Turkey launches offensive in Idlib against Syria

The battle for control of the last rebel enclave in Syria heightens, as Turkey launches military offensive against Assad

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Ankara announced a major new offensive in north-west Syria's Idlib province on Sunday after two Syrian jets were shot down and three Turkish drones destroyed.

Shortly after the announcement, Turkish forces killed at least 19 Syrian soldiers in a drone attack on regime positions near Jabal Zawiya and Al Hamidia in the Idlib countryside, according to a UK based war monitor.

The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said the attack brought the total number of regime soldiers killed in the past three days to 93.

Damascus on Monday pledged to repel the Turkish forces attacking its troops.

"Syria is determined to confront the flagrant Turkish aggression," state news agency SANA reported a source at the foreign ministry as saying.

The move comes after Syrian bombardment killed 33 soldiers last week and escalates Turkey’s involvement in the nearly nine year conflict. Up until now, the fighting has largely been tit-for-tat but the over the last few days and with the new offensive, Turkish troops are now directly pitted against the Syrian military and its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

“Operation Spring Shield, which was launched following the heinous attack [on Turkish troops] on February 27 is successfully being carried out,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Sunday. He is commanding the operation from Turkey’s southern Hatay province, bordering Syria.

Turkey continued its show of force on Sunday when it shot down two Syrian war planes over northwest Idlib, with the four Syrian pilots ejecting and parachuting to safety, Syrian state-run media reported.

The Friday air strikes that killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers and injured more than 30 others stationed just south of the border was the largest loss to date. Mr Akar slammed Russia for targeting Turkish armed forces, saying "this attack occurred even though the locations of our troops had been coordinated with Russian officials in the field.”

Moscow and Ankara are on fragile ground and they appear to be treading lightly in hopes of preserving their diplomatic relationship. Ankara made it clear they are only targeting regime forces, not their Russian backers. And Russia refused to intervene on Syria’s behalf after the Turkish attacks, a first since the conflict for Idlib escalated in December.

The Russian Defence Ministry said on Sunday that Moscow could not guarantee the safety of Turkish planes flying in Syria after Damascus said it was closing the air space over the Idlib region, the TASS news agency reported.

On Monday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia does not plan to go to war with anyone, but wants to dissuade other countries from engaging in conflict with Moscow.

The fight for Idlib is a consequential moment in the near decade-long Syrian war, as opposition forces backed by Turkey defend their last remaining enclave from the steadily advancing forces of Mr Assad, who are supported by Russian air artillery and coalition ground forces.

Amid the relentless aerial bombardment in the last rebel held province, families are desperately searching for safety as the biggest Syrian exodus to date is underway, with nearly one million people fleeing the war-torn province. United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she was horrified by the escalating humanitarian crisis.

“Entire families, some who have fled from one corner of Syria to the other over the course of the past decade, are tragically finding that bombs are part of their everyday life,” she said. “Civilians fleeing the fighting are being squeezed into areas without safe shelter that are shrinking in size by the hour. And still they are bombed. They simply have nowhere to go.”

Despite playing a role in the escalation of violence that is forcing families to flee, Turkey has sealed off its border to Syrian refugees. Turkey said it is unable to cope with any more refugees as the country is already struggling to support the 3.7 million Syrians camped inside its borders.

With few places to turn, Syrian refugees are risking their lives in a bid to reach Greece by sea, crossing the Mediterranean in inflatable boats packed to the brim. In response, Greece's Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has increased the border security levels to maximum.