ISTANBUL/BEIRUT, March 2 ------ Turkey shot down two Syrian warplanes over Idlib on Sunday and struck a military airport well beyond its frontlines in a sharp escalation of its military operations following the death of dozens of Turkish soldiers last week. Ankara has ramped up its attacks, including drone strikes, against the Russian-backed Syrian forces since Thursday, when 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Damascus.
It has already deployed thousands of troops and military vehicles in northwest Syria’s Idlib province in the last month to stem advances by Syrian government forces which have displaced 1 million people close to Turkey’s southern border. Already hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Ankara is determined to prevent any further influx from Syria. It has also let migrants cross its borders into the European Union, in an apparent effort to press for EU support in tackling the Syria crisis.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in the last four days Turkish forces destroyed eight helicopters, 103 tanks, 72 howitzers, rocket launchers, a drone and six air defense systems. He dubbed Turkey’s operation, its fourth incursion in Syria in four years, “Operation Spring Shield”. In response, Syria’s army said it shot down three Turkish drones and warned it would take down any aircraft breaching the air space over the northwest, which has been controlled for years by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main ally Russia.
Despite the warning, Turkish warplanes downed two Syrian warplanes, while Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu agency said the Turkish military had targeted and rendered unusable Nayrab airport, west of Aleppo city. Turkey-backed opposition commanders also said Kuweires airport, east of Nayrab, had been bombed since midnight. Both airports are well inside Syrian government controlled territory, marking a significant expansion of Ankara’s targets.
The fighting has risked drawing Russia and Turkey, who cooperated for years to contain the fighting despite backing rival sides in Syria’s nine-year war, into direct conflict. “We have neither the intention nor the notion to face Russia. Our only intention there is for the (Syrian) regime to end the massacre and thereby prevent ... radicalization and migration,” Turkey’s Akar said. He said that 2,212 members of the Syrian forces had been “neutralized”, a term used to designate killed, wounded or captured. The Syrian Observatory, a Britain-based war monitor, said 74 Syrian government troops and pro-Damascus fighters had been killed since Feb. 27. Fifty-five Turkish troops were killed in Idlib in February.