Tensions have increased in recent weeks between Syria and Turkey, which supports Syrian rebels in fighting the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship. The Turkish government claimed on Thursday that 55 Syrian military personnel were killed in Turkey's attacks in Syria, without offering evidence.
The Syrian government, backed by Russia, has intensified in recent months the offensives against the province of Idlib, in northwest Syria, the last rebel-controlled territory in the country. Turkey has forces on military observation posts in the region and has increased its military presence after Damascus attacks on Turkish troops.
Assad's forces fighting the rebels in the northwest of the country have taken control of a strategic highway linking Syria's four largest cities. In the midst of this action, rebels shot down a Syrian military helicopter on Tuesday, killing all the crew, according to the Turkish government and rebel leaders.
Turkish military convoy of tanks and armored vehicles passes through the city of Idlib, northwest of Syria, near the border with Turkey, 7 February 2020 | Aref TAMMAWI / AFP
At least 55 soldiers from the Syrian Army have been killed in the latest attacks by the Turkish Army in Idlib, according to the Turkish government. "According to the latest information, from various sources in the Idlib region, 55 regime soldiers were neutralized today," the Turkish Ministry of Defense said in a statement released by the local press on Thursday.
Turkey's action was a response to bombings that caused 14 deaths among Turkish soldiers in the region last week. "Turkey will attack Syrian government forces anywhere if any more Turkish soldiers are injured and use the air force if necessary," said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday.
Erdogan told Parliament that Turkey is determined to expel Syrian government forces from observation posts in Idlib by the end of February. "We will do this by any means necessary, by air or land," he declared.
The United States special envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, said on a visit to Ankara that the United States supports the "right of Turkey to defend itself" from the Syrian army in Idlib.
Violence in the region has already forced some 800,000 people to leave Idlib since December, when the Syrian government's offensive against rebels controlling the region began, the United Nations (UN) said on Thursday. In the last three days alone, 140,000 Syrians have left the region. This is the biggest wave of displacement in the conflict that has lasted nine years in the country, the UN said.
- Children who had to flee attacks by Syrian forces play in the snow at a refugee camp in Tal Abyad, northern Syria, 13 February 2020 | Photo: Bakr ALKASEM / AFP
- Displaced Syrians abandon Aleppo and Idlib and proceed to the Afrin district, on the border with Turkey, after the escalation of the Syrian regime's offensive, 13 February 2020 | Photo: Rami al SAYED / AFP
According to the UN, at least 60% of the 800,000 displaced people are children and about 82,000 people are sleeping outdoors. The crisis is aggravated by temperatures below 0º C, shortage of basic items and lack of space.
"This level of displacement could not occur at a worse time, as more and more people are crammed into an increasingly smaller area with little more than the clothes on their backs," David Swanson, UN spokesman for the crisis in Syria, told the New York Times. Swanson said that many people have to flee at night so as not to be detected, with freezing temperatures.