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Syrian airstrikes kills dozens of Turkish troops

February 28, 2020

NATO has met for crisis talks after Syrian airstrikes killed dozens of Turkish troops, marking a major escalation in the brutal conflict. Follow DW for the latest updates on the fallout of the Idlib offensive.

Smoke billows over the town of Saraqib in the eastern part of the Idlib province
Image: Getty Images/A. Tammawi
  • Syria has conducted airstrikes on Turkish outposts in the rebel stronghold of Idlib, according to Ankara officials.
  • At least 33 soldiers were killed and dozens more wounded in the offensive, the governor of a Turkish province bordering Syria has said. NATO has condemned the offensive.
  • Turkish forces have launched a counterstrike against Syrian regime targets in Idlib, according to the office of President Erdogan.
  • Turkey announced they will no longer stop Syrian refugees from crossing from Turkey into Europe.

Read more: Idlib — The Syrian region abandoned by the world

All updates in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC/GMT)

This concludes our live coverage. Thank you for following along for the latest on the conflict in Idlib. Check dw.com for further updates. 

18:56 UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the recent escalation in fighting as "one of the most alarming moments" of the war. He also called for an immediate ceasefire "before the situation gets entirely out of control." 

18:27 Erdogan and US President Donald Trump agreed in a phone call to avoid a "humanitarian tragedy" in northern Syria, the Turkish government said in a statement. "The two leaders agreed on additional steps without delay in order to avert a big humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the Idlib region," Turkey said.

The two also agreed that the Syrian government, Russia and Iran must halt their offenses in the region, according to White House spokesman Judd Deere. 

"The two leaders agreed that the Syrian regime, Russia and the Iranian regime must halt their offensive before more innocent victims are killed and displaced," he wrote in the statement. 

18:25 German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the Syrian regime's assault in Idlib, calling for an end to the offensive. "The chancellor condemned the ruthless attacks on Turkish troops and called for an end to the offensive operations of the Syrian regime and its supporters," said Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert, following the German leader's telephone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

16:57 Putin and Erdogan may meet in Moscow "on March 5 or 6," according to Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

16:53 The situation in Syria does not present a direct threat to Bulgaria, said Prime Minister Boyko Borisov after a phone call with Erdogan. He also said the two are set to meet on Monday, but did not disclose a location. 

16:50 Doctors Without Borders has requested that Turkish authorities allow the transit of humanitarian aid and medical staff to help refugees in northwestern Syria. 

16:35 Turkish and Russian delegations have finished talks in Ankara. The Turkish delegation demanded that the Russian side support a sustainable ceasefire, the reduction of tensions and a retreat on the part of the Assad regime to the borders prescribed by the Sochi agreement.

16:25 The EU has received "assurances" from Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that Ankara will stick to its side of a deal restricting migrant flows to Europe, said EU foreign policy high representative Josep Borrell, following a phone call with Cavosoglu.

16:17 NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said allies had agreed to maintain measures already in place to bolster Turkey's air defenses. "NATO allies provide support for Turkey today. We augment their air defenses, we have AWACS planes helping to patrol the skies and we also have port visits and provide support in other ways," he said. 

16:14 Turkish officials told a Russian delegation in Ankara that a sustainable ceasefire in Idlib must be established immediately, Turkey's foreign ministry said in a statement. 

16:00 "There is a likelihood of direct confrontation between Russia and Turkey ... But it seems that both sides want to reach an agreement and avoid the worst," Alexander Golts, a columnist for The Moscow Times and military expert, told DW.

15:16 The UN Security Council has announced that it will hold an emergency session on Syria. The meeting is expected to begin at 21:00 UTC, according to the acting chairman of the council, Belgian ambassador Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve. 

15:05 The United Kingdom's foreign minister is calling for an emergency UN Security Council session on Syria. 

15:02 Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov says he will meet with Erdogan on Monday following a call in which they discussed the situation in Syria and migrant movements into Europe. Both Bulgaria and Greece boosted security on their borders with Turkey on Friday.

14:53 French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, according to a French statement. He expressed his condolences and solidarity following the attacks on Turkish forces in northwestern Syria.

He also called on Russia and the Syrian government to end their offensive in Idlib, and has said Europe is ready to continue helping Turkey manage Syrian refugees. 

"I reiterated France's call to the Syrian regime and to Russia to end the military offensive in the northwest of Syria, to fully respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and to return to the ceasefire arrangements of autumn 2018 to immediately end hostilities," Le Drian said in the statement.

14:48 Turkish reprisals have killed 20 Syrian soldiers in Idlib, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The monitor reported that retataliatory drone and artillery strikes hit Syrian army positions in the southern and eastern parts of the province. 

14:43 Top Russian and US military generals have discussed the situation in Syria in a phone call, Interfax news agency cited Russia's Defense Ministry as saying. 

