(Adds Syrian and Russian Foreign Ministries comments)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Wednesday Turkey’s military would strike Russian-backed Syrian forces by air or ground anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt as Syrian government pushes to regain control of Idlib province, a move that could signal a marked escalation in the conflict.
“We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground,” Erdoğan told his party’s parliamentary group meeting in Ankara.
“Aircraft that have been bombing civilians in Idlib will no longer fly as freely,” he said.
Erdoğan said 14 Turks, including 13 soldiers, had been killed and some 45 others wounded by Syrian army shelling in Idlib in the past week, though he said the Russian-backed forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad mainly targeted civilians in the province, which is home to 3 million people.
“In this process in case of even a minor harm on our soldiers in observation posts or elsewhere, I declare here that we will strike regime forces everywhere without limiting us to the Sochi agreement over Idlib,” Erdoğan told his parliamentary party, referring to a 2018 deal between Turkey and Russia.
“Anybody that targets Turkey should know that it will pay for it not only at the location of the attack, but everywhere,” the Hürriyet newspaper quoted the president as saying.
Erdoğan said he was determined to make Syrian forces withdraw from areas in Idlib where Turkey has 12 observation posts, built under the 2018 Sochi deal with Russia that aimed to prevent an assault by Assad’s forces on the country’s last major-rebel held enclave.
Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin discussed the situation in Idlib by phone on Wednesday, Reuters reported citing a Kremlin handout. The Kremlin said that Putin and Erdoğan had agreed on the importance of implementing Russo-Turkish agreements on Syria.
“We are at that point,” Erdoğan told reporters after his speech at parliament, when asked whether a new period had started.
Russia said on Wednesday that the presence of Turkish troops and armour in Syria’s Idlib region was making the situation there much worse as was the transport of weapons and ammunition across the Syrian-Turkish border. According to the same Reuters report, Russia’s Defence Ministry made the complaint in a statement after President Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey’s military would strike Russian-backed Syrian forces by air or ground anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt.
Russia-backed Syrian government forces launched an attack on Idlib in April, saying Turkey had failed to keep its side of the Sochi agreement and disarm jihadist groups in the province. Instead, Russia and the Syrian government say, extremists have expanded their control in Idlib.
Russia dismissed Erdoğan’s accusations that Russian-backed Syrian forces were targeting civilians in Idlib.
“As for the strikes on Idlib that the Syrian military carries out, these strikes are targeting terrorists, not civilians, with the aim to neutralise terrorists and their aggressive activities that they carry out from there,” Russia’s Sputnik news quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.
Peskov said that Russia remained committed to the Sochi deal.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Moscow believes that the reason for the recent deterioration of the situation in Syria’s Idlib de-escalation zone is Turkey’s failure to comply with previous agreements.
The Syrian government on Wednesday called Erdoğan’s threats hollow and described the Turkish president as someone separated from reality, Syrian state news agency SANA said, citing an official source in Syria’s Foreign Ministry.
“The Syrian Arab Republic reaffirms that any presence of Turkish forces on its territories is illegitimate and a blatant violation of the international law, and it holds the Turkish regime fully responsible for the consequences of that presence,” the Syrian official said.
Turkey’s disputes with its fellow NATO members, meanwhile, mean the United States and European countries are unlikely to help Erdoğan, Tobias Schneider, a research fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, told German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria, arrived in Ankara on Tuesday for talks on Idlib. The U.S. delegation met Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal on Wednesday, state-run Anadolu news agency reported, adding that Jeffrey reiterated U.S. support for Turkey.
Erdoğan told reporters on Wednesday that he could discuss the situation in Idlib anytime with U.S. President Donald Trump. Turkey’s defence minister was headed to NATO headquarters in Brussels to hold consultations on Syria, Erdoğan said.
Talks over Idlib between Russian and Turkish delegations held in Ankara this weekend failed to yield any concrete results to ease tensions in Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Wednesday that a Turkish delegation would head to Russia for further talks on Idlib, state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
Erdoğan held a meeting with senior officials including Vice President Fuat Oktay, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and army chief of staff Yaşar Güler on Tuesday to decide Turkey’s next steps in Syria.