Dozens of Turkish soldiers killed in strike in Idlib in Syria

Bethan McKernan in Istanbul
Photograph: Aref Tammawi/AFP via Getty Images

Dozens of Turkish soldiers have been killed in an airstrike in Syria’s Idlib province, in a dramatic escalation in the battle for control of the country’s last opposition stronghold.

Turkish officials said at least 33 of its military personnel were killed in the attack on Thursday night, and more than 30 others injured. Military sources among moderate and jihadist rebel factions fighting in the north-western province bordering Turkey said the deaths followed a precision strike on a two-storey building in the village of Balioun.

A Turkish convoy, part of reinforcements sent to the area to aid rebel groups earlier this month, was subjected to heavy shelling on Thursday morning. The soldiers had taken cover in Balioun, basing themselves in the local council building.

Rahmi Dogan, the local governor of the south-eastern Turkish province of Hatay on the border with Idlib, said ambulances streamed from a Syrian border crossing to a hospital in the nearby town of Reyhanli on Thursday night.

Map of turkey, syria, idlib

Turkish officials have blamed the Syrian regime for the attack, but several sources in Idlib and unverified footage of the nighttime strike suggested it had been carried out by the Russian air force, which has helped Damascus conduct a ferocious three-month-old offensive on Idlib.

Russia’s defence ministry denied on Friday that its planes had carried out the strike but said Turkish troops should not have been in the Idlib area and had given no warning of their presence to the Syrian government.

In a further escalation, Russia said it was sending two frigates armed with cruise missiles to the Mediterranean Sea off the Syrian coast, the Interfax news agency reported on Friday.

After the attack in Idlib, the United Nations called for urgent action in north-west Syria, warning that “the risk of greater escalation grows by the hour”.

Nearly a million civilians have been displaced in Idlib near the Turkish border since December as Syrian government forces push to retake territory from rebels and jihadist groups, marking the worst humanitarian crisis of the country’s nine-year war.

Although Ankara and Moscow share important trade, energy and defence links, the relationship has already been sorely tested by the recent violence in Syria, where they back opposing sides.

Turkey responded with airstrikes on “all known” Syrian government targets, said the country’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, early on Friday. Altun said authorities had decided to respond in kind to the attack.

“We urge the international community to fulfil its responsibilities” to stop the regime’s “crimes against humanity”, he said. “We cannot stand by and watch as past events in Rwanda, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are repeated today in Idlib.”

Turkey’s activities on the ground in Syria would continue, he added.

The US state department expressed concern over the attack on its Nato ally. Nato said it was calling a meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the request of Turkey to discuss the Syria situation.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, chaired an emergency security meeting overnight, at the same time Turkish officials briefed reporters that Ankara had decided it would no longer stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe by land and sea – a move calibrated to win EU and Nato support for its operation in Idlib.

Turkish police, coastguard and border security officials have already been ordered to stand down, Turkish officials added.

Related: 'We have nothing left': displaced Syrians wait out war in Idlib

Around 170,000 people are camped out in desperate conditions on Idlib’s border with Turkey in winter weather as they flee the swift advance of Bashar al-Assad’s army and allied militias backed by Russian airpower.

Turkey is unwilling to take in any more Syrians on top of the 3.6 million refugees it already hosts. In an effort to secure its southern border, Ankara took the unprecedented step of sending thousands of troops and convoys of equipment to Idlib in the past three weeks, leading to direct clashes with regime forces for the first time.

While Idlib province and the surrounding countryside are technically protected by a de-escalation deal brokered in 2018, the agreement broke down last year after control of most of the area was wrested from more moderate rebel groups by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.

Despite warnings from the UN and aid agencies that fighting in Idlib would put 3 million civilians at risk, Damascus launched an attritional and then full-scale campaign on the province, arguing that HTS was not covered by the de-escalation deal.

Turkey has helped rebels to retake one town but had already lost 17 military personnel in the campaign before a strike on Thursday morning killed three, and the evening strike killed at least 22, marking the biggest single day of losses for the country’s forces.

Turkish attempts to broker a ceasefire, and growing international calls for a halt to the violence, have so far been met with indifference from the Kremlin. Erdoğan has vowed Ankara will not take the “smallest step back” in the standoff with Damascus and Moscow over Idlib, giving the regime until the end of the month to pull back.

The US senator Lindsey Graham called on Thursday for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Idlib and called on Donald Trump to help stop the violence against civilians there.

“The world is sitting on its hands and watching the destruction of Idlib by Assad, Iran, and the Russians,” Graham, a Republican and an ally of the US president, said in a statement.

Related: Syrian rebels retake key town in Idlib from Assad forces

“I am confident if the world, led by the US, pushed back against Iran, Russia, and Assad that they would stand down, paving the way for political negotiations to end this war in Syria.”

Kay Bailey Hutchison, the US ambassador to Nato, said Thursday’s events should show Turkey “who is their reliable partner and who isn’t” and prompt it to drop its purchase of a major Russian missile defence system, which Washington says threatens the western alliance.