14:02 Erdogan is expected to tell US President Donald Trump in a phone call that verbal support related to Syria's Idlib region is not enough, and that Ankara expects "actual" support, according Turkey's Communications Director Fahrettin Altun. Altun also said that Erdogan had urged Putin to ensure that Russia, which backs Damascus with air strikes, fulfills its responsibilites in Idlib to stop Syrian government attacks. 

13:28 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to meet "as soon as possible," Erdogan's communication director Fahrettin Altun said. The two leaders agreed in a phone call on Friday to meet "face-to-face." The quotes were published by the state-run Anadolu news agency.

Russia's RIA news agency said the Kremlin hopes Turkey would do everything to protect Russian nationals and Russia's diplomatic facilities in Turkey amid rising tensions between the two countries over Syria.

12:29 Bulgaria is ready to send 1,000 troops to the Turkish border to prevent illegal migrant inflows, the defense minister has said.

The EU member country has a 300km land border with Turkey.

11:49 Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has discussed the situation in Turkey and the movement of migrants towards Greek borders during a call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Meanwhile, the EU said it hopes Turkey will uphold its side of the migrant pact.

"I would like to stress that there was no official announcement from the Turkish side about any changes in their asylum seeker, refugee or migrant policy," a spokesman for the EU's executive told a news briefing.

Map of position of Idlib
Map showing Idlib within Syria

11:14 NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has condemned the Syrian airstrikes following talks with NATO envoys.

"We urge an immediate return to the 2018 ceasefire," he told reporters, confirming that NATO will show solidarity with Turkey. He said that NATO allies will continue to follow developments in Idlib.

Stoltenberg avoided specifics about how the defense alliance would react, saying NATO allies are "constantly looking into what more they can do to provide further support for Turkey." 

10:59 The UN refugee agency said on Friday that it had not been informed of any change in Turkey's policy regarding Syrian refugees, nor did it have reports of people on the move towards Greece or other parts of Europe.

10:17 Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a phone conversation following the deaths of Turkish troops.

He also offered his condolences to the Turkish soldiers who had died.

10:02 "This may be a turning point," said DW's Turkey correspondent Julia Hahn, as we await the outcome of the NATO meeting.

Syria airstrikes kill Turkish soldiers: Analysis (Julia Hahn)

"This might force Western powers who have been accused of being too silent on the Syria issue to act."

09:33 Two Russian war ships armed with cruise missiles have crossed through the Bosphorus Strait by Istanbul on their way to the Mediterranean.

A Russian military spokesman insists the transition was a "routine move."

09:30 The NATO Council are meeting at 10:30 in Brussels (Central European Time), at Turkey's request.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg is expected to give a statement at 10:45 UTC.

09:04 The Turkish defense minister has rejected Russia's explanation of the attack, saying the attacks by Syrian forces continued despite coordination between Russia and Turkey.

08:53 Greece is tightening border controls ahead of concerns over a fresh influx of Syrian refugees attempting to cross from Turkey, according to government officials.

"Greece has tightened the guarding of its land and sea borders to the maximum degree possible," a government source told AFP news agency. Around 300 people have been spotted on Friday morning on the Turkish side of the border.

08:48 "There is a risk of sliding into a major open international military confrontation," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted, echoing an earlier EU statement.

"The EU calls on all sides for rapid de-escalation and regret all loss of life," he added.

08:24 Turkish retaliations have killed 16 Syrian soldiers overnight, the UK-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said.

Following Syrian air strikes in Idlib, Turkey launched reprisal attacks in Syrian army positions in the south and west of Syria. Damascus has yet to comment on casualties inflicted.

08:10 Concerns are mounting over Turkey's announcement that they are "no longer able to hold refugees" and they will open the borders to the EU. Syrian migrants in north-western Syria are reportedly gathering at the borders with Bulgaria and Greece.

Read the full story here: Turkey will not stop refugees 'who want to go to Europe'

07:38 A Russian lawmaker has warned that any full-scale Turkish military operation would end badly for Turkey, according to Russian Interfax news agency.

Vladimir Dzhabarov, the deputy head of the Russian upper house of parliament, issued the warning.

07:11 Although many have fled and many more are expected to attempt to cross into Turkey in light of Thursday's offensive, millions of civilians are still trapped in Idlib.

One woman in Idlib shared a day in her life with DW: 'I feel totally alone': Life under siege in Idlib

07:03 Turkey said that world powers should impose a "no-fly zone" over Syria, according to Turkey's communications director Fahrettin Altun. 

06:45 NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg has announced that the defense council will meet on Friday after Turkey trigger Article 4.

Article 4 means any ally can "request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened."

06:29 Russia is sending two war ships equipped with cruise missiles to the Mediterranean Sea towards the Syrian coast, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.

06:15 Hundreds of migrants are walking from Turkey towards the Greek border, Turkish media reports. The footage comes hours after Turkey announced they will no longer stop refugees from crossing into the EU.

05:50 Russia's defense ministry has claimed that Turkish military did not inform them about the presence of Turkish soldiers in that area of Idlib, according to Russia media. Any troops present were "terrorists," they said.

