Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said his military would strike Syrian forces by air or ground anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt as the Syrian government fought to regain control of northwestern Idlib province from rebels.
Thousands of civilians meanwhile were heading north to the Turkish-Syrian border, many trudging by foot through snow in freezing temperatures, to escape air strikes and artillery barrages by the Russian-supported government forces.
Erdogan said Turkey was determined to push the Syrian troops beyond Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of this month and that Ankara would not allow insurgents in Idlib to give them an excuse to attack.
In turn, the Kremlin accused Turkey of flouting agreements with Russia to neutralise militants in Idlib and said attacks on Syrian and Russian forces there were continuing.
Syrian troops and Iranian-backed militias have been advancing in Idlib in a campaign to destroy the last bastion of insurgents fighting for the past nine years to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey, which is allied with some rebel groups opposed to Assad, counter-attacked on Tuesday after 13 Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian shelling in Idlib in the last 10 days. “If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib’s borders or the lines of the Sochi agreement,” Erdogan said, referring to a 2018 ceasefire accord.
“We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground, without hesitating,” he told members of his AK Party in Ankara.
Turkey has set up 12 observation posts in Idlib as part of an agreement with Russia and Iran to establish what they called a de-escalation zone.