Tensions between warring neighbors Turkey and Syria ratcheted up further Sunday as Ankara announced a new military operation in northwestern Syria, days after airstrikes by the Damascus regime killed 33 of its soldiers.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, speaking from military headquarters near the Syrian border, said Sunday that Turkey aimed to confront Syrian government forces rather than Russian troops who are also present in the country to help embattled president Bashar Assad regain control of his war-torn country.
Akar on Moscow to persuade Assad to withdraw to 2018 cease-fire lines on the edges of Idlib, which borders Turkey.
Referring to losses inflicted on Syria, he said Turkey had "neutralized" more than 2,200 Syrian troops, 103 tanks and eight helicopters.
"The Spring Shield operation, which was launched following the abominable attack in Idlib on Feb. 27, continues successfully," Akar said, referring to the air strikes that killed 33 of his country's soldiers.
The operation is Turkey's fourth in the war-torn country since 2016.
The heavy fighting in northwest Syria has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe and the single largest wave of displacement in the nine-year Syrian civil war.
Meanwhile, the Syrian military threatened to down any aircraft over northwest Syria after Turkish drone strikes killed dozens of pro-regime forces in the embattled region.
"Syrian military high command announces the closure of the airspace for planes and any drone above northwestern Syria and especially above the Idlib region,” state news agency SANA reported a military source as saying.
“Any aircraft breaching our airspace will be treated as enemy aircraft that needs to be downed and prevented from carrying out its goals,” the source said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish drone strikes killed 26 soldiers in northwest Syria on Saturday.
That brought the number of soldiers killed in Turkish drone strikes and bombardment since Friday to 74, said the Britain-based monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria.
Ten Hezbollah fighters and four allied militiamen also died, the Observatory said.
Since December, Russia-backed regime forces have led a military offensive against the last major rebel stronghold of Idlib in northwest Syria, where Turkey supports some rebel groups.
The onslaught has caused almost a million people — mostly women and children — to flee their homes and shelters, the United Nations says.
Neighboring Turkey already hosts around 3.6 million Syrian refugees, and is reluctant to let more in.
Tensions have spiked in recent weeks between Ankara and Moscow, whose relationship has been tested by violations of a 2018 deal to prevent a regime offensive on Idlib.
Turkey deployed troops to observation posts in northwest Syria under that deal.
Syria’s war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Saturday his country had opened its western borders to migrants and refugees hoping to head into the European Union.
The United Nations said Sunday that at least 13,000 people were massed on Turkey's land border with Greece.
Erdogan did not explicitly link his decision to open the gates to Europe to the military escalation in Idlib, although he has warned that Turkey "can't handle a new wave of migration."
Turkey is worried it might come under renewed international pressure to open its now sealed border with Syria and offer refuge to hundreds of thousands more Syrian civilians, despite the fact that it already hosts 3.6 million refugees from the country.
Erdogan's decision to open his country's borders with Europe made good on a longstanding threat to let refugees into the continent.
His announcement marked a dramatic departure from the current policy and an apparent attempt to pressure Europe into offering Turkey more support in dealing with the fallout from the Syrian war to its south.