Greek border.
Frustrated refugees hurled stones and metal bars at Greek border police as loudspeakers broadcasted that the Greek border was closed.