Dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike in SyriaThe province of Idlib, in a dramatic escalation in the battle for control of the country's last opposition stronghold.
Turkish officials said at least 33 military personnel were killed in the attack on Thursday night and more than 30 were injured. Military sources between moderate rebel factions and jihadists fighting in the northwestern province of the Turkish border said the deaths occurred after a precision attack on a two-story building in the village of Balioun.
A Turkish convoy, part of the reinforcements sent to the area to help rebel groups earlier this month, was subjected to heavy bombings on Thursday morning. The soldiers hid in Balioun, based in the local council building.
Rahmi Dogan, the local governor of Hatay province in south-eastern Turkey, on the border with Idlib, said ambulances left a border in Syria to a hospital in the neighboring city of Reyhanli on Thursday evening.
Turkish authorities blamed the Syrian regime for the attack, but several sources in Idlib and unverified footage of the night attack suggested that it was carried out by the Russian air force, which helped Damascus to conduct a ferocious three-month offensive against Idlib.
The Russian Ministry of Defense on Friday denied that its planes carried out the air strikes, but said Turkish troops should not be in the Idlib area and had not warned of their presence in the Syrian government. Russia also accused rebels of trying to launch an anti-government offensive on Thursday.
In another escalation, Russia said it was sending two frigates armed with cruise missiles to the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Syria, the Interfax news agency reported on Friday.
After the attack in Idlib, the United Nations called for urgent action in northwest Syria, warning that "the risk of further escalation increases by the hour".
Nearly a million civilians have been displaced in Idlib, near the border with Turkey since December, when Russian-backed Syrian government forces took territory from Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, marking the worst humanitarian crisis of the country's nine-year war.
Although Ankara and Moscow share important trade, energy and defense ties, the relationship has already been severely tested by the recent violence in Syria, where they support opposing sides.
Turkey responded with air strikes against Syrian government targets "all known", the country's communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said early Friday, according to state news agency Anadolu. Altun said the authorities decided to respond in kind to the attack.
"All known targets of the regime have arrived and will continue to be under fire from the air and the ground," Altun said in a statement.
"We urge the international community to fulfill its responsibilities" to stop the regime's "crimes against humanity", he said. "We cannot wait and watch past events in Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina to be repeated today in Idlib."
Turkey's activities in Syria will continue, he added.
The US state department said it was very concerned about the attack. "We are on the side of NATO's ally Turkey and we continue to call for an immediate end to this despicable offensive by the Assad regime, Russia and Iran-backed forces," said a spokesman.
NATO said it was calling a meeting of the North Atlantic Council at Turkey's request to discuss the situation in Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chaired an emergency security meeting overnight, Turkish officials informed reporters that Ankara had decided that it would no longer prevent Syrian refugees from reaching Europe by land and sea – a step calibrated for support EU and NATO for its operation. in Idlib.
Turkish police, coastguards and border security authorities have already been ordered to resign, Turkish officials added.
Nearly 1 million people are encamped in desperate conditions on the Idlib border with Turkey in the winter, while fleeing the rapid advance of Bashar al-Assad's army and allied militias supported by Russian airpower.
Turkey has expressed reluctance to receive more Syrians, in addition to the 3.6 million refugees it already hosts. In an effort to protect its southern border, Ankara has taken the unprecedented step of sending thousands of troops and equipment convoys to Idlib in the past three weeks, leading to direct confrontations with regime forces for the first time.
While the province of Idlib and the surrounding countryside are technically protected by a 2018 de-escalation agreement, the agreement was broken last year after control of most of the area was taken from more moderate rebel groups by Hayat Tahrir al- Sham (HTS), formerly Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda.
Despite warnings from the UN and aid agencies that fighting Idlib would put 3 million civilians at risk, Damascus launched a campaign of attrition and then on a large scale in the province, arguing that HTS was not covered by the escalation reduction agreement.
Turkey helped the rebels to retake a city but he had already lost 17 soldiers in the campaign before a strike on Thursday morning killed three and the night strike killed at least 22, marking the biggest loss day for the country's forces.
Turkish attempts to broker a ceasefire and the growing international calls for an end to violence have so far been met with indifference by the Kremlin. Erdoğan promised that Ankara will not take the "smallest step back" in the confrontation with Damascus and Moscow over Idlib, giving the regime by the end of the month to retreat.
US Senator Lindsey Graham on Thursday called for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Idlib and asked Donald Trump to help stop violence against civilians in the country.
"The world is sitting in your hands and watching the destruction of Idlib by Assad, Iran and Russians," Graham, a Republican and ally of the US president, said in a statement.
"I am confident that the world, led by the United States, has retreated against Iran, Russia and Assad that they would step aside, paving the way for political negotiations to end this war in Syria."
Kay Bailey Hutchison, US ambassador to NATO, said Thursday's events should show Turkey "who is her trusted partner and who is not" and lead her to abandon the purchase of a major Russian missile defense system , which Washington says threatens the Western alliance.