Turkey will strike Syrian regime forces “everywhere” if its soldiers come under renewed attack, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned Wednesday, while also accusing Damascus ally Russia of committing “massacres” in Idlib, according to an AFP report.
Erdoğan’s threats follow direct clashes between Turkish and Syrian regime forces over the past 10 days, which have also strained his relations with Moscow, the key backer of President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey has beefed up its positions in Idlib — the last rebel bastion in Syria — with hundreds of vehicles carrying commandos, howitzers and soldiers crossing the border over the last few days.
“I hereby declare that we will strike regime forces everywhere from now on regardless of the Sochi deal if any tiny bit of harm comes to our soldiers at observation posts or elsewhere,” Erdoğan told a meeting of his ruling party in parliament.
He said 14 Turks have been killed and 45 wounded by regime shelling in Idlib since Feb. 3.
Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air strikes, have pressed ahead with an offensive to retake the province from rebel groups despite the 2018 Sochi ceasefire deal agreed between Turkey and Russia.
The offensive has killed hundreds of civilians since December, and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing for safety in harsh winter conditions.
In a rare move on Wednesday, Erdoğan was directly critical of Russia.
“The regime, backed by Russian forces and Iran-backed militants, are continuously attacking civilians, committing massacres and shedding blood,” he said.
He added that Turkey would do “whatever necessary” to push Syrian forces back behind the 12 observation posts it set up in Idlib under the Sochi deal.
An AFP correspondent in Idlib said a new convoy of Turkish armored vehicles arrived Wednesday in the town of Binnish, northeast of Idlib city, in a new deployment.
But Syrian forces have been relentlessly advancing, seizing numerous towns and retaking full control of the crucial M5 highway that links major cities for the first time since 2012.
“We are determined to push back [regime forces] behind the borders of the Sochi deal by the end of February,” said Erdoğan.
“We will do whatever is necessary both on the ground and in the air without any hesitation and without any delay.”
Erdoğan also said aircraft striking settlements in Idlib would “no longer move freely.”
That followed reports that Turkish forces shot down a Syrian military helicopter this week in Idlib, though that has not been confirmed by Ankara.