On February 20 at around 3 PM local time in the north-east of Syria’s Idlib province, pro-Turkish forces with support from Turkish artillery began an offensive towards the city of Saraqib, which was captured by Assad’s forces several weeks ago. Less than two hours after the start of the attack, Russian aircraft intervened. When the Syrian army’s defenses near the towns of Qminas and Nayrab were breached, Russian Su-24 bombers attacked, destroying the opposition’s armored vehicles. Syrian government forces were then able to retake the positions.
The involvement of the Russian Aerospace Forces in the operation was reported by the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria. “In order to prevent the armed groups from advancing deeper into Syrian territory, at the request of the Syrian command, Su-24 aircraft carried out an attack against the terrorist armed groups that had broken through,” the center said in its report. Immediately thereafter, contact was made with the Turkish military, and Turkey ceased its artillery attack against the Syrian troops, the center stated. “Through the de-conflicting channel, the Turkish side was informed that Russian object monitoring systems had discovered the fact of [Turkish] artillery fire… After this information was brought to the Turkish side’s attention, their artillery stopped firing,” the report notes.
The Turkish Defense Ministry reported that two Turkish soldiers were killed and another five were wounded in an air raid, but did not specify whose air raid was responsible for the deaths. Fahrettin Altun, director of communications for the Turkish presidential administration, later clarified that Syrian aircraft had been responsible for the fatal attack. Turkey responded by “neutralizing” more than 50 Syrian soldiers, destroying two armored transports, two pickup trucks and one anti-air system, the Turkish news outlet Daily Sabah reports.
This two-hour conflict was the most serious escalation in Syria in the last week, and was further complicated by the intervention of the Russian Aerospace Forces.
There have been ongoing clashes on the ground between pro-Turkish militants, Turkish soldiers and Assad’s forces since the end of January. On February 12, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that 14 Turkish soldiers had been killed in less than a week.
Once the fighting had stopped, Bloomberg reported with reference to a high-ranking Turkish source that Turkey had asked the US to provide Patriot anti-air missile systems to place on the border with Syria. However, Ankara later denied this.
The situation in Idlib has been deteriorating since mid January, when Damascus-controlled forces began an operation supposedly against the terrorist groups in Idlib and the neighboring regions. Since 2018, this territory has been considered a de-escalation zone, in which the fighting can only target terrorists. Since mid January, Damascus has gained control of large swathes of territory, including the strategically significant M5 road (Aleppo – Damascus).