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Syrian opposition fighters retake key town, cut highway

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters celebrated in the town of Saraqib in the eastern part of the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, on February 27, 2020.
Turkey-backed Syrian fighters celebrated in the town of Saraqib in the eastern part of the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, on February 27, 2020. Photo by ABDULAZIZ KETAZ/AFP via Getty Images

ISTANBUL — The Turkish army suffered mass casualties in an airstrike in northwest Syria late Thursday, an attack that could dramatically change the course of the Syrian war as fears grow of a direct conflict between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member.

At least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed and more than 30 wounded, said Rahmi Dogan, the Turkish governor of the southern province of Hatay, where the Turkish casualties were arriving.

Turkish officials said the strike had been carried out by Syrian government forces, but Russian jets have been conducting most of the airstrikes in the area in recent weeks. Turkish protesters in Istanbul converged on the Russian Consulate there early Friday, chanting “Murderer Russia! Murderer Putin!”

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Turkish officials have avoided blaming the Russian government for aggression against their forces in Syria, hoping to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia’s much stronger military and to keep a line open for talks with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Russian officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan convened an emergency meeting Thursday evening in Ankara, Turkish media reported. Turkish forces began retaliating Thursday against Syrian government forces in northeastern Idlib province.

Turkey has long supported opposition forces in Syria’s nine-year civil war against the government of President Bashar Assad. Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has largely defeated the uprising, but at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and the creation of millions of refugees.

The Syrian government, backed by Russian warplanes, is fighting in Idlib to retake the country’s last rebel-held province. In the past three months, the fighting there has driven nearly 1 million people from their homes, creating a humanitarian crisis on Turkey’s border.

In recent days, tensions between the two sides have been rising, increasing fears of a hot war breaking out between Turkey and Russia, which controls the airspace in northwestern Syria.

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Erdogan has called for Syrian government and Russia forces to cease their offensive in Idlib and to pull back from Turkish positions, which have been encircled and cut off by Syrian government forces.

Turkey has deployed thousands of troops into the province to stem the Syrian government advance but has been severely hampered by the lack of air support. Russia has been conducting a blistering air campaign across the province, bombing hospitals, schools, and residences, killing at least 300 people in three months.

Turkey has asked the United States for Patriot missiles to help defend its troops, and called for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone to protect the nearly 3 million civilians in Idlib. But Washington and NATO members have so far refused to engage militarily in northwest Syria out of reluctance to confront Russia, officials said.

The United States has about 500 troops in northeastern and southern Syria, whose main mission is to prevent the Islamic State from returning there and to guard Syrian oil fields.

Turkey is a NATO member, prompting fears in the West that an attack on Turkey could require allies in Europe and North America to respond, dramatically escalating an already complex war in Syria.

There was no immediate comment from the White House, but President Trump has made it clear that he would like to keep out of the conflict, and has previously ordered US troops to leave.

The attack on Thursday occurred on Turkish troops between the towns of Al Bara and Balyoun, south of the city of Idlib. A Turkish military convoy traveling to resupply troops came under aerial attack first, and then a building where the troops were based was struck, Abu Yahya, a senior official of the Turkish-backed Syrian fighting force in Idlib province, said in an interview.

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