Turkish forces in Syria shot down two Syrian warplanes and attacked an airport used by the Syrian regime on Sunday, while a Turkish drone strike struck a Syrian military convoy and purportedly killed 19 soldiers.
These actions were all portrayed as part of Turkey’s ongoing response to a February 27 Syrian/Russia airstrike that killed 33 Turkish soldiers.
According to Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s retaliatory action – branded as “Operation Spring Shield” – has “neutralized” 2,557 “elements” of the Syrian regime over the past week, a tally that would seem to include deaths and injuries to both Syrian soldiers and militia forces allied with Damascus.
Turkey has destroyed a significant amount of Syrian military hardware in addition to the two planes it shot down on Sunday, said Akar, including “two drones, eight choppers, 135 tanks, five air defense systems, 86 cannons, howitzers and multiple rocket launchers, 16 anti-armors and mortars, 77 armed vehicles,” and “nine ammunition depots.”
Akar justified Turkey’s actions as self-defense under the United Nations Charter and several multilateral agreements govern the conflict in Syria, including the agreement reached in Sochi, Russia, in October between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Akar also claimed Turkey was taking action to protect Syrian civilians endangered by wanton Syrian and Russian bombing. One of Turkey’s primary complaints about the Russian-Syrian offensive against the last active rebel forces in Idlib province is that more Syrian civilians are fleeing from the carnage and seeking refuge in Turkey.
Turkish officials said the Syrian warplanes were downed on Sunday after they attacked Turkish drone aircraft. Turkish forces then attacked the Nayrab airport, located near the city of Aleppo, rendering it “unusable.” Another airport to the east of Nayrab was reportedly bombed.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Turkish drones attacked a Syrian military convoy in the hotly contested Idlib province on Sunday several hours after the Syrian planes were shot down.
The Turkish defense ministry suggested the convoy was attacked because it included anti-aircraft weapons that were used against Turkey’s unmanned aerial vehicles. Syrian state media ran footage over the weekend that purportedly showed the Turkish drone going down in flames.
Turkey is proceeding as if Damascus has nothing meaningful to say about the conflict. All of Turkey’s high-level statements over the past week have addressed Russia, and Erdogan has suggested only another meeting with Putin could defuse escalating tensions over Idlib. The Kremlin confirmed on Sunday that an Erdogan-Putin summit is in the works, possibly as early as Thursday.
“I will go to Moscow on Thursday to discuss the developments in Syria,” Erdogan told a meeting of his ruling AKP party on Monday.
“I hope that he will take the necessary measures there, such as a ceasefire, and that we will find a solution to this affair,” Erdogan said of his proposed summit with Putin.
Defense Minister Akar said Turkey has “neither the intention nor the notion to face Russia” in combat, but wants Moscow to pressure the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to “end the massacre” in Idlib and prevent “radicalization and migration.”
The strategic Idlib town of Saraqeb reportedly changed hands again on Monday, the second time it has been captured in the past few weeks. The Syrian army claimed to have recaptured the town from Turkish-backed rebels despite Turkish drone attacks on the invading Syrian forces.
Turkey’s drone force appears to be a game-changer in Idlib, giving Turkey a way to strike distant Syrian military targets without risking manned aircraft to violate airspace controlled by Russia. Turkey has developed considerable skill at using swarms of small drones over the past 15 years, against adversaries such as the Kurdish separatist PKK organization. Turkish drones have been able to fly hundreds of sorties over Idlib, evading air defenses that would have been a severe threat to full-sized planes.