ISTANBUL - Turkish and Syrian forces engaged in a deadly clash Monday in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. The latest escalation in fighting comes as Ankara continues to reinforce its troops in Idlib, while Russian-Turkish diplomatic efforts to end the violence remain deadlocked.
"As a result of the intense artillery shooting by the [Syrian] regime on Feb. 10, 2020, five of our heroes were martyred and five others were wounded," read a Turkish Defense Ministry statement. "The necessary response was given, the targets were destroyed," the statement continued.
Turkish soldiers will "crush anyone who dares to target our flag," said Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay.
The soldiers killed were reportedly part of a reconnaissance force based at a disused airport near the strategically key town of Saraqeb, which was taken by Syrian forces last week.
Turkey has deployed 12 military observation posts across Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria. The posts are part of the 2018 agreement with Moscow to create a de-escalation zone aimed at ending fighting between rebel forces and Syria.
The killing one week ago of eight Turkish soldiers in Idlib by Syrian government forces saw Ankara ramp up its military presence. More than 250 military vehicles have entered the province in the last few days.
Local media reports Monday said Turkish armed forces backed a rebel assault to recapture recently lost territory. Ankara has not confirmed the reports.
On Sunday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar pledged his determination to open supply routes to military outposts currently surrounded by government forces.
Despite the latest Turkish casualties, Ankara has ruled out any stepping back from Idlib.
"Withdrawal from observation points [in Idlib] is out of the question," said Omer Celik, spokesman for Turkey's ruling AKP.
Ankara maintains its ramping up of military forces in Idlib is for humanitarian purposes.
"Our main goal is to prevent a refugee exodus and humanitarian drama," Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper said Sunday, quoting Akar. "We're trying to reach a cease-fire and stop the bloodshed," he added.
The United Nations said Monday that Damascus's Idlib offensive had displaced close to 700,000 people since December. The province, which borders Turkey, hosts around 3 million people. Ankara says more than one million Syrians escaping the latest fighting have headed for Turkey's border.
With Turkey hosting more than 3.5 million Syrians, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly warned that his country cannot take any more people fleeing the nearly nine-year civil war.
Analysts say the escalating violence between Ankara and Damascus is also driven by efforts to dictate the outcome of the conflict.
"The Syrians want to get rid of the radical groups in Idlib, and Turkey is using these groups as an instrument for the presence of Turkey in northern Syria," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University.
Russia is seeking a diplomatic solution to the rising tensions. While Turkey backs the Syrian rebels and Russia, the Syrian government, Ankara and Moscow have been cooperating to resolve the civil war.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Monday said that talks Saturday with visiting Russian diplomats ended in deadlock. Renewed talks Monday also reportedly failed to make a breakthrough.
"The current Idlib tensions embody the difference of interests both of Russia and of Turkey that has never stopped to exist," said Russian expert Zaur Gasimov of the University of Bonn.
Ankara is voicing growing frustration with Moscow, with Russian air power continuing to bombard Syrian rebels, along with civilians in Idlib.
Moscow vigorously defends the Damascus government's offensive, claiming it is aimed at eradicating the terrorist organization. Erdogan dismissed the claim last week.
Russian-Turkish tensions are set to escalate over Idlib, with Russia's missile defense system shutting out Turkish fighter jets from Syrian air space.
Analysts warn that Monday's fatal attack underlines how vulnerable Turkish forces deployed in Idlib are, given the lack of air support.
Local media reported Monday that Turkish fighters were denied access to Syrian air space over Idlib by Russian warplanes. In 2015, a Turkish fighter jet downed a Russian bomber operating from a Syrian airbase.
Monday saw Iran seeking to defuse Turkish-Syrian tensions, with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif offering to facilitate talks. Ankara so far has not responded to Tehran's offer.
Analysts say given that Erdogan has invested political capital in standing up to Damascus, and that policy is now claiming growing numbers of Turkish soldiers' lives, any stepping back becomes tricky.
They say Erdogan is also aware if Damascus's Idlib offensive goes unchecked, Turkey will likely face another influx of refugees at a time of growing Turkish public discontent over the presence of Syrians.
"In the end, we will have to confront [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad, and someone will get a major lesson," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. "And Turkey will need to read the riot act to Russia."
Other analysts predict given Erdogan's close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a confrontation over Syria is likely to be averted.
"Obviously, Russia and Turkey could redivide the Idlib region, while Turkey would reduce the number of their military observation posts," said Gasimov.
"The war between regime troops and Syrian opposition would continue and cost more human lives. But still, I do not believe that it could tear apart the Turkish-Russian cooperation," he said.