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After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers attacked Turkish positions in Syria, Ankara retaliated quickly, followed by a threat from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Syrian Army Killed Turkish Soldiers: Ankara

The Syrian army killed four Turkish soldiers as it advanced to the last major rebel stronghold in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, according to the Turkish government in Ankara. Nine others were injured, one of them seriously, the Turkish Ministry of Defense announced on Monday.

Turkish troops reacted to the attack and destroyed several targets in Idlib. 30 to 35 Syrian soldiers are said to have been “incapacitated,” according to remarks by President Erdogan prior to his trip to Ukraine. It was initially unclear whether these were government soldiers.

Erdogan: ‘We Will Continue To Ask For An Account Of This’

It was not possible to leave such an attack unanswered. “We will continue to ask for an account of this.” To Russia, Erdogan warned: “You should not stand in our way.”

Assad’s forces⁠—supported by Russia⁠—attacked the area despite reportedly having been previously warned of the positions of the Turkish forces. Assad’s forces are advancing with the support of the Russian Air Force and have already taken over dozens of locations, including the important city of Maarat al-Numan. The recent offensive by government forces is driving hundreds of thousands of people to flee. Turkey, which has already taken in 3.6 million Syrians, fears a further influx of refugees from the neighboring country in the south.

Erdogan Threatens Turkish Deployment

Erdogan has threatened a military offensive in northwest Syria if the situation in Idlib was not immediately resolved. “We will do what is necessary when someone threatens our territory,” he said on Friday, noting that this provision includes the possible use of force.

Turkey has twelve observation posts in the Idlib region. The soldiers are said to be keeping a ceasefire in several of the rebel-held areas that have been agreed upon. The Syrian government has accused Turkey of undermining Syrian security by allowing thousands of foreign fighters to fight the Syrian military.

Russia’s Reaction To The Attack On Turkish Troops

The Russian military announced on Monday that the Turkish side had not informed the Russians of their movements and, as a result, came under fire from the Syrian government troops who are targeting⁠—by their accounts⁠—terrorists west of Sarakib in the Idlib province. A lack of communication is thus one explanation for the attack on the Turkish convoy.

A second explanation is that the attack could be a message from Russia to Turkey to stay outside its borders. However, given the relationship Moscow and Ankara have established over the previous year, in particular, it seems inconceivable that Russian President Vladimir Putin would risk jeopardizing the latter by conducting a military operation against Turkey in Syria at this point.

The Importance Of Idlib

Idlib is the last major rebel area after nine years of civil war. Turkey maintains twelve observation posts there, which are supposed to monitor a ceasefire. They were established on the basis of an agreement between Russia⁠—Assad’s main ally⁠—and Turkey in September 2018.

Idlib is controlled by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militia, which is similar to Al Qaeda. Syria and Russia argue that their attacks are against terrorists, and the violence caused by military actions in the province had increased significantly as of late. Even the ceasefire proclaimed by Russia three weeks ago has so far not stopped the violence. Moreover, the latest development displays how volatile the situation remains. Turkey adding another layer of complexity to the conflict by its sheer presence was highly likely, however, few had expected the situation to escalate this rapidly.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people are on the run from Syria. Turkey⁠— which has already taken in nearly four million Syrians⁠—fears that the situation on its border will result in yet another influx of refugees.