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Syria: Five Turkish soldiers killed by Assad forces in deadly escalation of hostilities

UN says at least 100,000 displaced in one week by Assad regime onslaught 

Borzou Daragahi
Monday 10 February 2020 18:11 GMT
Syrian civilians flee Idlib offensive

Simmering tension between Ankara and the regime of Bashar al-Assad over the fate of Syria’s northwest Idlib province threatened to escalate on Monday, following an attack on Turkish forces that left five soldiers dead and prompted retaliation against the pro-Damascus forces.

Five Turkish military personnel were also injured in the initial attack, at an outpost in the town of Taftanaz, on the northwest outskirts of Idlib city. Video posted online showed a military helicopter transporting the wounded to a state hospital in Turkey’s Hatay province, which borders Idlib.

The confrontation came one week after Syrian forces killed eight Turks at an observation post in the rebel-held northwest province, which has been pummelled for months by the Assad regime and Russian airstrikes and artillery.

Turkish units responded by “intensively shelling” the Syrian targets, local media cited military officials as saying, without detailing casualty estimates. A monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, described relentless rocket fire by Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies, on regime positions.

“The attack was retaliated against and avenged with immediate elimination of enemy targets,” Fahrettin Altun, communications director for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wrote on Twitter. “The war criminal who ordered this treacherous attack not only targeted Turkey but the whole international community.”

The deadly clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces in Idlib province comes as Assad’s forces, backed by Russian and Iranian fire and manpower, attempt to consolidate their hold over the country after a nine-year civil conflict which has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced but ultimately leaves the Damascus regime in power.

The relentless Syrian regime offensive, which has allegedly targeted schools and hospitals, has prompted hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes and flock to the Turkish border.

On Sunday, Syrian regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs targeting civil defence centres, clinics, a police outpost and a school in Atareb, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group. The United Nations said on Monday that more than 100,000 people in Idlib have fled their homes in the past week alone amid a cold snap that has brought temperatures to below freezing, bringing to 700,000 the number of Syrians who have been displaced in the province since 1 December.

“With this cold front we’ve had a lot of trouble addressing people’s needs,” said Amany Qaddour, Turkey-based regional director for Syria Relief and Development, an aid group. “We’ve had to move healthcare facilities. There really are not enough medical staff to treat various conditions, because the medical workers are themselves being displaced. People have virtually no protection. People are on the move and the lucky ones maybe have a tent or some structure. Others are just exposed to the elements.”

Turkey, Russia and Iran began hammering out a deal for Syria’s north as part of the so-called Astana process which began in 2017. Turkey, which serves as the main patron of Assad’s opponents, set up a dozen observation points throughout Idlib to maintain various ceasefires.

People are on the move and the lucky ones maybe have a tent or some structure. Others are just exposed to the elements.

Amany Qaddour, Syria Relief and Development

During military operations called Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, Turkey carved out zones of influence in northern and northwest Syria where it hopes to relieve domestic political pressure by resettling some refugees.

But from the beginning, Russia has given its client Syria the diplomatic and military cover to violate repeated truces meant to protect civilians.

The folding of rebel defences in Idlib and the seizure of key highways by the regime could foil those plans, flooding those areas with newly displaced people that will make them unsustainable, and potentially destabilise Turkey.

“The problem is when the Russians and Turks entered talks in 2017, Turkey’s role was always to negotiate the terms of the surrender of the opposition,” said Aaron Stein, Middle East director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Washington think tank. “They’re clever enough to call it something else.”

Facing the prospect of being forced to absorb millions of Syrians escaping Idlib on top of at least 3.5 million refugees already settled in the country, Turkey finds itself backed into a corner. Talks with Russians in Ankara were continuing over the weekend. Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday offered up Tehran’s “readiness to facilitate dialogue among brother neighbours Turkey and Syria.”

But Russia has also been bolstering Assad’s forces with air power and heavy military equipment, and Iranian-backed militias that once confined their activities to southern and central Syria have been reportedly taking part in the Idlib offensive.

Mr Erdogan demanded on 5 February that Syrian forces withdraw beyond Turkish observation posts by the end of the month, warning of a potential military offensive if they didn’t. But with Russian controlling the skies over much of Syria, there’s very little Turkey can do without risking the Kremlin’s ire.

“Now that the regime is on the M5 highway, it risks collapsing everything,” said Mr Stein. “Where are you going to put 2 million newly displaced people? Everybody Turkey has shoved into those places and those who have taken refuge in those places will move across the border.”

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