There is a real danger of an open confrontation between Russia and Turkey in Syria. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened Russian-backed Syrian troops that they would pay a high price for attacks on his country's soldiers.
After another intensive battle between the Turkish and Syrian military, Mr Erdoğan stated Turkey "seriously" harmed "the regime" in Idlib.<span "Syria should burn," he stated.
Devlet Bahçeli, the party leader of the nationalist MHP, which is an informal coalition partner of the President Erdoğan's AKP, even called for the invasion of Damascus.
On the previous day, five Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian shelling, according to information from Ankara. The Turkish military then declared that it had "disabled" more than a hundred Syrian military personnel. This can mean that they were killed or wounded.
It was the second incident, in a short time, in which Syrian shelling killed Turkish soldiers. According to Ankara, seven soldiers and a civilian employee of the Turkish armed forces were killed on Monday. Erdoğan then issued an ultimatum to the regime in Damascus: The Syrian army would have to withdraw from the Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of February, otherwise Turkey would take matters into its own hands.
"We do not expect the regime to take any action against these military posts," Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar told the Syrian government. The Turkish units had been ordered to strike back immediately in the event of an attack. The ministry consistently refuses to clear the twelve observer posts in the contested area in Idlib.
The soldiers of the Maroon Berets unit, the Turkish special forces. (AFP)
Putin's regime in Moscow demanded from Ankara to halt all attacks on Russian and Syrian forces in the Idlib region. The Syrian military said it would respond to Turkish attacks. The Russian news agency Tass reported that Russian leader Vladimir Putin planned to call Erdoğan on Tuesday. The UN warned of a new wave of refugees trying to escape renewed fighting in northwest Syria.
In the meantime, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also announced that a helicopter of the Syrian government troops had been shot down in Idlib. The helicopter crashed near the village of Kaminas, southeast of the city of Idlib. Turkish army targeted it with a missile, the observatory said, but this information can not be verified by an independent party. The two pilots had died.
The Turkish Defence Ministry representatives spoke of a "crash", and it did not comment on the cause.
UN warns of humanitarian disaster
Idlib is the last major rebel area in Syria where civil war has been raging for almost nine years. The region is controlled by the Haiat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militia group close to Al Qaeda. Turkey supports Islamist militias in the conflict.
Syrian refugees escaping the areas affected by the renewed fighting. (AFP)
With Russia, which supports Syria, Ankara had agreed on a de-escalation zone in Idlib and originally set up twelve observation posts there. According to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, since then Turkey added have added more posts. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced another phone call between Erdoğan and Putin.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the Syrian and Russian attacks. More people have been displaced in the past ten weeks than ever before. "This is the fastest growing displacement we have ever seen in this country," informed Mr Jens Laerke of the UN aid agency Okha. Since the beginning of December 2019, around 700,000 people have fled the conflict areas Idlib and Aleppo. Should the fighting continue there, another 280,000 people could follow.
Offensive against Idlib
There is no sign of an end to the fighting. Syria's government forces have continued to advance in the past few days and have again achieved an important strategic success. They captured parts of the M5 expressway near Aleppo. This brought the central Syrian traffic axis back under control, for the first time in almost eight years. The route connects the capital Damascus and Aleppo, the two most important cities in Syria. It is considered one of the main supply arteries of the country.
Parts of the M5 have so far been part of the last large region around the city of Idlib in northwest Syria, which is still held by Islamist rebels. The area controlled by rebels is shrinking. The government troops had already reported large gains in the battle for the Idlib region in the past few days. This is dominated by the Hajat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militia, which is closely linked to the al-Qaeda terror network.