(Updates with Erdoğan’s comments in fifth, seventh paragraphs.)
Four Turkish soldiers were killed and nine were wounded in intense shelling by Syrian government forces in Syria’s last rebel-held enclave of Idlib on Monday, the Turkish defence ministry said.
Forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russian aerial bombardment, have made major advances in the northwestern province of Idlib recently, taking control of the town of Maarat al-Numan.
The shelling was carried out “against our elements sent as reinforcements to prevent clashes in Idlib, despite their positions being coordinated beforehand,” the Turkish defence ministry statement said.
Turkish forces retaliated immediately after the attack, destroying targets in the Idlib region, according to the statement.
Speaking on Monday morning at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport before his scheduled Ukraine visit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the military was continuing to respond in kind to the attack on its forces and Turkish airstrikes and artillery had struck 46 military positions, killing between 30 and 35 Syrian government soldiers.
Turkey began deploying military vehicles, including some 15 military trucks loaded with howitzers and tanks, to Idlib on Feb 1. after a warning by Erdoğan last week that Turkey could launch its fourth military offensive in Syria if attacks on civilians in the region continued.
Erdoğan on Monday stressed that Turkish forces were responding to Syrian government forces alone, and not their Russian allies, who have also been participating in the attacks on Idlib.
Turkey and Russia signed an agreement to prevent an attack on Idlib in September 2018, setting the condition that Turkey must clear extremist groups from the province.
Under the agreement, Turkey operates 12 observation posts in the besieged area. It has vowed to maintain forces there despite the Syrian regime and Russia’s resumed assault on the province last April after they said the continued presence of rebel groups they called extremists had breached the agreement.
The offensive in Idlib is raising tensions between Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in the conflict, with Ankara challenging Moscow over the assault that began last year in April despite the de-escalation deal.