Russia and Turkey's Conflict in Syria Escalates Amid New Troop Deaths

Russia and Turkey's conflict over an insurgent-held province of northwestern Syria has witnessed a major escalation in hostilities recently, with new reports of Turkish military casualties incurred by airstrikes.

Turkish Hatay province Governor Rahmi Dogan has announced that at least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in airstrikes blamed on the Syrian government against their positions in the country's northwestern province of Idlib. The count has risen steadily since an initial announcement of nine dead and more injured, some critically.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitor supportive of Syria's exiled political opposition, first reported a death toll of up to 34 Turkish soldiers earlier Thursday in an area where both the Syrian and Russian air forces were highly active. The monitor did not assign responsibility for the strikes.

Talks between Moscow and Ankara have failed to enforce a ceasefire between their respective allies in Syria's nearly-nine-year civil war that has left rebels and jihadis cornered in the Idlib province by Russia-backed government forces and their allies. Turkey, which backs some opposition forces, has deployed troops and sent support to partnered Syrian fighters but its forces have been repeatedly hit in raids.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chaired a security meeting at his presidential compound following the strikes, according to Turkey's official Anadolu Agency.

On Thursday, the state-run media outlet reported that Turkish forces had neutralized 1,709 pro-Syrian government fighters and destroyed 55 tanks, three helicopters, 18 armored vehicles, 29 howitzers, 21 military vehicles, six ammunition depots and seven mortars since February 10.

syria, war, idlib, saraqib, turkey, russia
Smoke billows over the town of Saraqib in the eastern part of the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, following bombardment by Syrian government forces, February 27. Syrian rebels reentered the key northwestern crossroads town of Saraqib lost to government forces earlier this month but fierce fighting raged on in its outskirts today. AFP/Getty Images/AREF TAMMAWI

Turkey was an early supporter of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose embattled forces would go on to receive backing from Iran and Russia. The United States initially backed the insurgency as well but shifted its policy toward defeating the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) with the backing of Syrian Democratic Forces, a group dominated by Kurdish fighters considered terrorists by Turkey.

Though Ankara later joined Moscow and Tehran for trilateral peace talks on Syria, no lasting truce has held. Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have attempted to establish a ceasefire in Idlib, the last province with significant opposition influence but both sides have accused one another of violating their deal, resulting in renewed hostilities.

Russia has accused Turkey of continuing to provide heavy munitions to its rebel allies and of failing to facilitate the removal of jihadi groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the former Syrian Al-Qaeda branch that largely controls Idlib. Syrian troops and their allies have for months reclaimed parts of Aleppo and Idlib once under opposition control but have begun to face heavy resistance as Turkey reportedly shored up its own side of the conflict.

"The terrorists are using shoulder-launched U.S.-made missiles with Turkish support to target Syrian and Russian warplanes while the Turkish regime provides support to terrorists with artillery and shoulder-fired missiles in battles on the Saraqib axis," the official Syrian Arab News Agency cited a military source as saying Thursday.

With both sides seemingly on a collision course, a yet unknown number of Turkish troops have died in previous attacks blamed on the Syrian government. Ankara has retaliated, launching in direct strikes on Syrian positions despite condemnation from Moscow.

Last week, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described a potential large-scale Turkish military attack on Idlib as the "worst-case scenario."

Turkey, a member of the NATO military alliance, has appealed for Western support, warning it would not shoulder the burden of what has been estimated as millions of civilians caught in the cross-fire over Idlib. The country already hosts up to three and a half million Syrian refugees.

Just as Thursday's events in Idlib were transpiring, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar spoke via telephone with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on what the Turkish side described as "regional defense and security issues, notably the solution of the Idlib issue." The previous day, Esper told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. would continue focusing on supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria and "at this point in time, I don't see any likelihood that we would be back along the border."

President Donald Trump has long sought to scale back the Pentagon's presence in Syria, where he repositioned troops in October amid a looming Turkish offensive against the Syrian Democratic Forces. The U.S. military presence is now focused on securing oil and gas fields in the country's northeast, as well as a tiny desert outpost in the southeast.

Speaking in New Delhi on Wednesday, the president touted his administration's anti-ISIS efforts but called on others to now step up, stating, "Russia should do it, Iran should do it, Iraq should do it, Syria should do it." He added: "We've taken the oil and the soldiers we have there are the ones guarding the oil, we have the oil, so that's all we have there."

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.