Five Turkish soldiers killed by Syrian shelling

What happened: The Turkey-Syria conflict intensified yesterday, after Turkey’s defence ministry announced that five Turkish soldiers were killed and five more wounded by Syrian shelling of a Turkish observation post; Turkey responded by shelling Syrian army targets. The exchange took place in Idlib in north-western Syria.

  • Forces loyal to the Assad government, with Russian air support, continued to advance on Idlib’s city centre, taking the strategic town of Saraqib
  • Pro-Iranian militias are also heading towards the province from western Aleppo.
  • Over the weekend, Turkey transported large convoys of vehicles carrying commandos, tanks, and artillery to shore up 12 military posts in Idlib, according to The Telegraph
  • Russian and Syrian regime bombardment of the village of Abin Semaan yesterday killed nine civilians including six children
  • Russia-Turkey talks held in Ankara yesterday made no progress towards calming the situation and halting the clashes, Reuters reported

Context: Turkey is deeply embedded in north-western Syria, in a campaign to defend the rebel-held province from a Syrian onslaught, which Turkey fears could result in hundreds of thousands more Syrian refugees trying to enter Turkey, which is already under strain after absorbing 3.6m Syrian refugees since 2011.

  • Last week, eight Turkish military personnel were killed in another attack by Syrian forces.
  • Turkey forces also occupy areas of north-eastern Syria, which it invaded last October in a campaign to push Kurdish forces away from the Turkey-Syria border
  • The spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs said that 689,000 of the three million people living in Idlib have fled their homes since 1 December 2019.

Looking ahead: Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has threatened to drive back Syrian troops in Idlib, saying: “We hope that the process of the regime pulling back behind our observation posts is completed in the month of February. If the regime does not pull back during this time, Turkey will have to do this job itself.”

  • Turkey’s aim is to significantly raise the price for Russia of its support for Assad, in the hope that Moscow decides to rein in Damascus in its conflict with Turkey.
  • But Syria has vowed to continue the fight, calling the Turkish presence on Syrian territory an “illegal and flagrant act of aggression.”

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