ANKARA - Turkish troops will continue to respond to Syrian regime attacks, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday, as the two sides engage in deadly tit-for-tat skirmishes in Syria.
"The more they attack our soldiers, they will pay a very, very heavy price," Erdogan told a televised ceremony in Ankara.
His comments came as Turkish-backed rebels shot down a government helicopter in Syria's northwest where Syrian troops are on the offensive in Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold. Later on, a retaliatory government airstrike on a nearby city killed at least seven civilians, opposition activists said.
Turkish officials said on Monday 101 Syrian regime soldiers had been "neutralised" following the killing of five Turks in Idlib. That attack brought the total number of Turkish troops killed in one week to thirteen.
Russian-backed government forces launched an all-out assault on Idlib in December, retaking town after town. Hundreds of thousands have fled and hundreds of civilians have been killed.
The fighting has raised questions about the future of Turkey and Russia's cooperation on Syria, where they back opposing sides in the conflict but have worked together to try to steer the war to an end. A Russian delegation arrived in Ankara on Saturday to hold talks aimed at stopping the fighting in Idlib. But the Russians left Turkey after talks ended on Monday, a Turkish diplomatic source said, with no apparent agreement.
Turkey has backed some anti-regime groups in the eight-year conflict and set up military posts in Idlib under a 2018 deal with Russia. Turkish officials say three of these so-called observation posts have been encircled by the Syrian army and Erdogan has given Damascus until the end of the month to withdraw.
The fighting on Tuesday concentrated near the village of Nairab as rebels, with the backing of Turkish artillery, tried to retake the village that they lost last week, according to opposition activists.
Amid the fighting near Nairab, insurgents shot down a government helicopter gunship, killing the two crew members onboard, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Step news agency, an activist collective. The Observatory said the aircraft crashed near the village of Qaminas, southeast of Idlib city.
Hours later, an airstrike hit the city of Idlib, the provincial capital, killing seven people and wounding nearly two dozen, according to the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets. The Observatory said the airstrike killed 12 civilians, half of them children, and wounded about 30.
Opposition activists said the airstrike on the city of Idlib, that is home to some 800,000 people, was carried out by government warplanes in response to the shooting down of the helicopter.
In his comments on Tuesday, Erdogan said the Syrian regime had "got what it deserved" in Idlib but that it was "not enough", adding that he would reveal his next steps on Wednesday, leading to fears of a further escalation in violence as Turkey looks to prevent government forces from reaching its border areas. Turkey is home to some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and has concerns of more flowing into its border.
More people have fled fighting in Syria over the past 10 weeks than at any other time in the 9-year-old conflict and the city of Idlib could become a graveyard if hostilities continue, two UN agencies said on Tuesday.
"It's the fastest growing displacement we have ever seen in the country," Jens Laerke from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said, adding that nearly 700,000 people had fled since December, mostly women and children.
Another 280,000 people could flee from urban centres if fighting continues, including from the city of Idlib, which is packed with people who have escaped fighting elsewhere and which has not yet seen a full military assault on its centre.
"It has the world's largest concentration of displaced people and urgently need a cessation of hostilities so as not to turn it into a graveyard," Laerke added.
Of Syria's 17 million people, 5.5 million are living as refugees in the region, mostly in Turkey, and a further six million are uprooted within their own country.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu urged Russia and Iran (another Damascus ally which has sent sectarian Shiite fighters from across the region to back Syria's regime) to stop President Bashar al-Assad's assault on Idlib province.
"The regime's guarantors, Russia and Iran, should halt the regime's aggression," Cavusoglu said, quoted by the private NTV broadcaster.
A Russian delegation including military and intelligence officials held two rounds of talks in Ankara seeking a solution to the clashes in Idlib but no concrete agreement emerged.
Cavusoglu said Erdogan would speak on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the meantime, US special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey is due to visit Turkey on Wednesday. The United States has thrown its support behind NATO ally Turkey over its reprisals against the Syrian army following the regime shelling last week.
The battle for Idlib is a crucial stage of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians, made millions refugees in their own country or overseas, and fractured the wider Middle East since it broke out amid the Arab Spring in 2011.
Forces arrayed against Assad, Syria's ruler for nearly 20 years, have failed to dislodge him but he now presides over a devastated country. Moscow's military intervention in 2015 helped swing the war decisively in Assad's favour.