"Turkish soldiers who were in the battle formations of terrorist groups came under the fire of Syrian troops," the defense ministry said in a statement.

They also denied that Russian war planes had been involved in the air strikes that killed Turkish troops.

05:25 While Turkey braces for hundreds of thousands more refugees from Idlib to arrive in light of this most recent attack, Reuters reports that a Turkish official has said Turkey will no longer stop refugees from crossing into Europe.

"We have decided, effectively immediately, not to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe by land or sea," said the official, who requested anonymity.

"All refugees, including Syrians, are now welcome to cross into the European Union," he added.

04:02 Over the past two years, thousands of hard-line rebels have been transferred from battlefronts in other parts of Syria to Idlib as part of government-backed ceasefire deals. Those transfers have consequently made Idlib the final bastion of opposition to President Bashar Assad, as well as a hotbed of extremist groups.

Turkey — which opposes the Syrian regime — has refused to leave 12 observation outposts in Idlib, saying they are recognized by an agreement with Moscow. However, the Syrian regime views the outposts with hostility, and in December surrounded one of them in a move that nearly opened a new front in the conflict.

A mother and baby watch Turkish military vehicles in Idlib
A mother and baby watch Turkish military vehicles in Idlib Image: picture-alliance/K. Akacha

02:09 Turkey, which is already home to an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees, now expects hundreds of thousands more to flee Idlib. Omer Celik, spokesman for Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said: "Turkey can no longer hold the refugee influx from Idlib at our border."

01:20 The death toll has risen to 33 as the United Nations Secretary-General Guterres said he's "gravely concerned" by the escalation in Syria. The UN chief added that the risk of the conflict worsening "grows by the hour" without urgent action.

"The Secretary-General reiterates his call for an immediate ceasefire and expresses particular concern about the risk to civilians from escalating military actions," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.

00:35 The US State Department has expressed its alarm at the escalating developments in Idlib while coming out in support of Turkey, and citing Iran as partly responsible.

"We stand by our NATO ally Turkey and continue to call for an immediate end to this despicable offensive by the Assad regime, Russia, and Iranian-backed forces," a State Department representative said in a statement. "We are looking at options on how we can best support Turkey in this crisis."

00:15 The death toll from the airstrikes continues to rise. "After the airstrike, 29 of our soldiers were martyred," according to Rahmi Dogan, governor of the Turkish border province of Hatay.

00:08 Details of the phone call between Turkey and NATO have come out and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has condemned the Syria and Russia led offensive.

His spokesman said of the phone call between the NATO chief and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu: "Mr Stoltenberg condemned the continued indiscriminate airstrikes by the Syrian regime and its backer Russia in Idlib province, and called on them to stop their offensive, to respect international law and to back UN efforts for a peaceful solution."

The spokesman added: "He urged all parties to de-escalate this dangerous situation and avoid further worsening of the horrendous humanitarian situation in the region."

00:04 Turkey is seeking NATO support, according to government spokesman Omer Celik.

23:53 Read about how a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Idlib, and why Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung's Rainer Hermann believes the world is looking the other way.

23:43 Some details are emerging from the security meeting chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the wake of the airstrikes. The meeting concluded that "the Assad regime is responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. We call on the international community, particularly the parties to the Astana process, to fulfill their responsibilities, to stop the regime's crimes against humanity," Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish president's communications director said in a statement.

Civilians paying the price in the battle for Idlib

23:38 On Thursday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas heavily criticized the Russian and Syrian government's indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Idlib. Maas said "those responsible must be held accountable."

23:23 Governor Rahmi Dogan of the Turkish province of Hatay, which borders Idlib, has also revealed that 36 soldiers were wounded in the airstrikes.

23:11 Turkish Foreign Minister Mevult Cavusoglu has discussed the ongoing situation with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, according to Turkish state-run news agency Anadolu, citing government sources.

As a NATO member, Turkey has the right to invoke Article 5 — the collective defense clause — in the event it comes under attack. However, it is unclear whether it could be used in this context. The only time the article has been triggered was in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on American soil. It effectively paved the way for the war in Afghanistan.

Details of the phone call did not specify whether Cavusoglu and Stoltenberg discussed Article 5.

22:45 "All known" Syrian government targets are under fire by Turkish air and land support units, Ankara's communications director Fahrettin Altun told state-run Anadolu news agency. Turkey has decided to "respond in kind" to the airstrikes by the Syrian regime, Altun added.

22:00 As a result of the airstrikes, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called an emergency security meeting in Ankara, broadcaster NTV reported.

21:30 The figure of nine killed has now increased to 22, Hatay Governor Rahmi Dogan has confirmed. "What a shame, I have to say that the death toll has risen to 22," the governor of the border region said.

21:00 At least nine Turkish soldiers have been killed in Idlib, a governor of a Turkish province bordering Syria has said. Hatay Governor Rahmi Dogan said they were killed after airstrikes carried out by the Syrian government.

ed,jsi/ls (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)

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