At least 22 Turkish soldiers have been killed in an air raid by government forces in Syria’s northwest Idlib province, according to an official in Turkey.
Thursday’s deaths are the largest number of fatalities suffered by Turkey in a single day since it began sending thousands of troops into Idlib in recent weeks amid a Russia-backed Syrian government offensive to seize the war-torn country’s last opposition-held stronghold. The ferocious bombing campaign and ground assault have displaced nearly one million people since December, more than half of whom are children.
“What a shame I have to say that the death toll has risen to 22,” Rahmi Dogan, the governor of Turkey’s southeastern province of Hatay, said in televised remarks. He earlier said nine soldiers were killed in the air raid and others were wounded.
Following the attack, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a two-hour emergency security meeting in Ankara that was attended by ministers and military officials.
Separately, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke by phone with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, according to state media.
Attacks on Turkish forces have caused severe tensions between the Syrian government’s key ally, Russia, and Turkey, which backs certain opposition groups in Idlib.
Erdogan has pledged to launch a military operation to push back Syrian government forces if they did not retreat from a line of Turkish observations posts by the end of February.
Separately, a Turkish official told Reuters News Agency that Turkey’s police, coastguard and border security officials had been ordered to stand down on refugees’ land and sea crossings, in anticipation of an imminent arrival of refugees from Idlib, home to more than three million people.
Turkey already hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees and fears a new influx, said Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from the Turkish-Syrian border.
“In the coming days, [it is likely] to see Turkey take an aggressive role and ask the European Union and NATO, in particular, to take a very strong stance when it comes to what is happening now in Idlib,” he added.
“Turkey feels that it is fighting this fight on its own while it considers what is doing an attempt to put an end to the humanitarian [crisis in Idlib].”