Syrian government forces killed five Turkish soldiers in northwest Syria on Monday, Turkey’s defense ministry said, after Turkey deployed thousands of troops there to stem a Syrian government offensive which has displaced half a million people.
The attack, on a newly established Turkish military base in Taftanaz in Idlib province, happened a week after eight Turkish military personnel were killed by Syrian army bombardment.
The two incidents marked some of the most serious direct confrontations between Turkish and Syrian troops in the nearly nine-year-long conflict in Syria, where Ankara backs rebels who once hoped to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey said it retaliated for the latest strike.
“Targets identified in the region were immediately targeted intensively…and the necessary response was given. The targets were destroyed and the blood of our martyrs was not left on the ground,” the defense ministry said.
A Turkey-backed Syrian rebel commander said the insurgents had also launched a military operation near the town of Saraqeb, south of Taftanaz, with Turkish artillery support.
Turkey has sent large reinforcements to Idlib, where it already mans a dozen military observation posts under a deal with Russia and Iran aimed at reducing the fighting around Idlib, the last major enclave of opposition to Assad.
Several of the posts are now surrounded by Syrian government forces, but Turkey has poured 5,000 troops and convoys of military vehicles across the border, carrying tanks, armored personnel carriers and radar equipment to bolster its presence.
“What is striking about the Turkish reinforcements… are their size and the nature of the weapons, all within a week, This is unprecedented,” said Turkey-based Syrian military defector general Ahmad Rahhal.
As the conflict escalated in Idlib, Turkish and Russian officials met in Ankara for talks. The two countries back opposing sides in Syria, where Moscow’s military intervention in 2015 helped swing the war decisively in Assad’s favor.
A Turkish diplomatic source said the delegations held two hours of discussions, their second meeting in three days, without giving details on the outcome of Monday’s session.
Russia and the Syrian government say they are fighting terrorists in Idlib, which is largely controlled by jihadist fighters.
Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, says the offensive has set off a fresh humanitarian crisis. It says it cannot absorb any more refugees and has demanded Damascus pull back in Idlib by the end of the month or face Turkish action.