(Bloomberg) -- Turkey tried to keep a deadly clash with Syrian forces from drawing in regional powerbroker Russia as it ordered retaliatory strikes.
Seven Turkish soldiers and one civilian were killed, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said. The attack occurred early Monday in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major opposition bastion in Syria, where government forces backed by the Russian air force are trying to vanquish onetime al-Qaeda affiliates and Turkey-backed rebels.
“Those who are testing Turkey’s determination with this kind of treacherous attack will realize they’ve committed a big mistake,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Ankara before departing for Ukraine. “We can’t remain silent as our soldiers are martyred, we will continue to make them pay.”
Turkish warplanes and artillery units killed more than 75 Syrian soldiers and allied government forces, Akar said during a visit to the Syrian border as Turkey canceled Monday’s joint patrols with Russia in northeastern Syria.
At the same time, though, Erdogan urged Russia to stay out of the fray, and not try to “halt” the Turkish operation, saying its target was the Syrian regime. Russian and Turkish militaries are “in constant contact,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call. Russia remains concerned “about the continued activity of terrorist groups in this Syrian region.”
The fighting in Idlib is testing the marriage of convenience between Turkey and Russia in Syria, where the two powers have carved up spheres of influence. Still, both sides see greater value in maintaining cooperation as the big regional actors rather than abandoning it. Turkish troops came under fire in Idlib at 1:13am on Monday even though Turkey notified the related Russian officials about their deployment at 4:13pm and 10:27pm on Sunday, Akar said.
“Turkish-Russian relations are going through a serious test,” Murat Yesiltas, security policy director of the Ankara-based SETA think tank, which advises Erdogan’s government, told NTV on Monday. “But Erdogan still attaches great importance to relations with Russia.”
Erdogan Warns Russia Risks Split With Turkey on Syria Attack
The Kremlin on Friday expressed concern about “terrorists” in Idlib attacking the Syrian army and the Russian base, while avoiding any direct criticism of Turkey. The Russian Foreign Ministry also limited itself to saying Russia is fulfilling its obligations, even when Erdogan directly criticized Moscow of failing to uphold promises to maintain the cease-fire in Idlib.
Even so, rifts between Turkey and Russia have been opening, both in Syria and in Libya, where they support opposing sides. Before departing for Kyiv, Erdogan repeated that he doesn’t recognize Russia’s “illegal” 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Turkey sent reinforcements to Idlib as the advance of Syrian troops threatened to cut off some Turkish military outposts stationed on the perimeters of Idlib under a cease-fire monitoring mission negotiated with Russia and Iran.
The showdown there has unleashed an exodus of about 1 million people fleeing the fighting toward Turkey, which already shelters the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world, Erdogan said in Ukraine.
“If the international community does not stand with Turkey against instances of aggression like this one, it will be faced with yet another refugee crisis along our borders,” Erdogan’s Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said on Twitter.
Over the weekend, Turkey-backed troops took control of three villages in western and northwestern Syria, according to a U.K.-based group that monitors Syria through activists on the ground. After violent clashes in Al-Bab in Aleppo with Syrian regime forces, Turkish troops captured several soldiers and damaged some of their machinery, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.
Erdogan said Friday that supporters of the Syrian regime aim to prolong the crisis and that his country “will not hesitate” to do whatever is necessary to provide security and stability, “including the use of military power.”
(Updates with casualties in second paragraph, remarks from Erdogan’s spokesman in third paragraph from the end)
--With assistance from Tony Halpin and Ilya Arkhipov.
To contact the reporters on this story: Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara at email@example.com;Firat Kozok in Ankara at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Onur Ant at email@example.com, Amy Teibel, Tony Halpin
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