Turkey's response Monday included attacks on what it said were "115 regime targets," including mortar positions, tanks and a helicopter. One hundred and one troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were killed, the Turkish Defense Ministry said.
The clashes followed a recent decision by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to send more Turkish troops to Idlib, a gamble aimed at slowing the pace of a quickening Syrian military advance. A Russian-backed Syrian offensive aimed at recapturing territory in and around the province has killed hundreds of civilians over a few months and sent hundreds of thousands of displaced people fleeing toward Turkey's border — startling Erdogan's government, which already hosts roughly 4 million Syrian refugees.
Assad's government, in its drive to retake all the territory it lost to rebels during Syria's long war, has vowed to defeat them in Idlib, a province largely controlled by Islamist militants. The Trump administration has condemned the Syrian offensive and supported Turkey's recent actions in Idlib, even as U.S. officials have fretted about the growing sway of extremist militants in the province.
To deter the Syrian army, Turkey has sent reinforcements to a dozen military observation posts it maintains in Idlib. But deadly strikes by the Syrian government on Turkish positions, twice in recent days, appeared to show that the deterrent was failing.
Instead, Syria and its allies were striking with greater intensity, on civilian and military targets alike.
The first attack occurred Feb. 3, when shelling by Syrian government forces near the town of Saraqeb killed seven Turkish soldiers and a civilian employee of the Turkish military. In the aftermath of the attack, Erdogan said that Turkey had carried out retaliatory air and artillery attacks.
On Monday, Syrian forces carried out "intense artillery shelling" on a Turkish position in Taftanaz, about eight miles northeast of Idlib's provincial capital, killing the five Turkish soldiers, according to Turkey's Defense Ministry and monitoring groups.
“The war criminal, who ordered today’s heinous attack, targeted the entire international community, not just Turkey,” Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s spokesman, wrote on Twitter in an apparent reference to Assad. “Turkey retaliated against the attack to destroy all enemy targets and avenging our fallen troops.”
In its statement, the Defense Ministry did not explain how it had determined that precisely 101 Syrian troops had been killed.
The Syrian army has made repeated attempts to take Idlib over the past year but found its advances beaten back by the rebels or blocked as Turkey and Russia have negotiated cease-fires.
For the moment, no such agreement stands in the way of the latest offensive, which began last month. Negotiations between Russia and Turkey over the past few days had failed to yield a deal on halting the violence, Turkish officials said.
Syrian forces have undertaken a two-pronged attack over the past two weeks, from the east and the south, capturing a succession of towns in southern Idlib and western Aleppo province. The army forces linked up Saturday in the Aleppo countryside, allowing them to attack the rebels from a newly opened front, the Syrian news agency SANA reported.
Syria’s government was also on the verge of retaking the strategic M5 highway, which connects Damascus and Aleppo, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.
As the Syrian army has rolled through Idlib, worries that the fighting is causing an unprecedented civilian exodus — a preoccupation of the Turkish government — have only intensified.
Since early December, nearly 700,000 people in Idlib have been displaced, said David Swanson, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. A hundred thousand people have fled their homes, or places where they were sheltering, in the past week alone, he said.
“The numbers are changing literally by the minute,” Swanson said in a phone interview. “This singular wave of displacement since Dec. 1st could well prove to be the largest level of displacement since the crisis began almost nine years ago.”
Civilians have packed into cars to escape the increasingly frequent airstrikes and shifting front lines, heading north toward the Turkish border, hoping to find shelter from the miserable cold. Few are successful.
“The situation is catastrophic,” said Mustafa Haj Youssef, Idlib director of the White Helmets civil defense group. “Civilians are in tents without any protection or heat. The temperature is under zero [Celsius]. The situation is tragic and is worsening with the continuation of aerial and ground attacks.”
Misty Buswell, policy and advocacy director for the International Rescue Committee in the Middle East, said it was “unbelievable to think” that the humanitarian catastrophe could get any worse but it has.
“The weather is taking a really heavy toll on people, raining and flooding as they’re trying to flee these areas,” she said. “They can’t use the main highway so they’re packed into muddy roads and back roads and mountainous terrain trying to flee.
“It’s a really horrible, desperate situation, and if the fighting doesn’t stop soon, and if this escalation doesn’t stop, it will get worse,” she said.
Dadouch reported from Beirut.